What hath Uncle Remus to do with Phyllis Tickle? The Tickle Chronicles Part 3

Uncle Remus as portrayed by James Baskett in S...
Uncle Remus as portrayed by James Baskett in Song of the South (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is part 3 of The Tickle Chronicles. Tickle, an extremely articulate and highly influential voice in the Emergence Christian movement, answered some of my questions via email and gave me permission to share her thoughts with you.

By Scott Fowler

“Actual” vs. “Factual”

 I was riding the Splash Mountain ride at Disney World a few weeks ago, and a phrase written on the wall reminded me of Phyllis Tickle. The phrase derives from the lyrics of Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah (listen to the song below), a song from the censored Disney movie, Song of the South. In the song, Uncle Remus sings,

Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder. It’s the truth! It’s actual! Everything is satisfactual!

Ah! The simplicity of Disney in the 1940s and the naïve idea that things that were true were actual and factual!1

In the last article (Phyllis Tickle’s Dangerous Hermeneutic), I shared with you Tickle’s response to my question about her view of Biblical authority. When I suggested that she was part of the crowd that no longer sees the Bible as the final authority, she took exception:

NO! Now this one surprises me, for so far as I know I am not usually misunderstood or misquoted here. As an observant Anglican, I believe, and continue to believe, that authority rests in Scripture, reason and tradition. Like Emergence Christians, I believe that Scripture must be seen as “actually” true, rather than reduced to the confines and strictures of human “fact” or being “factually true” in the sense of Protestant Inerrancy, as that term is normally defined. It is one of the prime roles of the Holy Spirit to lead the believer to correct discernment of Scripture, and as Christians we read with and through the tutelage of the Spirit. The odd thing about this point’s being questioned is that I say a dozen times every lecturing day that if there were such a thing as an “average” Emergence Christian and an “average” Protestant or Roman Christian [which there is not, of course], it would be the Emergence Christian who exhibits the more radical and emphatic devotion to the ‘accuracy’ of Holy Writ and to believing in its absolute function as the Word of God Almighty, Now and Always. Of course, the Emergence would also be appalled by the need, esp. on the part of Protestantism, to reduce that same Scripture to non-paradoxical exegesis, to “acceptable” doctrine, to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of. The two, then…i.e., actuality vs. factuality… are entirely different approaches to Scripture, the Emergence being not only a more passionately persuaded one, but also a much, much humbler one. (Emphasis mine.)

So, here we encounter the concept of the Bible as actually true rather than factually true. I think Uncle Remus would be puzzled by this idea as many of us are! I am not sure if this concept originates with Tickle or not. Quoting David Sloan Wilson, Michael Dowd (someone who calls himself “America’s evolutionary evangelist) defines practical truth versus factual truth:

Practical truth is that which reliably produces personal wholeness and social coherence by motivating people to behave in ways that serve the wellbeing of the group. Factual truth is that which is measurably, scientifically real.

A very quick Google search did not yield much on the comparison either way. Nevertheless, Tickle stands by it. So, what is she really trying to get at here?

“Non-paradoxical Exegesis” or “Reason Trumps Truth”

We have to take account of Tickle’s entire statement and at this point pull in her reference to “non-paradoxical exegesis.”

the Emergence [Christian] would also be appalled by the need, esp. on the part of Protestantism, to reduce that same Scripture to non-paradoxical exegesis, to “acceptable” doctrine, to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of.

It sounds like Emergence Christians demand that the Bible not be reduced to straight forward truth but that it be allowed to be paradoxical. I think I can accept the reality that Scripture can be paradoxical. The grace of God is paradoxical. But does Tickle ever allow for Scripture to be factual, straight forward, literal, un-twistable? Is every doctrine of evangelicalism open to the kind of interpretation that somehow “paradoxically” turns the Bible’s prohibition against homosexuality into a celebration of it instead? If, as Gingerich reported,2 Tickle declares that the Bible does not support homosexuality, then how does one arrive at the “paradox” of gay Christianity as Tickle does?3

The last part of the quote above is curious as well and gives us the answer to how Tickle and the Emergence Christians who agree with her arrive at such beliefs. According to Tickle, Emergence Christians:

would . . . be appalled by the need . . . to reduce . . . Scripture . . . to the kind of consistency human reason can perceive and approve of.

Isn’t this what Tickle’s “actual-sans-factual” “paradoxical exegetical” approach does in the first place? The only way to embrace homosexuality while at the same time agreeing that Scripture prohibits it is through the constructs of and a mandate for a socially palatable human reasoning. In her interview with Andrew Marin, Tickle showcases her own use of human reasoning. Speaking of the various Scriptural prohibitions that she says the Church has “gotten over,” and of divorce in particular, Tickle said,

the Church itself is gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we have changed over the years, we have evolved, the law. We now admit divorce. Our Lord does not speak much about sexuality, but He’s very clear about divorce. It’s the only thing He’s really clear about. And we have managed because out of compassion, and I certainly am for that change, out of compassion and out of common sense and out of a recognition that our times and ways of being are different from those. We have managed to get around the divorce issue and now even ordain divorced clergy, and that kind of thing. The same thing is going to happen with the gay issue. It’s in process. (Emphasis mine.)

Ah! Human reasoning at its finest!

In her previous statement, Tickle must be referring only to Protestant human reasoning which one can only surmise is not as acceptable because, paradoxically speaking, it does not lead to doctrines acceptable to our present society. But in theory, Protestant human reasoning is that which has been influenced by a view of Scripture as “truth” and as “actual” as understood through their proper definitions. And, even though we are faced with difficult situations when our human reasonings collide with its truths, Protestants find the Bible to be, in the end, very “satisfactual!”

The Tutelage of the Spirit

As far as reading Scripture “through the tutelage of the Spirit” and “correctly discerning Scripture,” what can be assumed here but that Tickle has in mind what any of us would agree with: a belief that we come to Scripture by faith through the agency of the Holy Spirit and that He helps us to rightly divide the Word of truth? Words like these cause one to be almost persuaded that, indeed, Tickle is at last an evangelical! Then, we remind ourselves that when Tickle reads the prohibitions against homosexuality, acknowledges them, and yet embraces homosexuality and gay Christianity, we realize that either she is not an evangelical, or the definition of evangelical has changed.

Next Time: I asked Ms. Tickle a follow-up question concerning her stance on gay Christianity. Her response was passionate, reverent, and devotional, but was it Scriptural?

1 The word fact and the word satisfaction have in common the Latin facere “perform; do.” So, the word fact has its meaning in the idea of an event which has actually happened and which can be verified evidentially. The prefix satis means “enough,” so in the word satisfaction, a deed has actually been done enough.

2 http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/01/18/emergence-christianity-comes-to-memphis/

3 See the last article.

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at Scottythinks.com. 

The Tickle Chronicles

By Scott Fowler

Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and C...
Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, 3/3/11 (Photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit)

So, how is it that I have become focused on Phyllis Tickle and, more specifically, her theology and approach to Scripture? Her claim to fame is that she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Her pedigree is long and you can read more about her on her website. But, more importantly for our interests, she is one of the very public representatives of emergence Christianity and it is in this capacity that she has made several statements that are of concern to me and, in my estimation, to the believing Church.

It was because of my concerns, and because I was beginning to write about her and reference her in my classes, that I decided to contact her through email, asking several pointed questions, to which she graciously and generously responded.

This article will chronicle my early exposure to Tickle’s theology, begin to share her answers to my questions, and thus begin a series of articles reflecting on Tickle, her theology (and more particularly her hermeneutical approach to Scripture), and emergence Christianity. She is quite prolific, having written many books and given many interviews, etc., and while I will not be able to master all of the material pertinent to my concerns, I believe we can get a genuine idea of where she stands and why her views might be of concern to those of us who have defined evangelical Christianity in a different way than she has.

The Gabe Lyons Interview

I had heard about Phyllis Tickle a few years ago but only in passing. Then, a colleague showed me a video of her being interviewed by Gabe Lyons. It didn’t take me long to realize that Tickle was saying things that concerned me and that should be of concern to the believing Church. Lyons’ first question went like this:

Lyons: “Recently in the news we hear this discussion about Christian America somehow coming to an end. There’s been a lot of news articles even written about it called ‘The end of Christian America.’ What would be your perspective on even what this idea of Christian America really even is?”

Tickle: “Well, I think my perspective to some extent is, ‘How quickly can we hold the services?’”1

Tickle immediately admitted that her response was “perhaps not the right answer and maybe a smart one” as in smart aleck I think. It would seem she has quite a sense of humor. Still, her quip signaled to me that some kind of “deconstructionist” approach to the church was present and that it warranted further investigation.

In this interview, Tickle sounds very evangelical. In  The Sinking Ship of Evangelicalism2 I claimed that she did not want to be called evangelical. I was apparently wrong about that. In my correspondence with her, I pointed out that I had been writing about her and invited her to read it and correct what she thought was wrong. She responded by saying,

“The web sites you sent me were, and are, interesting. Yours made me chuckle right off the bat when you defined me as not an evangelical. One of the things I routinely say to audiences by way of defining who and what I am before they commence listening to what I have to say, is that I am an evangelical Episcopalian. There really is such a thing, and I really am one.”3

While my statement was incorrect on its face, I was writing less from a perspective of a reporter and more from a deductive standpoint. If I were to reword my statement it might go something like this:

“Based on what I am hearing from Phyllis Tickle through her writings, her sermons, and her video interviews, she is obviously abandoning the title evangelical as well, if she ever thought of herself as one.”

To borrow a phrase coined by Tickle herself, I think my sentiments are actually true if not factually true. If I am allowed further opportunity to question Ms. Tickle, I would like to ask her to define evangelical. Perhaps we will be able to answer that question fairly accurately ourselves before we’re done here.

Some further statements in the interview added to my concerns. Asked about how the church should go about being effective in a post-Christendom American context, she said:

“Now we don’t have to say, ‘Please come to church with me.’ Yuck! You know, uh, we can say, ‘Let’s go have a beer, or let’s go have Starbucks, or let’s do something, and let’s talk and let me tell you [about God].’”4

For Tickle, this is a communal, more relational, more humble approach. She labeled it “missional,” “pub theology,” and “water cooler theology.” She also characterized this new way of doing church by saying, “Unscrew the pews, open the space, and let’s dance.”5

It’s not that I don’t see value in much of what Tickle said, and you have to remember, at this point I was unaware of her stance on Gay Christianity, or her unique hermeneutical approach to Scripture. I was just hearing someone I did not know speak in deconstructive terms about the Church and the pastor in me heard an alarm go off.

Part of my concern here is that I hear in her words strains of something that George Barna wrote years ago in his book Revolution. Though the book is replete with problems and what I consider to be troubling statements, three stand out from the rest and paint a picture of disdain for the local church.

Barna Statement #1

 “Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely disassociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and within boundaries, to God). What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are.”6

Barna Statement #2

 “But, as the research data clearly show, churches are not doing the job. If the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope.”7

Barna Statement #3

 “Ultimately, we expect to see believers choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal ‘church’ of the individual.”8

Now, Phyllis Tickle is not George Barna and, as far as I know, Barna does not figure into emergence Christianity in any official way. But, in general, I am leery of the “abandon the local church” model, which I did detect, wrong or right, in Tickle.

The Andrew Marin Interview

Next was an interview with Andrew Marin, the founder of The Marin Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to build bridges between the LGBT community and, among other groups, the Church. Here, we get an idea of Tickle’s hermeneutic. Two things stand out: her support of Gay Christianity and her view of absolute Sola Scriptura: Scripture only and only Scripture.

Andrew Marin: “As a representative of the church, capital ‘C’ church here, what would you like to say to the broader church about the Gay or Lesbian community?”

Tickle: I would like to say first of all . . . yes I am Episcopalian . . .but my assignment  . . . is the Holy Trinity Community Church, United Church of Christ Community Church, which is an all-inclusive, Bi, Gay, Trans, Lesbian church, and about 80% of our members are in that category and about 20% are not. So, I come with some personal experience and obviously, I’ve been a member of that communion for ten years now, and serve them as a Lector, Reader, and also as a lay Eucharistic minister. So, I’m not sure I can be called a representative of the Church capital ‘C’ without some prejudice . . . to it. But, the Church itself is gonna have to come to grips with the fact that we have changed over the years, we have evolved, the law. We now admit divorce. Our Lord does not speak much about sexuality, but He’s very clear about divorce. It’s the only thing He’s really clear about. [As concerns sexuality?] And we have managed because out of compassion, and I certainly am for that change, out of compassion and out of common sense and out of a recognition that our times and ways of being are different from those. We have managed to get around the divorce issue and now even ordain divorced clergy, and that kind of thing. The same thing is going to happen with the gay issue. It’s in process. But you can look right from the 1850’s you can see a progression of change. In the 1850’s Churches split over the slavery question and it was true, honest, it was religious difference, it was Scriptural differences of opinion. The Bible doesn’t say ‘Go own people,’ but it certainly recognizes slavery as a possibility and it even provides for it and sort of condones it if you will. We got over that cause it didn’t make sense. We got over feminism or we got over the need for equality of the genders. And again the Bible’s pretty clear, Paul is certainly clear about the role of the genders, and it didn’t work in our society. So, this is the last . . . and so there’s a sort of progression if you will of sociological shifts over the last hundred and fifty years, hundred and sixty years, and this is the last, I tell audiences, it’s the last puck in a deadly game, the last playing piece, if you will, in a deadly game, and if anybody on either side of the issue fails to understand what really is the issue and the issue really is absolute sola Scriptura, Scripture only and only Scripture. Did God put a period at the end of Revelation or did He put a comma? And once you understand that when we make this change, and we will make it, there’s no question, I mean it’s essentially a dead issue . . . . but the truth of it is we’re gonna get over this. We just have to understand that when we do, it’s the last, it is the last playing piece. It’s the last stance if you will for sola Scriptura . . . and you know if we’re bright we will recognize that divorce wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to the human race or to the human home but it was a necessary adjustment and we’ve paid a price for it but we probably would have paid a greater price if we’d not had it, I think the same thing is true here.”9

It still strikes me as odd to hear someone saying out loud what Tickle says in the Marin interview.

The Bart Gingerich Article

This article, written as a report of sorts on the national gathering of the proponents of emergence Christianity which happened earlier this year (Jan. 11-12 ) in Memphis, TN. The article reports Tickle as having “foretold a ‘coming age of the Spirit,’ in which dogmatic orthodoxy and claims to absolute truth (outdated artifacts from the ages of the Father and the Son) would melt before a loving communion of uncertainty.”

In the area of authority, Gingerich reported that Tickle said, “We need to address the authority issue, and we don’t know [sic] have that answer yet . . . . Scripture will play a part. The Holy Spirit will have a role in establishing authority in emergence Christianity . . . . Emergents . . . believe the Scripture is actually true. Most people in the pews want it to be factually true.”

Then, we get a glimpse into Tickle’s hermeneutic when, according to Gingerich, Tickle “commended the group for avoiding the ‘arrogance…that God can be trapped in our understanding,’ labeled the Bible as ‘patriarchal’ (‘only a fool’ would think otherwise), condemned the concept of a closed canon of Scripture, and still supports homosexuality even though ‘the Bible is not in favor of homosexuality—it just isn’t. The approval is not there.’”

Finally, as pertains to the Doctrine of the Atonement, Gingerich reports:

“The noted speaker also contended, ‘We need to devise a new doctrine of the atonement.’ Informing the audience that there are at least six kinds of atonement theory, she excoriated the penal substitutionary view of redemption. This ‘bloody sacrifice’ approach is the evangelical staple, teaching that Christ took upon God’s wrath against Law-breaking sinners upon himself as a substitute, thus purchasing grace and mercy for believers. ‘It won’t play anymore,’ Tickle stated. She traced this view back to the broader satisfaction theory of St. Anselm of Canterbury. According to her revision, after failing to stave off the First Crusade, Anselm decided to write his Cur Deos Homo to comfort soldiers doomed to die in the Holy Land. She audaciously analogized, ‘It was like the way some radical imams tell suicide bombers that, if they strap twenty grenades on and blow themselves up, they’ll get twenty virgins in paradise.’

Conclusion

These three sources launched me on an investigation of sorts, and ultimately led me to reach out to Ms. Tickle in an effort to hear from her directly on the issues raised in these sources.

In the next article, I will share the questions I asked Ms. Tickle and begin to share some of what she communicated back to me. After summarizing the sources for this article, I am even more interested to hear from Tickle her definition of evangelical.

NOTES

1 From a 2011 Gabe Lyon’s interview with Phyllis Tickle as seen on Right Now Ministries website, http://www.rightnow.org/Media/Series/2215#1.

2  https://ccithink.com/2013/04/08/the-sinking-ship-of-evangelicalism-part-i-the-problem/

3 Unpublished personal correspondence between myself and Ms. Tickle.

4 Lyons interview.

5 Ibid.

6 George Barna, Revolution: Worn Out on Church? Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers: 2005), 29.

7 ibid., 36.

8 ibid., 66.

9 Part I: Andrew Marin Interviews Phyllis Ticklehttp: //www.youtube.com/watch?v= SOQQPC_SsEs

Scott Fowler is the founder of the Christ and Culture Initiative. He is a pastor/theologian living in New York. You can learn more about him at:  http://scottythinks.wordpress.com/about/

Coming Up at ccithink . . .

The Tickle Chronicles

Recently, I made an effort to contact Phyllis Tickle. In case you don’t know who she is, she is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, the author of several books, very visible on the web (just Google her), and for our interests here, one of the leading voices of a movement called Emergence Christianity. I wanted to contact her because I was (and still am) concerned about some things she has written and said. I had already some of my concerns in classes and in blog posts here at ccithink and I wanted to solicit her input and inform her that I have been and plan to continue discussing her theology. To my amazement, Ms. Tickle got back to me almost immediately. She was gracious and addressed my concerns

Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and C...
Veritas Conversation with Phyllis Tickle and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, 3/3/11 (Photo credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit)

in-depth.

In an upcoming series of articles, I will share the questions I asked of Ms. Tickle, the answers she gave me, and the reasons for my ongoing concern. For these articles I will also draw on her many videos, articles, and interviews given as well as some of her books.

 

Upcoming In House Symposium on Gay Christianity

One of the challenges hurling toward the believing Church is the growing presence of gay Christianity. On a date still to be decided, the “fellows” of the Christ and Culture Initiative with gather to discuss the various questions and challenges facing the Church concerning this subject.

If you have well worked out thoughts on this subject, pro or con, or questions that you would like for us to consider, you are invited to submit those thoughts and questions by emailing them to ccithink@gmail.com. The deadline for submissions is May 15, 2013.