"No Nation Is Christian" (and Phyllis Tickle Knows)11/28/2007
“Nobody in his or her right mind would want to be a member of a socially acceptable religion. It's very dangerous for the soul.”
By Becky Garrison
Illustration by Jim Kessler
Phyllis Tickle is to religious publishing what Walter Cronkite is to journalism. And that's the way it is. She was the enormously influential religion editor for Publisher's Weekly for many years and is considered something of a visionary by people like NPR, PBS, The New York Times and such.
She's also a heckuva good author, writing such best-selling books as her "Stories from the Farm in Lucy" series (What the Land Already Knows, Wisdom in the Waiting, and The Graces We Remember), The Shaping of a Life, The Sharing of a Life and her current series on meditations and reflection.
Obviously, this is one smart cookie. In an attempt to get some of Phyllis' wit and wisdom sent our way, we asked for a few minutes in her busy schedule. We think you'll be tickled pink with Phyllis' straight-forward, insightful answers on some very perplexing questions.
WITTENBURG DOOR: When you take the spiritual temperature of the United States, what kind of readings are you getting?
PHYLLIS TICKLE: I don't think you can do that. I'm a great admirer of the Barna Group. There's great integrity and candor in their work. They're starting to make comments like, "I'm not sure you can quantify some of this," or "You can't really tell the number of house churches." I think also that there's in Middle America a sort of moving toward the covert in mainstream Christianity. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, talks about how genuine or authentic Christianity may be having to hunker down under the landscape and hide until things start to cool off and then burst out like Solidarity did in Poland. I find many, many devout and previously vocal leaders in their fifties, who are just not inclined to go forth and talk about their faith, though they witness quietly. They don't want to become fodder for a candidate's spiel.
DOOR: How then do you respond to those who claim we're a "Christian nation"?
TICKLE: We're a Judeo-Christianized nation. The ethical and some of the ethnic values of those traditions inform who we are. But no nation is "Christian." "Christian nation" is such an offensive term that I can hardly speak it, even. One of the biggest blows to Christianity's vitality and legitimacy occurred on the day that Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire. Nobody in his or her right mind would want to be a member of a socially acceptable religion. It's very dangerous for the soul. A nation is in the business of doing Caesar's work, not God's. There's a distinction we get from the New Testament between religion and politics. That's not to say, however, that one shouldn't vote according to one's personal beliefs. All of us do that. But it is to say that one should never expect the state to function in accord with passionate faith. It won't. It can't. It shouldn't. That would be a confusion of roles.
DOOR: Why did you reissue A Stitch and a Prayer in Time as a memoir in light of the War in Iraq?
TICKLE: Paraclete Press wanted to reissue the book after 9/11 on Veteran's Day to memorialize the traditional values that had been a part of WWII. Clearly, there was great innocence at that time about how awful the war in Iraq would turn out to be and how fragile, thin or even non-existent the justification for this war really was. The whole business of this book, which was originally published as My Father's Prayer, did celebrate those values that we have managed to damage so considerably.
DOOR: So you don't buy into this whole "just war" theory?
TICKLE: I've always thought that argument was a bit of a crock. Yet, if there's going to be war, where does the individual who has to pick up a gun and do the fighting fit in? How does he—or now she—integrate his conscription with his private faith? He does that by finding a connection between his private beliefs and his public conduct. That's what this book celebrates. Of all the books I've written, this book is the most dear to me.
DOOR: How do you respond to the conventional wisdom that the mainline churches are dying?
TICKLE: They are and they aren't. As Bishop Mark Dwyer has noted, about every 500 years, the Church feels compelled to have a giant rummage sale. During the last Reformation 500 years ago, Protestantism took over hegemony. But Roman Catholicism did not die. It just had to drop back and reconfigure. Each time a rummage sale has happened, whatever was in place simply gets cracked into smaller pieces, and then it picks itself up and reconfigures. I think Diana Butler Bass is absolutely right-on when she says that Progressive Christianity is that part of the established institutions presently in place that's going to remain in the center, or circle around, the emerging church.
In the mainline, Protestantism is losing some of its denominational lines. The Anglicans and the Lutherans are clearly in concord, for they are already swapping pulpits and acknowledging the authenticity of each other's ordination process. In all probability, the Methodists will soon be engaged in some of this. While we're post-denominational, we're not post-Protestant.
DOOR: What can be done to "save" the Episcopal Church?
TICKLE: When I'm talking to Episcopal audiences, I like to say, "If we're in the business of trying to save the Episcopal Church in the United States, shame on us. Come Judgment Day, we should be found wanting." We're in the business of serving the kingdom of God. (But) funding, housing, and enabling an emergent church? Certainly, if by doing so, people are led into a spiritual relationship and eventually to conversion.
DOOR: What lead you to write The Great Emergence (Fall 2008)?
TICKLE: Clearly there's a new sensibility. Nobody made "emergent." In fact, if you listen to Brian McLaren, about the last thing he wants to be credited with is inventing "emergent." He didn't. This is not crypto-evangelicalism we are looking at. But the sensibilities that have formed it clearly, I think, can be dated back to the Committee on Biblical Fundamentals and the years from 1910 to 1915, or even farther back to the last decades of the nineteenth century when those first "fundamentalists" were meeting in Niagara Falls. There was strong recognition on their part that something was afoot that they were going to oppose with all the energy and force they could muster.
At about the same time, we get that importation of what the Pew Foundation is now calling the renewalists—the Pentecostals and Charismatics—whose spiritual and religious authority was experiential. As a result of these and several other factors, we had an aggressive evangelicalism in the mid-century and then, over the last thirty years, its politicalization.
Evangelicalism has lost much of its credibility and much of its spiritual energy of late, in much the same way that mainline Protestantism has. There's going to be—is, in fact—a whole upheaval; and then the landscape is going to settle back down again as it always does. We have to remember that it's not as if Protestantism came forth in one perfect or cohesive package out of Luther. Almost from the beginning, it had variants like the Confessing and Reformed movements that followed along quickly.
There is no question that part of this emergent swirl consists of those evangelicals, who are looking for liturgy and a connectedness to Church history, but who are not finding those things in their denominational churches of origin. A lot of the honest-to-God, emerging churches are using the Book of Common Prayer. They are also more open, perhaps, to charismatic experiences than some of their forbearers were, and they are deeply involved in incarnational theology. None of those things has typically been the evangelical pattern. I'm very conscious, as well, of groups like Shared Table and Common Purse, who are returning to Fixed Hour prayer, because I see the sales figures and receive the letters generated by The Divine Hours, which is only one among many manuals currently available for observing the hours.
DOOR: Is that how The Divine Hours came about?
TICKLE: Around the time that I took on that work, other fixed hour prayer books were also being prepared for press. But I never would have thought of doing such a thing had Eric Major at Doubleday not come along and said it was time to do a book like The Divine Hours. At the time, his imperatives were very direct: No Latin; It had to be on the hour or half hour prayer, but it could be rigidly 9 o'clock, 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock (The important thing was and is that one enters the office at the same time as other Christians in one's time zone), no ribbons, no appearance of religiosity in the manual itself, and no appearance of looking anything like a breviary in external format.
What a joy it was to put some of the psalms and poetry I had been using in various other manuals into a different cycle! It became as near as to poetry as I shall ever have in my career.
DOOR: Who do you see as the average reader for The Divine Hours?
TICKLE: First of all, in a prayer book, what one has is not so much readers as users or fellow-worshippers. That aside, it is true that all writers get letters, but never have I gotten the kind of response as I have from The Divine Hours. I spend a few hours each day answering my letters and e-mails, and it's a wondrous burden. So far, I've only gotten about ten letters that said I'm as crazy as hell and doing the work of the devil.
DOOR: Heck, we get at least ten a day.
TICKLE: Other than that unfortunate and hopefully fringe element, my mail runs about two to one, men over women, which surprises me as it's usually the other way around in religion books. The really fascinating thing to me, though, is that four out of five of those who write me about The Divine Hours have not been reared liturgical. They are people who, nowhere in their religious bloodline, have had any exposure to this.
DOOR: You now have The Divine Hours for Children.
TICKLE: Dutton came to my agent, and it was a brilliant idea. Their idea was that, as more adults are coming to fixed hour prayer, they need something to give their children. You just can't give a baby a breviary to teethe on. They're too expensive and too big. The challenge, then, was can you create something that would appeal to the three Abrahamic faiths—all of them keep fixed hour prayer—for this rising generation of parents, who want to get their preschool children to become used to the rhythm of fixed hour prayer? It had to be gender inclusive, Psalm-based. It had to rhyme and also be age-appropriate. You couldn't assume the nuclear family, which is no longer the norm, etc., etc. By the time I got through juggling all of that, I felt as if I were playing three level chess, almost. I can safely say that I have never spent more time working on what looks like it should be a simple thing than I did on this one.
DOOR: What's your reaction when you see what passes for much of children's Christian literature?
TICKLE: I hate schlock in all its forms, but I hate it the most when it threatens the young who are still being religiously formed. Missionally, much of the children's material, especially in the evangelical tradition, is just not authentic. Much of it is patronizing and offensive to me as a Christian mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. I am so sick of Daniel in the lions' den and Noah floating on that doggone ark. I keep begging publishers to put together a collection of Bible Stories Your Mother Never Told You.
DOOR: Hey! That's a book we'd buy.
TICKLE: But every time I start telling them what those stories are, they all back off and go, "too hot to handle." I think that's an insult to kids. I know my grandchildren and great-grandchildren see things in everyday life that is much rawer and visceral than what is in the Old Testament. Actually, when the graphic novel format began to surface again, I had hoped that maybe we could solve the problem of using graphics for some of the plot line that seem too realistic, but all we got was the Book of Mark by Church Publishing.
DOOR: How did The Words of Jesus—A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord with Reflections by Phyllis Tickle (Spring 2008) come into being?
TICKLE: Jossey-Bass came to me with the idea. Basically, they asked what, if all of the canonical Gospels were merged, would we discover about the Jesus of the Gospels? We all know that the historical Jesus is, to some extent, a construct of scholarship. But nobody really knows what He actually said and what He didn't say. All we can do is guess. So what does the Gospel Jesus look like when we get rid of all the duplicates and triplicates, and we lay Him out historically and chronologically as best we can? Well, most obviously, the first thing you have is a sayings Gospel that only contains the sayings of Jesus with the exception of a little introductory phrase, such as "Jesus speaking to the disciples, said." What you also get is starkness, and yet a maturing as He begins to more and more understand what it is He's come to do.
DOOR: How is this book different from the hordes of parallel Gospels and narrative Bibles currently on the market?
TICKLE: I stand, certainly, on the shoulders of some of their work, but merging is a different task from paralleling. The whole exercise was a great intellectual puzzle and, in some ways, fun to do as well. For one thing, I discovered that my poor Greek, which was never very athletic, is now downright arthritic.
But in this book, I'm making the case that the historical Jesus and the actual Jesus have to be blended together in some kind of recognition that the Gospel of Jesus is the one we've got. We have to come to a point of respecting the tradition of 2,000 years of Christianity that have proceeded from the Received Jesus.
DOOR: Who do you see as your intended reader?
TICKLE: This book needed to happen, I suspect, regardless of who actually was to take on the work of writing it. The first shot out of the barrel seldom scores, of course. It's usually the third or fourth book on a subject that hits the target. So be it. At least the conversation has begun.
Hugh Hefner did a great deal for American culture when, in the mid-20th century, he opened up issues of sexuality and did all kinds iconoclastic things.
DOOR: Playboy? Now you're getting into Joe Bob Briggs territory.
TICKLE: I think we'd be fools not to be aware of his contributions. But by the same token, we have hardly been responsible in our use of the gifts given. We took much of the release from misconceptions and errors that we were given and used it to become libertines, not understanding that a better use of Hefner's iconoclasticism, unholy as it was in places, would have been a very studied approach not only to sexuality itself but also to what had been that was wrong in the first place and had made it possible for him to thrive.
DOOR: Speaking of getting things wrong, why do you think Dawkins and Harris are still on the best-seller's lists?
TICKLE: They're so shrill they are almost hysterical. If I were still at Publishers Weekly, I would feel the urge to go into some bookstores and try to find out who is buying these books. I did that, for instance, with the Left Behind books, and found that a lot of people reading those books just like to read a good mystery. They like Stephen King, for instance. This was a real window for me on why the Left Behind books were selling so well outside of their obvious market. I suspect the same thing may be operative among those who are buying these books. They are not necessarily atheists. Rather, they're just curious as to what all the fuss is about.
DOOR: Finally, what's your take on this whole Jesus Seminar debate?
TICKLE: I have a great deal of respect for the work of Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, but they too often function as iconoclasts. What we need to ask ourselves now is what was so wrong with what we were doing that has made this kind of iconoclasticism seem so important to us, so informing, so liberating? How, now, can we use it in a productive way? We can't work with broken pieces that are simply lying about on the ground. We have to pick them up and begin to construct something with them. So I think we have an obligation, and a call to vocation, if you will, to look at Jesus in the Gospels and see what we can find as a result of the very legitimate skepticism which has come into our understanding as a result of the historical Jesus studies. But we also have an obligation not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Yes, we bring our intellectual skills with us, but we must also bring our heart into this debate.