Emergents are Tolerant, Uncertain, and Relativistic, Except When They are Not
In Part 1, I introduced a gathering of Emergent Christians in Memphis to honor Phyllis Tickle, Memphis’ resident Emergent, and the forerunner in Emergent thinking. While the first post focused on Tickle’s opening talk, and the claims she made in it, this post will focus on her controversial closing talk.
For all the talk of the desire for non-absolutism and uncertainty, the Memphis Emergent meeting ended with controversy over some of Tickle’s closing remarks concerning the fall of Christianity concurring with the breakdown of the traditional family. This blog offering by one of the attendees, Julie Clawson, gives the gist of the controversy and reveals the Emergent contradiction in judgment of others. Here is a pertinent excerpt:
In making the argument that religion was far stronger when the nuclear family (as defined by a working father and stay at home mother) reigned one not only limits the definition of who gets to represent proper religion but also romanticizes a system that was far more broken than is often realized. The truth is, not all Christian families had the luxury of living such a white middle-class, middle-America lifestyle. . . . To hold such up as a goal for contemporary Christians to return to privileges white, middle-class, liturgical faith as the only true or acceptable way to be a faithful Christian. While there is nothing wrong with living in such ways, it is not nor never has been the only way to live one’s faith or impart it to one’s children.
I was not at the meeting, so I am unsure if Tickle explicitly defined the family as a working man and a stay at home mom. I would suspect given the prominent problems of Memphis, Tickle’s hometown, she might have been just talking about the family, period. Memphis has a high incidence of single parenthood, 53% of households, and 65% of children are raised in single-parent homes. It is vastly understood that single motherhood is “the primary underlying cause of poverty” in Memphis. Memphis’ poverty rate is around 19%, 4 points above the national average. Maybe this is the kind of data Tickle had in mind when making her comments. Having worked with urban youth before, I know when a family struggles to makes ends meet, church attendance and studying the Christian faith are the last things on their and their parents’ minds.
I also do not understand the comments about an intact family being a “white, middle class lifestyle.” An intact family is biblical, and the original recipients of the Bible were certainly not white, nor Western, and likely not middle class, either. I think it is a dodge to look at things this way, with a heavy influence of justice terminology from Liberation Theology, and it ignores the fact that when God’s design of marriage and the family is broken, the faith does appear to suffer and ultimately society suffers, too.
Another point to note here is how Emergents react to anything that would appear traditional, faith or otherwise. For all their talk of being tolerant, uncertain, and open minded, the ire sure comes out when anything that smells traditional is presented. It goes to show the Emergents are indeed a competing orthodoxy with their own doctrinal standards, and if you do not meet those standards you face castigation and potentially exclusion (ironic, I know).
To make matters worse for Clawson and the Emergents, near the same time as the Emergent gathering, a Slate Atheist blogger, Amanda Marcotte, seems to corroborate Tickle’s points in this post about research from the Center for Marriage and Families:
Conservative family life researchers . . . backed by the religiously-minded Lilly Endowment and Center for Marriage and Families, have recently put together a compendium of research papers on faith and family called “Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?” The big finding of paper is that there’s a strong correlation between being non-religious and being a child of divorce.
Marcotte also quotes another family expert who seems to touch on what I experienced ministering to inner city kids:
As Amy Ziettlow goes on to explain at Family Scholars: “In my observation, many divorcing parents who are emotionally absent, in shock, or spend hours working to support their family, may not have the physical energy to take their children to church. If they take them to church they may not have the spiritual stamina to disciple their children in the home.”
In response to both, Marcotte offers the following commentary:
While no one enjoys a divorce and the process often leaves children feeling sad and confused for a time, of all the possible ill effects, losing interest in religion is by far the least worrisome. For some of us, that’s an unexpected bonus! . . . But if you do find yourself in a bad marriage and are worried about the negative effects of ending it, don’t hold off because you believe your kids need religion. The unchurched are doing just fine, thank you very much.
Is it possible with the problems of inner city poverty and broken homes in Memphis, along with the above commentary on children of divorce more likely being irreligious, that maybe Tickle was on to something? Maybe the Emergent participants at that St. Mary’s Episcopal cathedral gathering should not have been so quick to judge.
I want to thank Sarah Flashing for bringing the two blog posts to my attention in discussions with her about the Memphis Emergent gathering.