253: Conversation with Phyllis Tickle about living with “The Great Emergence”

ometimes Phyllis Tickle sounds like an academic, which she has been at various points in her career. Sometimes she speaks in her smooth-as-silk journalist’s voice.
   And sometimes, she’s as plain as the dirt at her Tennessee farm.
   ”Big changes are upon us in the world of religion,” she told me as we talked about her new book, “The Great Emergence.” Then she said, “What people need to understand is that it doesn’t matter whether you like it or whether Phyllis Tickle likes it. Trying to stop this is like trying to stop the sun coming up in the morning. Whether you like the sun or not—that sucker’s coming up into the sky!”

   Phyllis was a staff writer at Publishers Weekly magazine and chronicled the explosive growth of religious media through the 1990s. With her background in history and theology as well, she was uniquely poised to discern the larger cultural earthquake beneath the religious rumblings in publishing. For years, she has been outlining what she thinks is unfolding in the realm of faith—in articles, in lecture series and in portions of earlier books.
   Now, Baker Books has commissioned her to produce what Phyllis calls simply, “a clean and mean summary of what I’ve been saying in a concise length that doesn’t burden or overwhelm anyone.”
   What she’s “saying” is that the revolutionary changes in our world—the spread of digital media, the globalization of culture, the flattening of our sense of authority and the emergence of new superpowers especially in Asia—are all parts of the global earthquake transforming spiritual communities.
   Or to put it in Phyllis’ “clean and mean” words: “No one is privileged anymore.” Cultural change is affecting all of us.

(Click on any of the book covers you see with today’s story to jump to our ReadTheSpirit Recommended Bookstore to learn more about the books you see here.)

   Phyllis is a Christian scholar and writer and practicing Anglican—so her new book primarily is focused on Christianity, even though she argues that these rumblings are larger than Christianity and extend to the world’s other great faiths in this inescapable era of change.
   For her own faith community, Christianity, she calls this painful good news.
   She writes, “Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread—and been spread—dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress.”
   If you care to read more about Phyllis after today’s conversation, check out our additional links at the end of this interview. With that introduction …

Here are highlights of our Conversation with Phyllis Tickle:

   DAVID: Let’s start with the changes we’re seeing in religious media. In your book, you touch upon the explosion of religious publishing in the early 1990s. You write, “By 1992, religion as a category of publishing was approaching triple-digit annual growth … and something had to be done by the larger industry to accommodate such massive change.”
    But now we’re seeing another transformation in print media—all forms of print media. Many bookstores are failing. Most newspapers got out of the business of reviewing books some time ago and many more are getting out of the business of covering religion now, as well.
   How are changes in religion related to changes in media?
   PHYLLIS: That’s a very astute question. I’m sure you know that Publishers Weekly shut down its religion department and went back to doing that coverage freelance about six weeks ago. You and your colleagues were prescient, Mr. Crumm, when you established this ReadTheSpirit. I’m talking to religion reporters every week who are asking me: Now where do I go for a job?
   There was one year—2005 I think it was—when religion sales did not exceed the previous year’s sales, but religion is still in a growth mode.
   What’s happening for publishers is pretty painful, though. They are going through a major period of maturation right now where they’re trying to figure out what should remain in traditional print form. There are some things that books still do very well. There are other things that books do not do as well as electronic media.
   Remember that the railroads failed because the railroad barons thought they were in the railroad business, when they really were in the people-moving business.

   DAVID: So, you’ve raised a fascinating question yourself. What should remain in print for religious readers?
   PHYLLIS: Well, prayer books I think will always be in print form. Basically, devotional material tends to be something you want to clutch and touch and that feels friendly.
   Research materials in religion will almost always be in book form—especially scholarly ones. But the truth is that pixels and electronic forms are just so much easier to use! Even in research, I use Google and Wikipedia all the time. I don’t know how I would begin to work if I didn’t have that online access and—more than that—I love that kind of Wiki organization of information.
   DAVID: So, over the next couple of years, will we even talk about book publishers anymore as a business?
   PHYLLIS: Publishing has got to reconfigure. We don’t have medieval codices and scriptoria anymore. As surely as the printing press tripped the Reformation, the computer and electronic facilities that are helping to trip this new upheaval are also going to be, if not the death, then a noble closure to book publishing in the traditional forms we know.
   DAVID: And that does affect a whole lot of our colleagues in traditional journalism. Even moving from print journalism to the online world there’s this enormous transformation of the journalist’s traditional approach that you have to go through. One example: Traditional journalism is about secrecy and competition while online media is about transparency, connection, cooperation. Traditional journalism thinks in small areas—home turf, local news—and while those remain very important, the Internet is a new age of globalization in thinking.
   PHYLLIS: Right. Think about it like this: How in the world would you pay a newspaper religion reporter to cover the Internet? He or she could cover a number of blogs everyday or X-number of established sites, but even so—the Internet is such a mass of information that it’s an impossible task.
   If you’re going to cover religion now, I think you’re going to do it in formats like the Faithful Reader or Tall Skinny Kiwi or, of course, ReadTheSpirit. That’s exactly why you’re in existence. You’re a place where people go for information and for reviews and for the connections they need to follow what’s happening.
   The old publishers used to depend on word of mouth to sell books. You’re the new word of mouth. Now, I can honestly say that you’re going to be hard put to find things to do with books that you can’t do better electronically—and this is why newspapers in general are in such trouble.

   DAVID: I know you use a Kindle, the new hand-held, book-sized electronic reader from Amazon. There’s a lot of debate about whether the Kindle is the “next thing.” Your take on that?
   PHYLLIS: It does amuse me that the Kindle tries more and more to look like a book and feel like one. But the truth is you can do more with these new forms than you can with the book form. We’ll see other electronic forms emerging.
   Right now, for example, I don’t see mystery novels going electronic anytime soon. They’re going to remain in print for now, for the most part. That may change.
   Also, the electronic forms themselves are going through their own great emergence. The Kindle is not the final step. Real readers want to make notations and the Kindle doesn’t make that easy enough.
   DAVID: Or we want to turn down corners of pages or highlight a favorite passage some way—make a mark on the page, add a note. The Kindles does allow electronic notations to be made, but not as easily as with a real book.
   PHYLLIS: And I hate, to this day, the electronic manuals we now get to things. I want to write on those pages and when the manual’s electronic, I can’t. And the Kindle notations? I trip over that on the Kindle. Too complicated.
   DAVID: As much as they’ve tried to give people options to add notes on the Kindle—yes, you’re right. It’s an awkward system, the keyboard’s a problem to use and the notes file is cumbersome to work with.
   PHYLLIS: I don’t even use the notation system anymore on the Kindle—and I’m a person who edits and writes all the time on a computer screen. The Kindle’s notation system is just very awkward. That’s one reason that books are going to continue to be used in study groups.
   DAVID: You can mark up a book so easily.
   PHYLLIS: Right. And there’s something about having that object you’ve read—an actual book—in front of you for a group discussion that is still very helpful. With a study book, you’ve still got more ability to flip back and forth so easily in the actual book you’ve marked up. I think that for classes and group discussions and quasi-curricular material, books will remain for a good while—and those kinds of books represent such a big part of what supports overall religion sales.

   DAVID: Let me share with our readers a few more lines from your book, because what we’re talking about here isn’t entirely separate from your new book. In this “great emergence,” you’re talking about something far bigger than people reacting against organized religion. If people understand this idea of religious emergence in that way, then they’re going to react defensively and they’re going to miss your central point.
   Your core theme is very much like the way we describe spirituality here at ReadTheSpirit. We say there are three universal spiritual questions today: Why should I climb out of bed in the morning? How do I make it through another stressful day? And, at the end of the day, did anything I do really matter?
   In August, we had a conversation with Dr. David Myers who voiced these same three questions in the words that Tolstoy used to describe them, so prophetically. Really, these are timeless questions when you ponder them. And, in your work, you’re talking about these same basic issues.
   What you’re saying, Phyllis, is that this great emergence is a response not so much to organized religion—but to the era of cultural change in which we’re living. You’re talking about the overwhelming nature of the world in this new millennium with its tidal wave of digital information and the sense that our competitive consumption of the planet is out of control.
   I’m talking about a passage like this from your book: “When we become agitated—and agitate each other—about how we are drowning in information overload, in correspondence, and in the stress of unending To-Do lists, we are talking about the Great Emergence, or at least about one small part of its presence as a new time in human history. … We grow ever more alarmed that the so-called footprint of human presence in our tech-driven world is killing the earth, yet we feel powerless to stop her demise.

   PHYLLIS: That’s it. Yes, we do feel absolutely powerless to stop the abuse of the earth and even to slow down our ridiculous rate of consumption. We are possessed by our possessions and the pace of our culture. One of the things that’s becoming clearer everyday to me about this great emergence is that—if you could somehow quantify what’s happening—I think we’re seeing about a fourth of the emergent community dabbling in something that’s like a new monasticism or neo-monasticism. It may take the form of covenanted communities. It may look like: I’m joining this church or this group and we will covenant that we will not spend more than thus-and-so for ourselves. We will commit to each other that we’ll figure out how to live on a limited amount of money for the sake of our souls.
   DAVID: It’s like the flowering of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement to deal with a new era of addiction to consumption and abuse of he world.
   PHYLLIS: It is almost like AA—assuming a group enforcement to help us control our addiction to consumption. You know, some in these new emergent communities are saying that Jesus really meant what he said about caring for the poor and living from a common purse. And part of this is the strong movement toward being green, but it’s not just that. Its larger.
   DAVID: And it’s larger than Christianity, too. I think it’s important to keep stressing that. When I read your passages here about the fuel within this emergence, you say that the fuel really centers on the individual’s discomfort, anxiety—even anger—at a world that’s out of control, that’s overwhelming us. Then, you couple that with the assumption these days that each of us has the right to speak out. We’re each an authority now. Everyone is. On this level, we’re talking about the basic forces that are reshaping Islam, Judaism and even Hinduism and certainly Buddhism around the world, right?
   PHYLLIS: Bless your heart! Yes, that’s it. This is big! We’re not talking about just Christianity. We’re not just talking about religion. When I talk to audiences about this and they’re having trouble getting it, I can say to audiences: “If you go read Fareed Zakaria’s new book about the post-American world you’ll find that he talks about economics as a kind of great emergence.”
   When I start talking about that, people tell me: “Oh, you mean it’s not all about religion!”
   And I say: “Yes, it’s about the world itself changing. And it’s not all about Christianity. And it’s not all about religion.”

   DAVID: For a lot of Americans trying to figure out what to do next in their congregations, the problem is that we’re still thinking about all of this in terms of the church-growth movement of the 1970s—that the basic problem we face is how to market our congregations—how to sell the latest model in the Ford showroom. Really, the challenge is much bigger than that.
   And, here’s what I think is so important to say—and you say this in your new book as well: If we see the challenge clearly, then it’s a challenge that we as people of faith are uniquely empowered to meet. I keep telling people: “Yes, these are stormy seas. But we’re the people who know how to swim in stormy seas.” Still, helping people to realize that the core problem isn’t marketing their congregations like the latest Ford on the lot—that’s a big shift in thinking.
   PHYLLIS: It is. It is. And I’ll tell you one of the things that really bugs me. It’s a real sore point for me and it’s when people say to me: “Oh, what’s going on is really just a young people’s phenomenon and they’ll get over it and it’ll just go away.” Oh! Oh!
   And you know who talks like that? It’s middle-aged audiences who want me to reassure them that all this change will just go away once the young people settle down. That drives me crazy. We’re talking here about changes that cross all fields of socio-economics, world cultures. And, you know, in this country it’s that middle-aged group that’s the biggest challenge, I think. Because I’m in my 70s and I’ll tell you there are a lot of older Americans my age who, you know, started to do Email to keep up with the family and they’re now thinking that this new digital age isn’t half bad. And they’re using the Internet. They’re reading about the world online.
   The young people have got it—it’s how they live. And I think a lot of older people are getting it, too. But there’s this big block in the middle.
   And, OK, here’s another thing: The pollster Barna is now saying that by 2010 there will be well over 20 million Americans—and he’s talking about people in this country alone—who will be worshiping routinely and only in Cyberspace. They will never even enter bricks-and-mortar houses of worship. That’s an astonishing thing to get your head wrapped around.
   When we talk about narrative theology—
   DAVID: You’re talking about the stories we need to live by—going back to the three spiritual questions that really get us through each day—and the sacred narratives we need to hear to inspire us —
   PHYLLIS: Yes. Well it’s obviously heading in that direction for millions of people. And that challenges us in the Judeo-Christian tradition to think about what story we’ve got between that set of covers we call a Bible. We’re talking about a much different religious animal than we’re used to seeing. For one thing, our approach to religion I think becomes more heavily rabbinic. We’re teaching. And we’re sharing the narrative. And there’s mysticism that will run through it, too.

   DAVID: And more than even a specific, focused challenge to traditional hierarchies—the real danger to avoid here is irrelevance. People feel empowered to move where they will, learn where they will, read what they will, follow what spiritual advice makes sense. You’re really talking about a revolution in which no one actually storms the towers of power—they just move off around them. In a way, it’s very much like the birth of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement that you write about in your book as so important in the very early roots of this transformation.
   PHYLLIS: If you are in an established hierarchical church, this really is a huge clash of systems. Hierarchy inherently desires validation. Hierarchy tries to build experts and leaders around which cults of personality can be built. And what this great emergence does is—it just cuts that whole system off at the foundations and the whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards.
   It brings down everything into this new Wiki-world of authority we’re building. You can call it Wiki or you can call it crowdsourcing or you can call it—you can call it whatever you want. But the reality is that Mr. Q—our typical parishioner, Mr. Q. He’s functioning six and a half days a week in this new world that’s full of information everywhere he turns, information vetted and given authority in all these new ways—and, then, you really expect him for half a day each week to step inside a church with this traditionalist idea about authority? This will become less and less a source of pleasure for him. Mr. Q will wind up becoming less and less sure of the—of the sureness of this church he visits for such a small part of his week.
   Now, the traditionalists will try to dig in and declare that it’s going to be their way forever and ever. There are some people moving in that direction of digging in. And I am sympathetic to this problem. For the dominant religion—and in the United States, that Christianity—this is terribly confusing.
   I think the most important thing to realize is that we’re not just talking about religion. We’re talking about changes across the board and around the world. The world is flat now. That makes a huge difference! The world is non-hierarchical now.
   Information is the new coin in this new world. When people try to tell me this is just a phase religion is going through—I tell them: That’s intellectual laziness, my friend! That’s ignoring all these other things that are happening all around us.
   I mean, look anywhere! Do you realize what’s happening in nanotechnology today? A cyborg is not that far away. Artificial intelligence already is all around us. We’re moving into a time where there’s even a growing lack of clarity on what it means to be human. We’re talking about everything being up for grabs—our moral code, our penal system, our sociology, our educational system, our authority, our economic system.
   DAVID: Big changes. And I appreciate your work, out there, talking and writing about these changes, because we’re certainly trying to chronicle them, too, here at ReadTheSpirit. That’s why, on our founding day in late 2007, we began by echoing what happened 500 years ago and “nailed” our own new theses on an Internet portal.
   PHYLLIS: Big changes are upon us in the world of religion. What people need to understand is that it doesn’t matter whether you
like it or whether Phyllis Tickle likes it. Trying to stop this is like
trying to stop the sun coming up in the morning. Whether you like the
sun or not—that sucker’s coming up into the sky!

HERE ENDS our Conversation With Phylllis Tickle.


  • Want to read her new book “The Great Emergence”?
    The book will be widely available by October 12, but it already is available online. We published this interview before the official early October “publication date” because thousands of small groups already are making their plans for autumn and even for the early months of 2009. This book is a good choice for either a one-month or two-month series of classes.
  • Want to share this interview with a friend or bookmark it for future reading with your small group? Just click on the headline at the top of today’s story and save the resulting URL. It’s a Permanent Link to this page. Or, if you’re Web-savvy, we have online sharing tools at the top of each page.
  • Read an Earlier Conversation With Phyllis: She’s been a guest in our online magazine before, because her role is so important in this era of change in spiritual media. The earlier conversation focused on Phyllis’ book, “The Words of Jesus.”
  • Find out more about Fareed Zakaria’s book: We also recommend the book that Phyllis mentioned in today’s interview.
  • Visit Phyllis’ own Web site: She’s got information about her earlier books, her travel schedule and more.

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