MOSCOW, Tenn. — Phyllis Tickle is advancing her argument that she and her fellow Christians are not only in the middle of a Presbyterian retreat center in the West Tennessee woods, but also in the midst of a monumental shift in Christianity and Western culture that occurs every half-millennium.
She is standing equidistant from where she and her physician husband, Sam, raised seven children, tended a farm and built a life in Shelby County, and from where her grandfather raised hell and was tended to at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
“My paternal grandfather was shot at Shiloh,” she mentions in one of many stories, quips and casual asides (she calls them sidebars) that pepper her lectures. “My daddy was the 15th of 16, so nothing essential got hit.”
She ticks off a series of relevant facts about the dizzying pace and scope of change in which they find themselves, amazing and amusing the few dozen women (mostly) and men who were lucky enough and wise enough and open-minded enough to be here for what figures to be her final Memphis-area performance.
There were 144 cars in all of America in 1900. There are nearly that manyher in most church parking lots every Sunday.
The English language contains five times more words than were available to Shakespeare.
The most powerful computer can complete 12 quadrillion procedures a second, and will be obsolete in two years.
Two-thirds of the human genome is under patent.
Half of the children born last year to women under 30 were born out of wedlock — deliberately.
“I guess they decided they want the baby and not the nuisance,” quips Tickle, who will not refer to a single note for the next five hours in a presentation that is part lecture, part sermon and part stand-up routine.
“Her sense of humor tempers every thought as she leads the faithful into the unknown,” said Lucy Cummings, who organized the retreat for the Presbytery of Memphis. “It was like having your favorite cool aunt come to your house and chat about important things.”
Tickle, a former Latin professor, art teacher and college dean, likes to call herself a recovering academic, but the academy’s loss has been Christendom’s gain.
For the past 20 years, first as founding religion editor at Publishers Weekly, then as author, teacher and speaker, Tickle has been articulating and illuminating Christianity’s past, present and future.
Now in her 80th year, Tickle is retiring from public life.
“We stopped accepting new (speaking) contracts as of March this year,” she said. “It will take me through January 2015 to fulfill those that had already been let, but after that, a whole new turn in life for me.
“There are two books I want to write, and each requires more study and thoughtfulness than I can pull off when I’m on the road. I also want to play around, I think, with some video publishing. We’ll see.
“Maybe, when all is said and done, it’s just time for me to shut up and listen.”
That might be the first bad idea she’s had in decades.
The more Tickle talks, the younger she appears, seeming to shed a year for every century she surveys in her captivating and spirited romp through more than 2,000 years of Western history, theology, sociology and science.
The author, editor or contributor to three dozen books is also a bookworm. She’s read, analyzed, synthesized and referenced everything from “In the beginning” to “The End of Faith,” from the Desert Fathers and Augustine to Faraday and Darwin.
“If she were an elder in my church, I’d probably find the task of teaching a bit more challenging, what with her encyclopedic mind,” said Rev. Warner Davis, pastor of Collierville Presbyterian Church, who was at the retreat.
“I am always amazed by her intellect and depth of knowledge,” added Rev. C.V. ‘Bo’ Scarborough, a retired Presbyterian minister and Tickle student. “She always seems to know where the cutting edge of the church is and where it came from.”
Tickle’s cutting edge offers a shot of Jack (Spong or Daniel’s) to fundamentalists, a hearty hale fellow well met to contemplatives, the Balm of Gilead to atheists. She’ll get Jesus on the Mainline to talk to the mainliners, introduce the inerrantists to Micah (3:6) and Marcus (Borg), and remind academics the phrase that matters is, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” not “publish or perish.”
Her primary thesis, as explained and explored over the past few years in countless books, articles and multimedia appearances, is that every 500 years, Western culture and Christianity experience a great upheaval. The last was the Great Reformation of the 1500s; the next is happening now.
She and others call it the Great Emergence.
“Emergence is characterized by its deinstitutionalized nature, its rejection of hierarchy and favored status, its belief in narrative theology over propositional or doctrinal theology, its belief that the Kingdom of God is here and now, its concern for the communal over the individual, its understanding of social justice as being Godly work, not a civil or moral concern, but of finding God’s work in an accepting, affectionate concern for the equality in community of all people,” she explains, summarizing decades and movements and multitudes in a sentence.
It’s a topic she first explored in “God-Talk in America,” the 1997 book that raised her international profile from respected religion editor to prophetic religion observer.
In that book, and in several others since, including 2008’s “The Great Emergence,” Tickle argues that there is an emerging new understanding of who and what God is, and of what religion must do, and that this spiritual revolution is being created in cafés, bars and storefronts and cyberspace rather than in seminaries and cathedrals.
She calls it the “democratization of theology” that includes everything from Jesus scholarship to Gnosticism and New Age thinking.
“From the beginning to the birth of Christ was the two thousand years of primary emphasis on God the Father,” she wrote in a footnote in one of her recent books. “From the coming of Christ to 2000 was to be the two thousand years of primary emphasis on God the Son. From 2000 CE to 4000 CE would be the two thousand years of the primacy in worship and in human affairs of God the Spirit.”
Footnotes matters in Tickle’s books. She’s turning that footnote into her new book, “The Age of the Spirit.”
In January, she’ll be back on the road, making her case that Christian authority will rest not only in scripture, “but also in the intentions of the Spirit as they are revealed to, and discerned by, the devout in prayer and in congress with one another. It is a shift of historic proportions.”
On the book tour, she’ll be joined by Tony Jones, a leading figure in Emergence Christianity.
Jones will be talking about a new book he edited, a collection of essays by some of leading lights of Emergence Christianity, including Jones, Diana Butler-Bass, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Lauren Winner.
The book is called “Phyllis Tickle: Evangelist of the Future.”
“I had nothing to do with it,” Tickle says with a mix of embarrassment, annoyance and amusement.
Tickle’s own theological journey has taken her from Appalachian Calvinist (she grew up in East Tennessee) to Delta Episcopalian to Emergence “lesbygaytransexual.”
She grew up in a church that shunned a woman who divorced her abusive husband, then shunned her second husband, a decorated World War II veteran. She wound up in a church, Holy Trinity in Memphis, led by an openly gay pastor.
“I see the Church as a river that picks up tributaries along the way,” she told those gathered on an autumn morning on land that lies between the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers.
“It picked up the Roman Catholic tributary, then the Protestant tributary. Now it’s picking up the Emergence tributary. Of course our numbers (Catholic and Protestant) are down, but we’re picking up a new tributary. Christianity is growing.
“Our obligation is to turn and pray for the river. It’s the river that matters. We’re here to serve the kingdom of God.”