Glimpsing This “Ancient” Revival with Writer and Architect Phyllis Tickle

“Christianity must be a way of living life as much as it is a belief.”

Phyllis Tickle, writer and architect of the new “Ancient Practices” project

After decades as a leading journalist, reporting on the movement of faith in people’s lives in many books as well as in the pages of Publishers Weekly magazine, Phyllis Tickle has glimpsed a dramatic transformation within Christianity. Quite simply, she sees millions of Christians—Protestants as well as many Catholics—so discouraged by what passes for religion in the churches they have inherited that they eagerly are reaching for something deeper and more authentic.

Phyllis believes they’re reaching back — way back to the origins of Christianity with Jesus of Nazareth — and back even further than that to the Abrahamic origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. She is the architect of the eight-book series kicked off by Brian McLaren. By the time Phyllis is done, she will have given a new generation of Christian readers a tour de force of ancient practices from fasting to pilgrimage, keeping sabbath to fixed-hour prayer. If you think Brian McLaren was a big-name choice to kick off this landmark series — just wait. Phyllis has best-selling powerhouses like Diana Butler Bass and Joan Chittister waiting in the wings with future volumes in this multi-year project.

In our Conversation With Brian McLaren, we explored the central question this week here at ReadTheSpirit: Must our diversity lead to conflict? Headlines all around us seem to be saying: Yes, conflict is inevitable. But, as people of faith—whatever our religious path may be—we have the courage and spiritual resources to say: No. As Brian said yesterday, faith can be a fearful force—but faith also can be a force for overcoming fear.

Today, we’re taking you to an even higher vantage point on this “ancient practices” project that’s unfolding by talking with Phyllis herself as she reflects on what Christians need to hear at this point in a new millennium.

“Just think about this question for a moment,” Phyllis told me as we talked on the telephone about this. “There was something that made those early Christians overcome their fear and survive all kinds of terrible persecution. Eventually, an empire fell around them. What made it possible in those early centuries for people to hold on? What practices held these people together and gave us the spiritual traditions we have today?”

That’s precisely the question that countless men and women are asking—whether they’re Christian or Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or adherents of other faith traditions. In a rapidly changing world—when our faith really matters—where are the pillars, the solid hand holds that support the roof and lead us safely along our way. That’s what our stories have been asking this week.

Today, we’ve got a special treat, provided by Phyllis and her publisher Thomas Nelson. They’re allowing us to share a portion of Phyllis Foreword to this new series of books. To learn more, click on the cover of the first volume and you’ll jump to our review — and can buy a book through Amazon, if you wish.
From her Foreword, addressing the Christian readers who are the main audience for this new series, Phyllis says this (in part):


Most of us know, either by instinct or by deliberate investigation, that Christianity is going through a time of enormous upheaval. When last our faith went through such a dramatic and total reconfiguration, we gave our reshuffling the portentous name of the Great Reformation. Now the church is changing again, working and chafing under the heat of severe cultural shifts and earthquakes.

One thing is certain, nevertheless: Some of us are sure we don’t like it. Others are more sanguine and assume the whole thing will settle down in God’s good time without requiring any particular engagement on their part. And a few of us look at what is happening as the old denominations falter and nondenominational communities increase and as worship becomes more passionate and communal and incarnational, and are ready to say, “Ah, there’s a new movement of the Spirit among us, a new form of the kingdom, a new understanding of vocation and its totality.”

Young men and women of faith, especially, are crying everywhere, “Give us a faith that costs us something! … Teach us the things that will mark us as children of God! …” Their demands swell out with heat and vision, and what they foretell is that Christianity must be a way of living life as much as it is a system of belief. What they envision are Christians who  belong to each other in common cause, regardless of place and circumstance, a tribe of people marked by how they are and live as a nation peculiar unto God, regardless of where they may exist on this earth.

It is a soul-shaking concept. Yet, it is as old as the Judaism out  of which we come and in terms of which we Christians see ourselves as inheritors of an eternal promise. … The entire church is being forced to prayerfully re-examine the character and practices of our ancient forefathers and foremothers in the faith. We must begin again, as once our forebears did, to live not as culturally safe Christians, but as observant ones, the markings of our faith becoming so inherent in each of us as to be the faith incarnated in us.
We must, in other words, find our way again.

And so ends this excerpt from Phyllis’ foreword, a short and passionate invitation she wrote to the series — a door-step to a pilgrimage that she’s taking with eight other Christian writers over the next few years.

Want more on Brian McLaren?

OTHER BRIAN McLAREN BOOKS and INTERVIEWS are described in our Brian McLaren Small Group Resources page..

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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