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Emergence Christianity, Women, and the Fall of Christendom

2013 January 14

Last week I was able to attend the Emergence Christianity Gathering in Memphis, TN. In truth, I went mostly to see old friends and to get the fix that comes from surrounding myself (for a few days at least) with people who ask the same sorts of questions I ask. Not that we all think the same, but sometimes I just need that freedom to be myself for a few days. So on that level, the Gathering was amazing. I had some great conversations, heard some good Blues bands, and ate enough barbeque to last a lifetime.

And for the most part, I enjoyed the content of the conference. Yes, there was a serious lack of diversity on stage and amidst attendees. Yes, meeting in a cathedral makes for a very uncomfortable venue. But for what this event was (a celebration of Phyllis Tickle’s life and work), I was prepared to deal with those.

And then came the final session.

There’s no denying that the final session was just weird. Even those who weren’t offended by what was said there thought it was a very odd way to end a conference. I’ve had both people who were there and who were following along on Twitter asking me what the hell happened. I can’t really explain why it happened, but I want to spend some time responding.

A big part of the problem was that people coming to an emergence Christianity event, especially to hear such an intelligent woman as Phyllis, were not expecting to disagree with her much less hear her say such confusing and hurful things about women, people with disabilities (more on this one another day), and African-Americans. From what I gathered, people came there hopeful for what is emerging in the church and left feeing bewildered. They expected to perhaps disagree with some speakers, but Phyllis is beloved and so the disconnect was far more jarring. I’ve heard Phyllis give versions of these lectures before, but never draw the conclusions she did at this event, so even to me, it was unsettling.

The main content of the gathering was Phyllis doing her whole overview of church history to explain where the church is today and how we got here. It’s a fantastic, albeit cursory, survey of church history which far too few Christians have any knowledge whatsoever about. In her talks, she is always one to make snarky comments or sex jokes that no one but a woman pushing 80 can get away with, but the unsettling pattern in her storytelling this time was to blame women for the demise of Christendom. In the final session Phyllis described the rise and fall of Constantinian Christianity and pointed to the emancipation of women in the 20th century as a catalyst for that decline. While most of us there would agree that the fall of Christendom is a very good thing and that women’s liberation significantly changed our culture, it was where Phyllis went with from there that caused the discomfort.

Phyllis described the freedoms working outside the home in WW2 and the ability to control our cycles the Pill brought women and argued that such things led to the destruction of the nuclear family and therefore the foundation of the civil religion of Christendom. While it is a narrow assessment of causality, I can agree with the descriptive observation that such things changed our culture. But then she jumped from these changes as that which brought an end to Christendom to describing how such changes led to the destruction of the ways the faith is passed on to new generations which thereby resulted in a biblically illiterate society. As she described it, when mom is not at home weaving the stories of scripture and the church calendar into her day to day activities in front of her children, they do not receive the basics of the faith. One cannot apparently have a sacred family meal over Papa John’s pizza picked up on the way home from work the same way that one can if one is baking bread, doing family crafts, and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Phyllis ended the session by encouraging us to discover ways to be back in the kitchen with our children and finding crafty ways to import the rhythms of the church year to them. Essentially to focus on the family and all that. That is the great emergence. The end.

You can see why people left bewildered.

The story as she told it made sense – constructed narratives work that way – women are to blame for the post-Christian era and if we just got back in the home the faith could thrive again. But it is important to note that in her narrative instead of focusing on what has emerged that brings hope in this world, she was telling the story of why things have changed – which are two vastly different perspectives. At some point in telling the story of change it is hard not to get nostalgic about one point or another and hold a sugar-coated vision of that time up as the period we must all try to harken back towards. The problem with such an approach is that it ignores the underside of said period and it imposes guilt upon those who find hope outside that period’s restrictions.

In making the argument that religion was far stronger when the nuclear family (as defined by a working father and stay at home mother) reigned one not only limits the definition of who gets to represent proper religion but also romanticizes a system that was far more broken than is often realized. The truth is, not all Christian families had the luxury of living such a white middle-class, middle-America lifestyle. Even ignoring the patterns of faith outside the Western world, it is only a small demographic of people who ever had a mother at home teaching the children the church year as she cooked their supper. To hold such up as a goal for contemporary Christians to return to privileges white, middle-class, liturgical faith as the only true or acceptable way to be a faithful Christian. While there is nothing wrong with living in such ways, it is not nor never has been the only way to live one’s faith or impart it to one’s children.

To lament that our culture ever changed from such a family structure (even though only a few ever lived it to begin with) also ignores the ills of that very structure. The shift in the Reformation period that empowered women by making them the spiritual leader in the home has over time not only ostracized men from spiritual practices (because such things are “just” for women) but also restricted women’s service to God to just within the household. This way of thinking does a disservice to men, women, and the Kingdom of God. Perpetuating the notion that it is the role of women to care for the spiritual development of their family in their home ignores the fact that it was causing problems for the faith long before the practice began to decline.

missed memoSimilarly, upholding this family structure ignores that the development of the modern nuclear family wasn’t exactly a healthy historical development. Prior to the Victorian era’s turn to individualized nuclear family dwellings, people lived far more communally. Multiple generations lived together and villages functioned as extended family. There was no such thing as a woman keeping house herself. No one ever had to cook, clean, manage the house, watch the kids, and educate the kids on her own. Younger teens helped around the house. Kids could wander the village knowing that most people there would take care of them and that they too were expected to help others as needed. Crying babies were watched by the tween girls or elderly women while the women devoted themselves to other tasks. The development of the nuclear family took all of those support structures away from women. Those who were not rich enough to afford servants to help them were expected for the first time in history to bear the burden of all the household tasks alone. A few enlightened men in recent decades have begun to lend a hand, but it is rare that extended families much less the community (including the church) feel any need to help women with these tasks – expecting her instead to be some sort of supermom who can do it all. At the same time the turn toward isolated nuclear families took away the safety that being in community provides. When generations live together and everyone in the village knows each other’s business it is a lot harder for abuse of women and children to be hidden. Not that it didn’t happen or that women weren’t treated as property during those periods, but the façade of the nuclear family hid many ills that a nostalgic romanticized view ignores. It was not a sustainable system, and it is no surprise that by the mid-twentieth century women were both “running for the shelter of mother’s little helper” and seeking freedom from such unrealistic expectations.

But just because the story can be told in such a way that explains why things have changed in a regretful fashion doesn’t mean that is the only way the story must be told. Allowing women to lead family devotions was a huge hopeful step forward in empowering women once upon a time. The freedom that working outside the home and the Pill brought women gave them hope of being fully themselves and the ability to stand on their own two feet apart from abusive and controlling husbands and fathers. I think many of us at the Emergence Christianity Gathering were shocked that such stories of hope were ignored in favor of one that piled on the same stale guilt that we have come to expect from traditional religion. I’m not saying that Phyllis Tickle can’t believe whatever she wants about the role and place of women or tell the story of history through her own particular biases, but what dawned on many of us during this final session was that she was no longer telling a story of emergence. The end of the story as she told it was not one of hope and promise, but one of restrictions and guilt that we are already well acquainted with. It hurt to hear that from her, and many couldn’t bring themselves to admit that they had problems with how she told the story – just that it felt like a really weird ending to the conference. It is like we were waiting for permission to disagree, to state that was not the only way to tell the story.

So here I go – as much as I am grateful for Phyllis and admire much of her work, she does not possess the only truth regarding what is emerging. It is okay to tell the story of where we have been as a story of hope and liberation instead of merely one of regrettable change. We are still figuring out how to live within this emerging world and what were once whispered ideas and conversations are now unquestioned facts about the evolution of our culture. Not knowing where we came from is dangerous, but so is staking our claim in a misunderstood past. We are constantly negotiating what it means to witness with hope within this present moment without simply re-iterating the past. How we tell our story determines the shape of that witness.

So my question for Emergence Christians is – how can we use this awkward moment to push us to start telling this story of hope?


86 Responses leave one →
  1. January 14, 2013

    Thanks for this. Several years ago I heard Phyllis give her “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” speech. It sounds like she’s either refined it or given it one too many times. I don’t know. It’s a familiar trope, just as you say. When I heard it at Bread For The Journey in Chicago five years or more ago, she layered this observation of how familial relationships have changed into a wide cultural shift that included greater mobility, etc. So, it really doesn’t matter if grandmother has to work. Her kids live 1,000 miles away anyway. Heh.

    As you so well articulate, we need to express something hopeful for people. We don’t need to throw anyone under the culture bus. My thought is that this may be impossible to demonstrate. Who will have to explain it will be our grand children. They will speak of how their families worked to help them be faithful people. We have to live it out and see what emerges. I don’t think that someone had some great plan to make passing on the faith part of the grandmother’s job description. Mine certainly had no such interest in doing so! But that it happened is no great surprise and how it will happen in the future is unknowable to us.

  2. Carla Cushman permalink
    January 14, 2013

    Thanks for this, Julie. I was hoping you would offer your perspective on Phyllis’ puzzling final statements.

    As we were driving back to South Dakota from the conference, my friend said that she was disappointed that Phyllis seemed to be encouraging going back to the past, when what my friend wanted to hear was how to move forward with raising children in a new, more authentic way. I agree! To me, the controversy wasn’t really her identification of the challenge in modern society to raise spiritually literate children (I might disagree, but I wouldn’t call that position particularly controversial, even among EC13 participants). But as someone live-tweeted right behind her, blaming the pill is blaming women, and framing the causes of the problem in the way she did was hugely problematic. I’m not a parent, but if/when I am my family will need to figure out how to share our spiritual values with our children, but we’re definitely not going to do it by going back to a (white, middle class, heteronormative) 1950s picture of family life.

    I respect Phyllis and appreciate the perspective and wisdom that she shared throughout the conference, but I agree that we have permission to disagree with her and I think she would appreciate authentic disagreement from EC13 participants. It’s possible that if she had the opportunity and had this not been the final session, Phyllis may have qualified/explained her comments based on feedback she got (like she did throughout the conference).

    Thanks for your insight, Julie. I was really hoping to hear from you during a pecha kucha presentation during the conference.

    • September 11, 2013

      This article by Julie Clawson and your reply have given me some hope. I cannot find a response from Phyllis Tickle anywhere – surely she must have received hundreds of comments and questions?
      Our feminist spirituality group in Durban (South Africa) is working through ‘The Great Emergence’ and our discussion facilitator for today (we rotate) made us aware of what happened at this conference in January 2013. I was quite shocked and still find it difficult to believe that she would relegate women back to the kitchen.
      I based the work for my PhD on Lettie Russell’s “Table Theology”. Women have a place at the table and we have a voice. To have an author, whom I have greatly admired, deny this publicly at a conference is nothing short of devastating.
      We press on and we (together with women in the USA and all over the globe) shall continue to emerge – God is doing a new thing. Of that I am very sure.

  3. January 15, 2013

    Thanks for this Julie. I felt really uncomfortable with that part of the lecture too (and a few other assertions throughout the conference, like the formation of the canon, but that’s for another time.)

    I found it odd to juxtapose that kind of nostalgic near-history with Barry Taylor’s line the day before about how when we indulge nostalgia we re-create a past that never existed in the first place and how the only way to move is forward.

    Like Carla, I would have liked some kind of theoretical framework on how to move forward and create something new instead of decrying the death of something that didn’t really exist the way it’s remembered.

  4. January 15, 2013

    i really appreciate your unpacking this, since i read the tweets with the same puzzlement and disappointment.

    at some point it seems that christian families abdicated to the church our own role in our children’s spiritual formation. The Pill and working moms make convincing (/regressive!) boogeymen, but to me, the youth group/sunday school model of christian ed is a more likely cause of biblical illiteracy and mile wide/inch deep faith.

    maybe this is a good turning point for reevaluating the way the emerging church still hangs onto old school leadership models of heroes and celebrity pastors. sticking anyone on a pedestal is a dangerous thing, and we miss the wisdom from the margins.

    • Ivy Beckwith permalink
      January 15, 2013


    • January 15, 2013

      Amen to this, suzannah: “maybe this is a good turning point for reevaluating the way the emerging church still hangs onto old school leadership models of heroes and celebrity pastors. sticking anyone on a pedestal is a dangerous thing, and we miss the wisdom from the margins.”

      From my view outside the box, “Emergence” is starting to look like that which it has so far said it doesn’t look like. The only difference: “Emergence” is left-handed.

      And for all its diversity, “Emergence” may potentially suffer the unintended consequence that often results from large, high-profile conventions: an otherwise diversified identity becomes subsumed under a singular voice.

      • January 15, 2013

        I am definitely not on board with yet another group allergic to criticism and the ignoring of the voices of those who don’t have an audience.

    • Jeff Straka permalink
      January 15, 2013

      DOUBLE “this”!

    • January 15, 2013

      Good point. Makes me wonder what is the way forward as it is impossible to go back to the way things used to be. It used to be that most church goers were illiterate (including the clergy). Everyone was taught on the level of children. Once literacy became more widespread and not only the clergy but the laity could wrestle with scripture, theology, as well as the stories of the faith (and their critiques) they needed the space to do so. Combined with the Protestant placement of the sermon/word at center of the church service (as opposed to the eucharist), church became that place to wrestle with or at least be taught ideas. It was no longer the place where children and adults could learn at the same level. That is just the way it is. Children’s ministry was one solution to that problem. It has failed miserably, but in an educated literate world unless you go to a liturgical eucharist centered church, it will not work to try to expect children to always think like adults or to always expect adults to dumb themselves down for children. There are ways to come together, but most solutions I’ve seen either ignore the literacy development or try to go back to the way things used to be. I’d love to see work on this that does not just call us back to some idea of how things used to be done, but accepts the realities of the world as it is and builds off of that.

      • January 21, 2013

        And… that’s why I now go to a liturgical eucharist-centered church :-)

      • September 11, 2013

        I am loving these posts more and more. Thank you for providing this platform for thought, reflection and discussion.
        CS Lewis’ Narnia stories (to refer to but one example) help me to teach faith to children (and adults). :-)
        Yes, biblical literacy has its value – I myself am a product of Bible Knowledge exams and I love it that I know my way around the Bible very well. However, my two daughters can find their way around the Bible quicker than I can with the help of the Internet. They were given good ‘spiritual formation’ along with a solid biblical education and yet both of them have chosen not to remain in the mainline church environment. Xers and Millennials need something else.
        The good news I long to hear is how to make God real to young people. NOT to merely entertain them but to challenge them with real spiritual and godly values that can add meaning to their lives.

        • March 13, 2014

          If you suspected your husnabd or wife was having an affair would you still be having sex with them?My question is relative only to the sex and intimacy of the marriage. I know there are lots of other issues when dealing with infidelity. I’m trying hard to sort everything out piece by piece. I know STD’s checks are necessary and condoms are optional. So please answer the direct question as it applies to the marital sex life.If your spouse had an affair and you suspect they may still be having this affair would you still have sex with them? Does withholding sex in marriage (even in this predicament) help or hurt the marriage more or less?thank you.

  5. January 15, 2013

    Julie, thank you for this post. I’ve read it three times and find it a rich and helpful reflection.

    I want to affirm what you said about the structured, isolated nuclear family being a stopgap compensation for the fracturing and dispersal of extended community life.

    Perhaps we can think about retrieving the more robust and integrated communal practices of community life that the nuclear family replaced? Maybe we can say the gendered nuclear family structure, and the ways some women sheltered and provided for spiritual flourishing in that (limited!) context, has served its purpose, and we should move on to retrieving much of the community that was lost.

    As with many topics raised through these conversations, I can’t help thinking that the experiences of generations of immigrant populations, race minorities, marginalized persons, and others could be important resources and guides as we think about intentionally moving forward.

    Who better to teach us about drawing together sustaining communal bonds than those who’ve been excluded from the idealized, gendered, privileged nuclear family structure Phyllis seems to be missing? More reason to expand the conversation and include those who have been dealing with this for generations.

  6. January 15, 2013

    Beautiful, Julie. I’m so glad you contributed this. I appreciate your analysis and perspective, and I think your final question is exactly the right one.

  7. January 15, 2013

    Julie, I was encouraged to read this articulate response. As I did, I kept thinking of Phyllis Tickle’s memoir, The Shaping of a Life, and the sort of charmed recollections of mid-century family life it contains. It seems that generalized claims may rise from a particular past. Of course, liberationist movements of the twentieth-century taught us the dangers of such generalizations from privileged locations.

    I’m teaching British Romantic literature right now, and I’ve been reminded again of how women in domestic spheres are often attributed prime significance in nationalist or cultural struggles. England turned to such a vision of motherhood in the early c19, which coincided with a growing middle class and fed into the Victorian ideal of an Angel in the House. Many post-colonial feminists also point to the way women-as-mothers have been used in anti-colonial discourse. I don’t think anyone could argue against the mutual implications of secularization and liberal feminism–and I think it’s wise for us to re-consider the “right to work” in a capitalist system, etc. But this practice of idealizing women within the home is one with dubious precedents.

    As for hope: alternative community formations! Cooperative neighborhood childcare groups! Less television, more embodied storytelling! Festivals and feasts! May grace and mercy abound among us.

  8. January 15, 2013

    Julie, thanks, as always, for documenting, analyzing and questioning the important ideas of this movement.

    I don’t know Phyllis’s work that well except for a few podcasts that I’ve encountered here or there that I thought were spot-on.

    The most problematic thing you’ve described here is the assertion that the fall of Christendom is a bad thing. (Of course, I’m not a huge fan of blaming it on the womenfolk, either.) With the increase of the “nones” and more and more theologically-minded folks asserting that there are many ways to be right with God, both within the Christian tradition and without, it seems to me like fewer people are mourning the loss of religion as they rejoice in spirituality that is more authentic to their own experiences.

    I agree with Phyllis that spiritual literacy needs to be deliberately cultivated in our children, but that can take many forms and is dependent on the spiritual practices of the adults in the children’s lives. Not some ideal template of What Every Child Should Know About God.

  9. January 15, 2013

    Right on, Julie. The biggest danger of the conference we just held is that the valedictory nature of it might blind us to the places where Phyllis is wrong, dead wrong. She is wrong in places, as each of us is. In private, she and I argue about these things all the time. At an event that I’m moderating, it is not appropriate for me to publicly disagree with her. But I’m so, so glad that you’ve kept the conversation (and disagreement) going here.

    • January 15, 2013

      Thanks for your reply Tony. There is much that I love and agree with Phyllis on. I find it interesting though how in a very modernistic way she has been set up as “the authority” on the emerging church – even to the point of being the one to define the labels. There is valid reason for this, but that placement combined with the fact that she is 70-something year old woman creates a persona that we in Western culture have a difficult time disagreeing with. We still don’t want to question authority or disrespect our elders. Give someone the ability to literally speak ex cathedra and that psychological inability to critique that person intensifies. Perhaps if there was space given in small groups or even more response panels to her that dynamic would not have been so strong.

      • Michael J. Teston permalink
        January 18, 2013

        “We still don’t want to question authority or disrespect our elders. Give someone the ability to literally speak ex cathedra and that psychological inability to critique that person intensifies.”

        I have been part of the institutional church for the last 26 years and have taken some time away to clear my head and heart. I am not new to the “emergent” conversation but am new to this conversation about P. Tickle. I think you nailed an even larger issue on the ground where the action and reactions of people happen and one I struggled with in the “older mainline.” The continual and high visibility and placement of senior leaders/pastors/clerics who continue to exert influence that goes unquestioned out of respect that has honestly destroyed major aspects of anything good the mainline movement might have left.

        I currently read a sermon/essay by Tom Long who didn’t come right out and say that a person leading a “new monastic movement” was sort of amusing but we needed to “wait” on what God would do authentically through the “older” mainline and not be in such a hurry to do much of anything in this season in between. I was flabbergasted.

        The yearning for the “past,” and the drum beat of nostalgia is mind, heart, and soul numbing.
        Thanks for your insights.

  10. January 15, 2013

    Very unsettling. Thank you for calling attention to this.

  11. January 15, 2013

    I can’t and won’t disagree with anything said here because it seems to me that this is a valid, albeit partial, interpretation of what Phyllis reported. I did not hear in her presentation a sole “blaming” of women; I did hear a report of the historical reality of changes in American life wrought by World War 2 and the introduction of “the Pill” …. but lost in the up-roar over Phyllis’s perhaps inartful expression of that history was her comment about the change in society and family life caused by the return of men (and women) from the War with what we now would call PTSD. Phyllis made the point that not only were women no longer transmitting the Faith stories to children because they had gone into the work place during the war years and were later enabled to continue on that trajectory by “the Pill”, but men, “damaged” by their war experience, were also no longer doing so. She unfortunately let that point slide into oblivion; she spent too much time on the role of women and not enough time going deeper into the changed role of men.

    Tony Jones is right that Phyllis sometimes gets it wrong. This was a time when she got the balance wrong. Society changed – there were many factors – the Pill, the war, the rebuilding of a post-war economy, other elements – it wasn’t the fault of one sex more than the other. Phyllis focused too much on one element, but I don’t think she intended to exclude or exonerate the others.

    • January 16, 2013

      I had much the same response as you. I didn’t sense a “blame” of the Pill as a scapegoat. I heard it as a game changer. I kept going back to how she wrote about this in The Great Emergence by pointing out that the creation of the nuclear family was a Protestant deal–that the home as transmitter of tradition was born in Protestantism–and so I didn’t hear her proclaiming that as the solution, but a way we are different.

      My gut tells me that she was seeing this as a sort of simple solution to generate the relationships that are no longer normative–a way forward rather than a look to the past. But I will concur that she did seem to be in a funk.

      • January 16, 2013

        When I’ve heard this talk before, it was set up as simply a descriptive survey of change. What was different this time was the prescriptive call to a particular way of life. Maybe after the quip blaming Eloise for distracting Abelard from refuting Anselm’s penal substitutionary atonement theory I was hyper-sensitive to that dynamic. But even choosing to focus on changes that affected women as the primary agent of change (when so much more could be focused on) makes it difficult to not see us as cast in light of scapegoat.

  12. January 15, 2013

    Let me also say this, not as an excuse, but as explanation: PT was battling the flu on Saturday. I’ve talked to many people who heard her give this talk at Wild Goose, and it was wildly popular. I don’t know the discrepancy.

    • Justin Shumaker permalink
      January 15, 2013

      I know that when I have the flu, I often find myself in 1957. I come out of my fever to people telling me I’ve said the most backwards things!

    • Mike Clawson permalink
      January 15, 2013

      I have heard her give other variations of this talk elsewhere too, and I seem to recall that in those instances she gave a lot more caveats and seemed to speak more descriptively than prescriptively. Perhaps having the flu simply put her off her game and she forgot to couch what she was saying with more of the necessary qualifiers.

      • May 29, 2013

        maybe she heard Tony’s talk at sbtn so tried to speak more boldly without the caveeatt

    • January 20, 2013

      I mean because if I have the flu, and I am a celebrity pastor / theologian / author, it is better to stand up and say really hurtful ridiculous stuff — because I’m off my game — than it is to practice a little self-care.

      We wouldn’t expect it any other way.

    • kevin s. permalink
      January 21, 2013

      “Let me also say this, not as an excuse, but as explanation: PT was battling the flu on Saturday. I’ve talked to many people who heard her give this talk at Wild Goose, and it was wildly popular. I don’t know the discrepancy.”

      Does everyone realize how ridiculous this whole discussion sounds to any normal person? This is like the angry rantings of dudes in V for Vendetta masks ranting about how the latest Batman did not live up to their expectations.

      Seriously, people. This is insane. This absolutely insane.

  13. January 15, 2013

    Egregiously alarming.

  14. January 15, 2013

    Thank you Julie for sharing this. I was unable to be in Memphis and I have been confused and troubled by the freaked out sound bytes coming from friends who attended. I am happy to know that there are voices of dissent present when viewpoints coming from a perspective of dominant and white cultured privilege come from main stage. White people need to talk to white people about privilege before we will have a safe space for non dominant cultured folks to be a part of this movement.

  15. January 15, 2013

    Thank you Julie. I blogged this morning about that final lecture as well. If it is okay, I’m going to send people to this post in my comment section, because your addition is very helpful. It was great to meet you in Memphis!

    • Sarah Buteux permalink
      January 15, 2013

      Julie and Marci, thank you both for crafting such thoughtful and generous responses to that last session. It was hard to leave Memphis on that particular note, especially after so much good work had been done, but I think the conversations you are generating here will go a long way toward redeeming those last few awkward moments. I really wish Diana Butler Bass and some of the other headliners had been there to converse with Phyllis after that last talk. I think that would have helped a great deal. I was really too shell shocked at that point to respond.

      I left awash in all the same feelings you have both expressed, but as I’m reflecting on all that was said I’m beginning to think that our “failure” as parents to transmit the faith in the domestic sphere may turn out to be a good thing as the truth we would have been transmitting is not really the truth I believe in any more. We will continue to need new models, new customs, and even more conversation if we are to become “the architects” of this new emergence rather than just “passive observers” (to quote Phyllis).

      So Tony, since I know you’re paying attention to all this, keep the events coming. No one gathering is ever perfect or perfectly satisfying – this one actually turned out to be quite disturbing – but each and every gathering has helped affirm and advance this conversation as we are defining and redefining what it means to live as faithful followers of Christ, and for that I am grateful.

  16. Tracy Cross permalink
    January 15, 2013

    Thank you! Your write up is excellent and I have to say I totally agree. I’ve hear PT speak a number of occasions and I’ve left feeling not quite in agreement. PT is a great speaker and is doing tons for this movement, however I agree that she has somewhat of a narrow and stuck view of what has happened and what is happening.

  17. January 15, 2013

    I was one of the puzzled trying to decipher what the comments on twitter and Facebook were al about. This gives it some context.

    My only illumination comes from hearing Phyllis at the “first” Wild Goose Festival. My daughters and I listened to her every chance we could, including a couple of conversations in line waiting for an Italian ice. (Yes. She could have gone to the Hospitality Tent. She stood in line with the rest of us. She has a way of being slightly snarky with a smile and a nod as if to say, “did you get it?” SO I am hopeful (but not confident) that this was what she was trying to do… to push commentary and the bounds of reality.

    But her comments that you and Marci posted… they don’t make sense. At all. And I’m frustrated that there is another layer of information or challenge that I’m missing.

    Thank you for your post. I was there with you in Spirit.

  18. Sheila Nelson permalink
    January 15, 2013

    Thank you for this. I was not there, but I heard Phyllis Tickle say similar things at Wild Goose last summer. At the time, they made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t have time to ponder them and then, with the rest of the festival and summer life, they dropped out of my head. As a seriously struggling single mother, the last thing I need is more pressure and things that I’m failing at. I felt vaguely depressed after hearing her talk this summer, which was pretty much the exact opposite of the way I felt during the rest of the festival. I try to impart spirituality to my children, but I have to do it however I can. We don’t have a church at the moment, which doesn’t help. However, what I try to do, as I can, is to teach the kids to find good things everywhere, to find love and God. I want them to find spiritual mentors all around them, whether or not those people intend to be such. I don’t want them to be crippled for life (and I don’t believe they will be, for the record) because they don’t have a privileged two-parent family and the parents they have are so far from perfect.

    • September 11, 2013

      This is profound honesty and you are speaking on behalf of millions of parents in the world! We live in a new world, with new challenges and we have to find new ways of imparting the wondrous things of God to our children and grandchildren.
      Thank you.

  19. Christi permalink
    January 15, 2013

    I’m wondering what is so important about passing faith/faith stories down to our children… If they desire faith, won’t they look for it & find it on their own & in their own time? If an institution dies, might it be that it was supposed to? Communal life died giving way to a more nuclear way of living & life is slowly circulating back to a more communal arrangement. Things die & are reborn. Isn’t death (unless a seed dies) somewhat celebrated in Emergent circles? I don’t get lamenting the death of a past society… But neither do I get lamenting the death of religion/Christianity either. Should god exist, god finds a way to awe & inspire and if that isn’t god, then it’s us. Either way, our children have that spark inside of themselves & will find their way whether stories are passed down or not & in my opinion it’s probably better if the stories aren’t passed down because then children aren’t left to determine the authenticity of them later. It was a very jolting experience for me that lasted for quite a while (years) when I discovered that what I was told & what I believed to be factually accurate, wasn’t at all. And I know the stories have metaphorical validity even without factual accuracy. But the language is still so very hard for me to get past & it isn’t for lack of trying. I don’t tell the stories to my children and I don’t feel bad about it. When they ask me something I answer it, hopefully without too much bias. I neither want to poison my children against religion or send them running to it’s most conservative branch because of my leanings. I just want things to be & to be ok. I raise my children without faith but I encourage questions & the search for knowledge.

  20. Victoria Peterson-Hillque permalink
    January 15, 2013

    I am thankful to read these thought-provoking responses to EC13 from Julie and all of you who commented. I was working hard as a volunteer at the conference, so I missed much of what was said. However, one of my jobs was to drive speakers around, and I had an interesting conversation in the car with Phyllis that I think many of you would enjoy. She mentioned to me that it was unfortunate so much of the event was devoted to her making speeches when there were so many thoughtful attendees who had equally important and valid things to say. I encouraged her to consider the way that what she said would spur further conversations. So in that spirit, I think she would be delighted to know that we are all still sharing ideas through conversation in online venues. I believe she would agree with those of you who suggest we all need to engage fully in the conversation on emergence with her as equal partners in the work ahead and not rely too much on the ideas of individuals on platforms with microphones.

    Along with so many of you, I invite a shift toward more communal ways of parenting and organizing family life. I missed Phyllis’ last session entirely because I needed to fly home early. The strain of my absence while volunteering at the conference was taking a terrible toll on my husband and two children. I did not fly home early because of my gender or anyone’s ideas about how I should behave as a women. I flew home early out of love for my dear children and husband who were struggling without me. Had they relied more on our broader community while I was gone, I imagine they would have done much better in my absence. Unfortunately, my husband had to leave for a work trip the day after I returned home. Guess what? My children and I are struggling without him and cannot wait for him to get home tonight. Again, had I reached out to friends and family the past few days to help us, we would be in much better shape. In fact, I think some in our community would be sad to know we are struggling so much and did not ask for help. I am sure I was not the only parent who wept this morning because I was impatient and less than kind to my children in the rush to get them off to school this morning. I need help raising my dear son and daughter. Sometimes the best I can do is get them on the school bus in the morning with a quick kiss as they carry their shoes, because we didn’t have enough time to put them on. I believe it would be irresponsible of me to think that as one faulty human-being, I alone can teach my children about goodness, love, and all the wonderful things of God.

    Soon my children will get off the bus. I’ve cut up some mangoes and steeped some tea to share while we have a conversation about how to have a better morning tomorrow, not because of my gender or a sense that I alone can do these things, but because I love them; and I think tea and mangoes help good conversation. I will apologize to them for being too harsh this morning and ask their forgiveness. I learned the importance of saying sorry from my father, a loving, generous, and imperfect man who taught me the importance of admitting your mistakes.

    I am so thankful to live and love amongst an emergent community of people who partner with me in all aspects of life. I am so thankful that I do not have to make choices based on restrictive ideas on gender, family, and ministry. I am thankful to the internet that allows me to engage in this conversation further even though I had to leave the conference early to care for my family. All these things give me hope about our future together.

    Here’s a helpful response from my friend Danielle Shroyer that addresses the conference, Phyllis, and Julie’s question asking what we have to celebrate. Danielle also has links to others who have responded to the conference.

  21. January 15, 2013

    I wasn’t at the EC conference, but talked with Phyllis quite a bit at the first Wild Goose. As a person, I was impressed with her enthusiasm, willingness to stay engaged, and efforts in embracing something entirely different, and risky. I watched her care for and encourage the young “leaders” at the conference. for all of those things, I valued her presence and voice in that space.

    That doesn’t mean I agree with everything she ever says.

    I have issues with some of the more negative cultural aspects of emergent Christianity in general, and at this point I’m on the very fringes of Christianity altogether. But from the very outside, I believe the best way to show hope in this “awkward moment” would be to extend grace and forgiveness. That doesn’t mean condoning narratives that are harmful, or going along with what are perceived as subtle expressions of patriarchy, or refusing to disagree because we’ve put someone on a pedestal. But it does mean extending a forgiveness that UNDERSTANDS that people come to all kinds of conversations flooded by all kinds of historical and cultural experiences, all varieties of baggage. It would mean practicing a grace that gives the benefit of the doubt to people.

    All people. Always.

    It means practicing a grace and forgiveness, that continues to support the efforts of maintaining a space for ALL to keep having these tough discussions, these needed deconstructions, without fear of having everything else good about ourselves discarded the minute we get things wrong.

    I know I want that kind of grace.

  22. January 16, 2013

    Thanks for speaking up, Julie, and for doing so graciously, eloquently, and with a keen eye for history. I’m afraid I didn’t hear Phyllis’ exact remarks on Saturday, though I have heard her speak on that topic several times before and didn’t hear anything quite so offensive as what she said on Saturday. So I’m glad that there is a good conversation in progress about this stuff, and I’m sure that Phyllis is even gladder than I. I’m sure she’ll chime in when she is feeling better.

    I also wanted to give a +1 to Victoria’s insightful comments, and especially her recommendation that we all read Danielle Shroyer’s thoughts:

  23. January 17, 2013

    Thankful for your voice and wisdom, as always, Julie.

  24. January 18, 2013

    Okay, I didn’t hear this. Of course, I am a middle-class white male (a rather clueless one according to my significant other) with a rocking case of ADD and the way my mind was wandering by the end of it all, it is very possible I missed something. However, I took her remarks about the transmission of the faith to mean that BOTH parents had let this slide. I’m not so sure that women were solely responsible for this in the past, though. I know in my family, my father was just as engaged as my mother in teaching my brother and I. Because of that, I believe I got a much fuller view of faith. Personally, I didn’t hear judgment in what she said, just a relation of history.
    On another note, I’m kind of glad about this discussion. Some of the tweets on the big screen bordered on hero worship and that was a little disturbing. Hearing people acknowledge she has feet of clay is very refreshing.

  25. Debbie permalink
    January 19, 2013

    One thing stands above all else from the post and the comments…. the level of respect demonstrated here. We honor God and one another when we can disagree respectfully. Well done!

  26. January 19, 2013

    Didn’t attend the conference, though I’m acquainted with some of Tickle’s work. If your review of her closing lecture is accurate, I’m saddened. You’re absolutely right. The “golden age” never existed, and what efforts were made at it were mostly destructive of women, and men, too. Ah well … nostalgia is a powerful drug.

  27. January 20, 2013

    From my view outside the box, “Emergence” is starting to look like that which it has so far said it doesn’t look like. The only difference: “Emergence” is left-handed.

    • Bondservant8 permalink
      January 20, 2013

      but it really isn’t. It is a mixture with conservative calvinism dressed up in left-handed garb.

  28. Bondservant8 permalink
    January 20, 2013

    given her message, why is Phyllis Tickle speaking in public?! This is the consistency twisted hypocritical of the conservative calvinists within the emergence movement. I have seen women preach this unBiblical garage while attending seminary.

    Watch out! The emergence movment captures your heart with so-called liberalism, but here is their real message. Open your eyes…things are not as they appear to be.

    • Bondservant8 permalink
      January 20, 2013

      I apologize for my rapid typing. The above should read:

      ‘consistent twisted hypocrisy’ of…

      ‘unBiblical garbage’…

      I should have waited longer after my nap to type this message. :-)

  29. January 21, 2013

    Thank you. As a feminist I appreciate your perspective. I am very hopeful about the church of the future freed up from the structures of the past. I also understand the conflicting values that we are trying to support… How does one pass on the faith?

  30. Kevin S. permalink
    January 21, 2013

    So, basically, you did not expect to hear anything you disagreed with at this particular conference, and heard something you disagreed with.

    Oh, the humanity. You might, as a woman, have to do the hard work of reconciling that with which you disagree with what you know of a person.

    By golly, you might have to employ that critical thinking the academics go on and on about.


  31. christine permalink
    March 11, 2013

    I don’t know Phyllis or Julie or any of the specifics of “emerging” church, but I stumbled across this site and found the conversation certainly apropos and stimulatiing. As one blogger stated, it IS time to take our church back. WE are the church, not the celebrity/author speakers, not the paid pastors/priests. Jesus did away with the heirarchy. And in Ecclesiastes 7:10 we are told it is foolish to talk about the “good old days”. Each one of us is responsible for learning God’s will, not relying on regurgitations of “leaders”, and each of us is responsible for passing it on to our children-no matter if we have nuclear or village style families. I know we like to look at the “freedom” and “advancements” for women, but I think what we have is just another form of the old saw, and women are still getting the short end of the stick, but in such a clever and devious way we remain clueless and confused. Oh, we can work “outside the home” (what a lame euphemism), we can control our reproductive destiny (at what cost to our bodies and health?), we can lead devotionals and teach in churches (and has the church become stronger for it?). In the final analysis, women still get blamed for the ills of the family, of men, of the world. Women’s “emergence” has amounted to not much more than more responsibility, harder work and more blame than ever. And to blame the so-called women’s movement for sidelining men is absolutely preposterous. Men allowed the women’s movement because it gave them the advantage of less responsibility, easy access to consequence-free sex, and a pass on raising their own kids, and unfortunately women bought the lie and are now too ashamed to admit what really happened. Read the Bible, folks, and stop wasting time on celebrities and authors and “leaders”. The Bible says women will be saved by raising their children, and no, that DOESNT mean a woman has to have children to be saved, it means women weren’t meant to carry the social, work, home, AND spiritual load like they do now, while getting blamed for whatever is wrong while we’re supposed to also be feeling sorry for the poor men. It meant just to raise your children was a thing to be honored and respected. And being without children or single is fine, too, as long as you’re putting God first, not trying to please everyone around you. Men have decided their own fates, in the church, too, and what they’ve decided is that letting women be “emerged” has turned out to be a pretty cushy deal. But I guess reading the Bible is considered passe now-we’ve figured out such a better way to make everything work without it.

  32. Ken Duncan permalink
    March 21, 2013

    Hi Julie,

    I realize that this far out from when you published this blog post that there’s a good chance that neither you nor anyone will see it, but I still want to respond. I did not attend this conference and have not heard Phyllis Tickle speak nor read her works. So I am not going to speak to those. I came to your blog through a link from another site that watches the connections of Christian faith and culture. So this might seem out of context but here goes.

    While is may well be that the presentation you heard was problematic in idealizing one form of family, it seems to me that your alternative view shares the same difficulties. For example, back in the Greco-Roman world, in Rome, which is hardly a village, many people lived in very crowded conditions in what might be called apartments but were really tenement housing. There was not a village mentality. It was not in fact healthy to walk the streets in this part of Rome. Streets had open-pit sewer systems and one always ran the risk of being “baptized” when someone three stories up emptied a chamber pot. How extended the families were who lived in such housing is uncertain. What is certain is that in Greco-Roman culture generally, households of whatever size were ruled by the Pater Familias, who decided whether and who others in the household married, who would often then move out to have their own home, whatever that looked like for them. Moreover, the Pater Familias was not the one who educated children but he was the person who decided the fate of any baby born to a woman in the household. He could decide to accept the baby into the family or reject it. In the latter case, the baby would often be tossed on to the city dump to die of exposure or from wild dogs.

    In villages, to some extent the picture you pain would be true, but it is worth noting that a mother would not leave her baby who was still nursing in the care of another family member while she went off to/down to the family shop. You can see these sorts of things preserved in Pompeii, where a house was narrow and two stories. The upper story was for living quarters while the bottom story was for carrying on a business, such as the tavern found there. Moreover, in rural communities, men would either work at their trade or focus on farming, while women did in fact take care of the household. Given that bread was a staple part of the diets of most people, and that you had to make your own flour, make your own clothes, do your own laundry, etc., women would have been pretty busy in domestic activities. Whether or not any of the situations that one might find are good or bad is another question, but painting life before the Reformation or before the Industrial Revolution as rosy is just as inaccurate and painting the modern nuclear family as the epitome of how families should be organized.

    A second point I want to consider is the use by you and others here of the word “authentic.” I’m not sure what precisely this connotes in Emergent circles, but it seems to suggest that all Christian activities before the current moment were inauthentic, which generally means fakery. So all evangelism or testifying or preaching or church services before the Emergent Movement were built around faking it, either in what people really thought or in ow people related to each other? Not only is the implication of syaing that we want to be authentic offensive because of its implication that all those who came before were faking, but it sounds somewhat arrogant to claim that we now are enlightened enough to be authentic while others before weren’t.

    I was also very interested in your focus on the “new.” This likewise suggests that all in the past was bad. This is not a Christian value but it is certainly a core value of U.S. culture. I need an iPad 4 because it’s newer than an iPad 3. It doesn’t do anything new that I really need but it’s newer. Our whole culture is shaped by that value. I am not Emergent. My forays into places Emergent folk hang out, like Emergent Village, and reading works such as those of Brian MacLaren, suggest to me that “new” in this context simply means the rejection of anything, indeed all things, that came before. So we want a comfortable, loving Jesus but not Paul. He’s too harsh. We want a Jesus who will be our good buddy, but all that doctrinal stuff of the early church should be rejected out of hand because it’s not new or it’s part of Christendom. I teach New Testament as an adjunct and had multiple students say that doctrine per se is bad. Instead, you just need to “get to know this Jesus guy” (a direct quote of a student). It is somewhat problematic to not realize that any stance you take on Jesus is a doctrinal one, whether it is that He is the cosmic Lord of all and we need to follow him or a really nice guy you can get to know who would never say a harsh word to anyone regardless of their lifestyle. Whether it’s MacLaren’s seeming lack of need to believe anything in particular (and therefore allowing for anyone to believe anything) or the post I read at the Emergent Village site in which one person proposed rewriting the book of Hosea to frame God as the prostitute. That’s “new” alright, but hardly good because it is new.


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