John Wesley’s Case Against Phyllis Tickle

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“What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Psuedo-history is a dangerous thing.  By psuedo-history, we far too easily create a world designed to make “our side” look righteous, correct, and hip.  Like Scripture, history is too easily re-narrated to fit our own worldviews and prejudices.  Such is the case with Phyllis Tickle’s “cycles of history.”  As Andrew Thompson ably points out, this kind of
self-aggrandizing revisionism sells books, but it is not ultimately history as such.

Thompson points out* several problems with Tickle’s approach: 1) The obsession with numerology is a practice as ancient as it is misleading; 2) Tickle’s theory betrays an inescapably modern, progressive view of history – each sea change every 500 years is seen, as is the current “Emergence” – as on balance being for the better; this telling of the Christian past is not just hopelessly Protestant it is also Eurocentric in the extreme; 3) The “arbitrary” factor: Tickle has chosen events that fit her thesis but ignored major events of the Christian past that do not fit into the 500 year schema.  This is my jumping off point for something I’d like to add to the conversation.

In essence, my thesis is this: insofar as John Wesley can be identified with the theology, aims, and methods of what is named as “Emergence” Christianity, Tickle’s 500 year theory is all the more thoroughly undone.

Of course, trying to define Emergence Christianity is like trying to nail Jell-O floating in a pool of mercury.  In Emergence Christianity, Tickle lays down two goal-posts at opposite ends of the liturgical and theological spectrum: the declaration of Papal infallibility at Vatican 1 and the the reaffirmation of Scriptural inerrancy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the essence of and motivating force behind “fundamentalism”).  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, according to her description, everything that A) falls between these goal posts – absolute declarations of authority for either Church or Scripture – and B) is not part of Mainline Protestant establishment is, in some way, a precursor to and later an example of Emergence Christianity.  Thus, everything from the Azusa Street Revival and ensuing Pentecostal movement, to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, along with Taize and Iona and similar communities, form the womb of what would later grow into full-blown Emergence Christianity. (See Chapter 4)

Fast forward to today, and all manner of quasi- or anti-institutional expressions of church – almost all of them politically progressive while theologically and liturgically eclectic – are claimed by the Emergent/ing/ce (???) crowd. House church? You’re in. Neo-Monastic (which is to actual monasticism what the Episcopal Church is to Roman Catholicism) communities are emergent.  So are the hyphens: the Metho-Costals and the Angli-Charismatics and such.  The missional church is also included, for good measure.  As I read it, therefore, Emergence Christianity is in many ways a clearing-house for all expressions of Church that are united in their desire to different than that perennial boogeyman known as “The Institutional Church.”

How does Wesley figure in to the picture? Because Wesley was doing most of these “Emergence-y” things in the middle of the 18th century – smack dab between those magical 500 year cycles.  His was a movement connected to the institutional church but also subversive of it.  The early Methodists took the gospel to the people before Rauschenbusch ever told the rest of Protestantism to do so.  John and Charles Wesley explicitly held together much of what the Christians of their day separated: Scripture and tradition, justification and sanctification, personal and social holiness, “knowledge and vital piety.” (I owe this line of thought to Randy Maddox.)  Wesley was fascinated by the science of his day before doing so made you interesting.  Methodists emphasized the work of the Spirit like few others besides the Quakers, and re-emphasized the Eucharist at a time when it was not hip among his own Anglican church (the Wesley brothers also embraced mystery when it came to their Eucharistic theology, a move that was much more counter-cultural in its day than it is in our own postmodern context).  They insisted that faith was lived in community before community was a buzz word.  Wesley couldn’t get a church and so he proclaimed the world his parish.  He was both a rebel and a loyal Anglican until the day he died.  In short, John Wesley was doing most of what Emergence Christianity touts at a time when Phyllis Tickle’s theory says it shouldn’t have happened.

I do not claim to be an expert on all things Emergy, but I have read a couple of Tickle’s books.  Color me unconvinced.  Rather than being the next big phase in Christianity, Emergence Christianity, to me, appears to be little more than liberal Protestantism that has retraced its steps a bit and recovered important pieces of the Christian past.  This is, of course, a good thing.  I like candles and sacrament as much as the next Christian.  But this is nothing new – regardless of how much one cherry-picks the historical narrative to make it look like the next Wittenberg.

P.S. I may sound a bit triumphalist about Wesley and the early Methodist movement.  I am, of course, a lover of my own tribe, but I do not intend to suggest that Wesley is the end-all and be-all of Christianity.  Rather, I present he and his movement as a kind of test case against the historical narrative that Tickle has created.  While I respect the breadth of her knowledge, and much of the thought and practice of the movement for which she is a figurehead, I find this telling of history to be too self-serving to be taken seriously.  I welcome your feedback about ways in which I have misunderstood Tickle’s argument or Emergence Christianity.

*I have attempted to both summarize Thompson’s points and put them into my own words.  Something may well have been lost in translation and I encourage you to check out his original, thought-provoking post.

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3 thoughts on “John Wesley’s Case Against Phyllis Tickle”

  1. You nailed it. I heard her speak at the national youth workers movement in ’07 or ’08 and it was the same stuff. She fell to her knees, cried, and begged us all to avoid the coming spiritual bloodshed that takes places every 500 years. She’s found/developed/encouraged/pledged her loyalty to a camp (emergent) that has become her tribe. There’s bits and pieces that I say “Fine, every ??? years there’s something neat” but I don’t base history or the future off her EXTREMELY narrow exposure to history or lack of knowledge in the current goings-on of smaller-yet-significant-to-God places of the Kingdom she knows nothing about.

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