Phyllis Tickle interview: How The Spirit is transforming religious life

Cover The Age of the Spirit by Phyllis Tickle

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“God told me to do it!”

These days, that claim is made by everyone from pro athletes and contestants on America’s Got Talent—to saints like the heroic doctors volunteering to help combat Ebola. But, where did people get such a startling idea—that God’s Spirit could direct their individual lives?

Now, journalist and scholar Phyllis Tickle has written a fascinating history of how Christians have come to understand the movement of God’s Holy Spirit. Her new book (written with Jon M. Sweeney) is called The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.

Hearing so many people make this claim (“God told me to …”) may begin to sound like mere wistful thinking. But, we shouldn’t dismiss this, Phyllis writes in her new book. In fact, she argues, we are living in an era of profound change in the way religious motivations are shaping America’s dominant Christian population. (Wondering if the U.S. is still “predominantly Christian”? Pew’s global study says yes—4 out of 5 Americans still identify as “Christian.”)

But, we are witnessing something new in this majority religious group, Phyllis writes. Throughout most of Christian history, this is not how Christians talked—unless they were among the very few men and women who, today, we regard as “mystics.”

Phyllis is not alone in drawing this kind of conclusion. It parallels years of research by the University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, creator of the OurValues project and author of the new book United America. His ongoing research shows that Americans, as a group, are unique in the world for being both intensely religious and proudly outspoken about our individual opinions.

Phyllis argues that the widespread belief in God directly guiding one’s life reflects a century-long growth of American interest in what Christians refer to as the Holy Spirit. Now, many Spirit-motivated Americans are drawing their own conclusions about centuries-old church rules and doctrines. Some are digging in their heels and rigidly clinging to traditional beliefs—but many are breaking down historic barriers: gender barriers, racial barriers, ethnic barriers as well as barriers against gay and lesbian men and women.

“This is a time of great change,” Phyllis says. “If we really understand what’s happening right now, then our jaws should drop open in amazement!”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Phyllis Tickle. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
PHYLLIS TICKLE ON ‘THE AGE OF SPIRIT’

DAVID: Let’s begin this interview at the end of your book. In about 150 pages, you take us on a 2,000-year tour of Christian thinking about the Holy Spirit. Then, you conclude:

“As this new form of Christianity and this new way of being Church and Kingdom mature, they, like their predecessors in earlier upheavals, soon must come to address the question of authority—to address the question of how now shall we live and by whose definitions of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, holy and heretical. When they and/or we fully engage that dreaded question, it will be in terms of the Spirit and of holy discernment. The center of our new authority will lie, as it did in earlier presentations, not with politico-ecclesial hierarchies, nor even in sola scriptura and inerrancy as it is popular defined. Rather, it will lie within the realm of the Spirit and an awe-filled, discerning intercourse with it.”

In other words: Bishops and other Christian gatekeepers beware! You’re not in control anymore. Millions of individuals feel they’re hearing directly from God. Phyllis, is that a fair summary of what you’re saying?

PHYLLIS TICKLE, photographed by Teresa Hooper. Used with the author's permission.

PHYLLIS TICKLE, photographed by Teresa Hooper. Used with the author’s permission.

‘People who scoffed …
are at the heart of this!’

PHYLLIS: Yes, you’ve got it right. And, if you really think about those lines at the end of my book, then you realize why those are some of the scariest lines I’ve ever written.

Think about this. Not too long ago in our history, our upstanding Christian families in any community would have regarded these claims of the Spirit directing people as foolish. When this first started happening, this was associated with the “holy rollers” who set up tents on the edge of town. This way of talking was regarded by the upstanding folks as contemptible: They called it stupid and definitely regarded it as lower class. It’s true. Our highly regarded Christian families once dismissed these people as laughable.

Now, the landscape has shifted to the point where it is good upstanding folks—many of them middle class and some of them even wealthy now—who are engaging with God on a daily basis through Spirit. Today, we call this Renewalist or Pentecostal or Charismatic—people have various terms they prefer. But this is really a major shift in our American culture. The kinds of people who once dismissed this are now at the heart of it!

What happened in our country is that the Spirit landed on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906 for the first time in a significant way since Pentecost 2,000 years ago—and that Spirit has continued to spread like wildfire throughout Christianity. I believe there’s no way to compare this dramatic shift to anything less than the wildfire that spread in the centuries right after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. In those early centuries, lots of good Jews and good pagans, too, suddenly accepted this radical new belief that God could take on human form and dwell among us. That was the shocking shift in belief that fueled the first two centuries of Christian growth. This change was so dramatic that we wound up counting time differently. We reset the calendar. Now, I think we’re seeing a shift in Christianity that’s as dramatic as that first wildfire.

DAVID: The Azusa Street revival lasted for a number of years. We’re still in the midst of the Azusa centennial and I discussed this at some length with Dr. Tanya Luhrmann when I interviewed her about her book, When God Talks Back.

PHYLLIS: Yes, Tanya nailed this in her work. She got it right. The Azusa Street Revival sounded this trumpet. Now, millions of Americans are downloading the truth right from God. And, that’s a dramatic change.

AZUSA STREET: ‘The real shock …’

DAVID: And, talk about the potential for breaking down barriers! Reporters who covered what was happening on Azusa Street, a century ago, were stunned to find black and white men and women worshiping together.

PHYLLIS: The real shock was: Azusa Street started with a black preacher! Yes, at the heart of this was the way they were breaking down all kinds of barriers. And it took place in a building that was a converted stable! I love that fact. I think there’s poetic humor in God twice acting dramatically in a stable. And you’re right: Those LA Times reporters found that their mouths dropped open. They couldn’t deny the incredible energy they were witnessing: people speaking in tongues, people claiming to have been healed. What was happening there was so exciting that people simply could not deny what they were seeing.

I mean, women were receiving the Spirit right along with the men. Suddenly you had women preaching. Incredible! And it wasn’t just black and white. You had Asian-American and Latino-American men and women involved over time. Class barriers and economic barriers were thrown out the window. A lot of the preconceptions that had shaped Christianity to date—they just went “Bye Bye!” for these people.

DAVID: As I reached your conclusions in the final chapter of your book, I found your argument running parallel with Dr. Wayne Baker’s work on the World Values Survey. When Wayne looked at the data coming from that global research—giving him the ability to compare Americans with 80 other countries—then he was able to show that our American religious culture is unique in the world. First, we stack up with countries like Pakistan and Iran in the intensity of our religious belief—but we’re unique because we also stack up with Scandinavia in our rock-solid belief that each person’s viewpoint should be freely expressed.

‘A double-edged sword’?

PHYLLIS: That’s the pattern that I believe goes right along with the Charismatic or Pentecostal brand of Christianity. There’s this deep belief that says: “God told me to do it! I’m going to do it!” I may not be able to read. I may not have a dollar to my name. I may not even have a home. But I feel empowered from the inside out. I’ve downloaded truth directly from God. I don’t need any mediator. I don’t need any bishop or any church council.

I’ve talked to people who will go to their graves defending this way of seeing the world. And, if it goes to extremes, this becomes a double-edged sword. It’s inspiring and it can motivate heroes who do incredibly courageous things—but it also can be very dangerous.

Now we’re seeing the ordinary Johnny and June on the street feeling as though they’ve got direct connection with the godhead—and the Spirit can motivate them in powerful ways.

A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson cover on the third way

Click the cover to read more about the book.

DAVID: In addition to seeing parallels in Wayne’s work, I think these conclusions you’re drawing explain the important message behind Ken Wilson’s campaign to open up evangelical churches to welcome gay and lesbian men and women. The argument he poses in his new book, A Letter to My Congregation, is that no official-sounding Christian gatekeepers can keep Spirit-inspired men and women from welcoming gay Christians into full participation in the church.

In Ken’s view, it’s almost irrelevant to ask for some church council to make an official ruling on this. Churches should simply throw open the doors and be hospitable, recognizing that Christianity is in the midst of change on this issue. It’s all about the authority of individual people, now. And, as I read Ken’s book, that’s the heart of what he calls “The Third Way.” The New Testament letter to the Romans says that Christian leaders should not divide the church over disagreements that amount to “disputable matters.” And LGBT inclusion is one of those matters where the Spirit is in the midst of changing minds, Ken argues. Official gatekeepers just need to get out of the way of that change and default to the deeper Christian value of hospitality and welcoming of everyone.

Am I reading his book correctly? You wrote Introduction to his book. What do you think?

MICAH 6 TRUMPS ALL

PHYLLIS: Yes, that’s what he’s saying. Theologically, I think Ken is making a very strong argument. He’s saying that the wisdom in the 6th chapter of Micah trumps everything on this issue. Micah says: What is it that God requires of us? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Ken says that’s the basis on which Jesus acted. And, yes, that’s right in line with this movement of the Spirit that I’m writing about in my book.

DAVID: So, how do you hope your new book will be used? What do you hope readers will walk away thinking after reading it?

PHYLLIS: Well, of course, I hope that a lot of different kind of readers realize that they’re a part of this story: Catholics and Protestants. A strong argument could be made that this whole movement of the Spirit connects with so many Christian leaders down through our history. I see it connecting with the life and work of John Wesley and a lot of others.

So, I hope readers can come away making a lot of connections from this book. I hope that people will read this and have a sense of awe. This is a time of great change. If we really understand what’s happening right now, then our jaws should drop open in amazement! What do I want readers to take away?

Just that, I think: A sense of humble amazement.

Care to read more?

  • GET THE BOOKS—We highly recommend Phyllis Tickle’s new book (click on the cover with this interview) as well as Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation and Wayne Baker’s United America. All three books explain powerful trends in American life and culture.
  • VISIT PHYLLIS’S WEBSITE—Her website, www.PhyllisTickle.com, is packed with information about Phyllis’s long career, her books and her ongoing work.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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