The Tickle Papers

Memphis author Phyllis Tickle looks to the future of Christianity and to the next stage of the next stage of her long career.

Totally blindsided” is how Phyllis Tickle described it. “Disconcerted” and “deeply touched” too when, at a gathering a year ago at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Memphis, Tickle first heard that a book was in the works and that the book was to be what’s called, in academic parlance, a festschrift — German for a collection of writings in honor of a single individual.

That book has now appeared. It’s called Phyllis Tickle — Evangelist of the Future: Reflections on the Impact She’s Had on Publishing, Religion, & the Church in America, published by Paraclete Press and edited by Tickle’s friend, theologian Tony Jones. Jones also supplies the book’s introduction, where he half-jokingly calls Tickle “the queen of freelance theologians” and “an ecclesial gadfly,” but he adds in all seriousness: “She’s done more to teach church history, biblical interpretation, and practical theology than a truckload full of seminary professors.”

Which is no exaggeration. But maybe it would be better, Jones also writes, to call this salute to Tickle a liber amicorum, Latin for “book of friends.” Because that’s what the volume more accurately is: essays by those who have been touched professionally and personally by Tickle’s long list of writings and, just as importantly, by Tickle herself, who can be as disarmingly outspoken as she is unfailingly engaging. She has also, in addition to being a respected writer on theology and church history, been called recalcitrant and incorrigible — a public speaker on sometimes sensitive religious matters who can (despite or is it because of her Southern charm?) “get away with murder.”

Demagoguery on the part of prominent religious leaders and hero-worship on the part of followers? Tickle won’t stand for it. Ecumenism? She’s all for it. And as for building bridges between different religious traditions and practices, where do we begin?

Doug Pagitt in these pages puts it best by putting it simply. Tickle, he writes, “begins with friendship as the default.” And as Jana Riess writes: “Phyllis begins with the notion that relationships come before dogma, before ideology, before who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.’”

Let’s not make more of this, though, than what Phyllis Tickle — a stickler for solid reporting and a champion of lively but informed debate — made of Phyllis Tickle in a recent interview, which included comments not only about writing and writers but about the one being written about: her.

“Writing must never be about the writer,” Tickle says. “It’s always got to be about the ideas — and the writing itself — in the same way that a conduit has got to be about the water it carries and not about the conduit itself. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of empty piping signifying absolutely nothing.

“I’ll admit, though, I was pretty anxious at first about the book,” Tickle continues. “But now that I’ve seen it and as long as we’re talking about ideas, that’s fine. In the collection that Tony’s put together, the ideas are there. Thank God, they’re there.”

Indeed, they are: In the opening essay, Jon Sweeney documents Tickle’s national role as founding religion editor at Publishers Weekly, where she tracked trends and especially the public’s, the publishing industry’s, and book stores’ skyrocketing interest in religious books beginning in the mid-1990s. Brian D. McLaren revisits Tickle’s role in recognizing — and explaining to general readers — what’s called “emergence Christianity.” Memphian Sybil MacBeth remembers Tickle’s critical role as “midwife” to MacBeth’s Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God. And in the book’s afterword, Diana Butler Bass recounts the scene inside the classroom at Rhodes College, where she invited Tickle in 1998 to speak to her students on the role of memoir in contemporary religious books. That’s where, Bass writes, she perhaps saw Tickle’s “vocational wheel” turn “from publishing to prophecy.”

Hence, the title: Phyllis Tickle — Evangelist of the Future. The future of what? The shape of Christianity itself — a topic Tickle addressed in 2008 in The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. She returned to that topic in 2012 in Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. And in January, she published, with co-author Jon Sweeney, her most recent book, The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.

It’s a more de-institutionalized, de-doctrinalized Christianity we’re seeing, Tickle says. It is more concerned with direct intercourse with the Spirit, she adds, and means by that the Holy Spirit. (Sheer coincidence that Paraclete Press borrows its name from the term “paraclete,” which traditionally refers to the Holy Spirit?)

“I like macro history,” Tickle says. “I find it more useful … seeing the broad sweep of things.”

And by broad, Tickle means the past several thousand years, during which time we’ve seen a progressive revelation of God:

“There were the centuries of God the Father — Eden to Calvary — God the Patriarch, the stern Father, the Father who had to be appeased but who could be grasped.

“From Calvary to today, we’ve had 2,000 years of God the Son, God incarnate, God who could be addressed, understood,” she continues.

“But now there is the age of God the Spirit — a growing intimacy, among believers, with the third part of the Trinity, which has, by and large, not been a truth since the Pentecost, a movement toward completion of the Trinity at an everyday level for everyday Christians.”

It is a development that transcends denominations. It borrows from the Pentecostals. It adopts features of the monastic. It crosses barriers of race, age, gender, income, and background. And it’s dedicated to social justice. It is, in short, “a cultural paradigm where spirituality without religion is the primary form of faith expression,” in the words of Ryan K. Bolger in his essay titled “Evangelicals on a Journey to Emergence.”

“No reason to be alarmed” by any of these developments, says Tickle, an Episcopalian. Such shifts and reconfigurations, she added, take place in church history every 500 years or so, the last being the Protestant Reformation.

And no need to be alarmed by Reza Aslan, a Muslim, and his recent best-seller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, a book of history, Tickle says, not of theology. She didn’t have “a single quibble with it academically” and thought it “beautifully done.”

Pope Francis? “He’s speaks as an emergence pope,” Tickle observes. “But can he pull it off?”

Tickle herself is undergoing some career reconfigurations. When she was still at Publishers Weekly, she estimates that she spent 22 days per month on the road, until she left the publication in 2004. But since that time, she’s continued to travel widely — from religious conferences to speaker series to book signings. She recently announced, however, that she’ll be off the road beginning in January 2015, when she will have fulfilled her contractual obligations. And no, she has no plans to stop writing and already has a couple of book projects in mind. One of them, she says, “threatens” to be book four in what’s amounting to a series on the Great Emergence.

Which brings us to the farm in Lucy — Lucy, Tennessee, just north of Memphis, where Tickle has lived for decades with her husband Sam, retired pulmonologist and former teacher at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Tickle turns 80 in March of this year, a good time for us to recall her multiform career: teacher (including onetime dean of humanities at the Memphis College of Art), publisher, reporter, lecturer, and, most of all, writer.

To remind us of the variety of her writings, the annotated bibliography in the closing pages of Phyllis Tickle — Evangelist of the Future includes “chancel dramas,” poetry, autobiographical stories of Tickle’s life in Lucy and of her own spiritual development, studies of contemporary religion in America, and the Divine Hours series of guided prayer. But Greed (in 2004)? That’s a title of Tickle’s from Oxford University Press in its series of short books on the Seven Deadly Sins. I remember it. I remember what a disconnect between author and subject it at first had seemed. I was wrong. There was no disconnect. I remember the insight shown, by a writer with a career history of giving, to be both moving and profound.

And what of the author’s impending entry into a more private life? Tickle has a message for her readers and audiences. As she writes on her website, “There is … a time to be silent, to listen again, and then to speak whatever is still to be said ….”

Retirement for good? No way is this the last we hear from Phyllis Tickle. 


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