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Today's Church in America - Part One
Presented by Phyllis Tickle

Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

January 19, 2003
This talk is also available in audio

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I have floated around Publishers Weekly for over ten years now. Publishers Weekly is the trade journal for the book industry. I do a lot of talking and working with booksellers, librarians, publishers, editors and publicity people all within the book industry, which is essentially my purview. As I have become more and more concerned with my own writing, my job description has shifted, so, consequently, I also do a good deal of interfacing with the media. But basically my job as contributing editor in religion to Publishers Weekly is to interpret, to study American religion and to some extent, Euro-American—because you can't really separate them right now—and try to analyze where it [religion] is and where it's going to go.

There is about a three-year lag between the idea and the book in your hand. It's my job to look at what we're doing, try to project where it's going to go and to take that message to publishers and say, "This is probably where the pew [parishioner] is. This is where the laity is. This is where the thinking is outside of the nave, but within this larger domain of religion in a secularized society. This is what you ought to be looking at."

It took me about three or four years at this job to figure out that that street works both ways. I can also say to clergy, "This is what's coming out of the publishing industry over the next couple of years. This is what's going to be read by the clergy. This is what's going to be read in the coffee shops in the field of religion. This is what you need to prepare your people to hear, receive and to incorporate into their own lives."

Then it spread from there to talking also to laity. For many, many years, in God-talk, books held primacy of place. That is to say, most of our God-talk in this country and in this culture was done by reading books and then talking to each other about them. That's a little less true since 1999 when we got a shift, and primacy of place probably went over to television and movies. I date it in 1999, because that's the year the movie The Matrix came out. While it had many precursors in the movie business, The Matrix is the first movie where you could clearly say, “There is serious God-talk going on in this movie. This movie is wall-to-wall God-talk.” It has an immediacy that the pulpit will never have, and an immediacy probably that a book will never have. Some of the same thing is also happening in television. A lot of it is happening in music. The book is clearly not the leader in what informs our popular thinking anymore.

Whatever else you want to say about Western Christianity or Western religion, you have to say that something is happening and already happened in the 20th century that made a major pivotal change in who and what it is. At least twice before has there been a time when a culture so dramatically shifted that religion was dramatically changed also. The first time was the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. A bunch of irregular Jews who were followers of an irregular rabbi discovered that they could no longer function as Jews, that they were instead Christian. Absent the temple and absent a rabbinical system that was not yet developed, they became Christian.

The second time we conveniently date as October 31, 1517, when a totally annoyed, totally irascible guy named Martin Luther tacked some thoughts on a door in Wittenberg. There had been prior to both those events a clear century in which all of the changes that those events conveniently date had come into place. If you had had my job in 1450, you could have been paid to look and say, "Oops, that's going to happen in 1517 or thereabouts."

I am paid to look at religion from a secular point of view. What I am as a Christian is a case study in organized schizophrenia—on Sundays and on my own time, I am the world's worst, most devout evangelical Episcopalian. I will persuade an apple tree why it ought to read The Book of Common Prayer. But during the week and when I’m working, I am paid to look at religion as it is commercially applied. That is a fairly interesting job description, it did not exist a hundred years ago. There aren’t even many people who do what I do right now.

Much of what I'm going to say to you today and next Sunday is seen through the lens of the commercial application of religion. It does not necessarily take an Episcopal point of view. It asks that you look at the world of religion the way the media and especially the book industry in this country look at it, and that industry is both proactive and reactive. You need to remember that. No publisher that I know of is going to publish a book that he or she doesn't think is going to make money. It is to that extent reactive. It has to be. It has to react to what I think is going to happen in three years in the nave. But at the same time, who and what we are as religious people is framed by what we read, which is where the book industry is very active. It is proactive.

Most of the houses that are publishing religion today—commercial ones as well as religious ones: Doubleday, Simon and Schuster, and Putnam—most of those people have religion programs that are headed up by senior editors or junior publishers who are some of the most devout people I know. This is certainly true in the religion houses. But even in the commercial publishing houses there are men and women who say, “The pulpit isn't large enough. Only the bookstore is going to carry my message where I want it to go.” They see it as a sacred vocation, minus ordination. So that's what the book industry is made up of and what we're about.

From the point of view of a commercially applied religion, religion is not exactly what you and I think of it when we're sitting in the nave. We in the office like to think of religion as a rope. It is a rope or a strand or a cable of meaning that has always stretched from the beginning of time. From the earliest known civilization, there has always been this need to arrive at the meaning of life. Life is essentially unsustainable if it's pointless. Without meaning, we cannot tolerate or sustain it. And so we look for meaning.

That cable of meaning—like every good cable—is composed of three strands that are woven together in order to give it its strength. One of those strands is spirituality. One of those strands is corporeality, by which we mean all the stuff of religion once it becomes religion—the building, clergy, canons, real estate, and budgets—all of that stuff that is the physical and organized presence of the religious practice. The third strand is morality. You can take any particular religion and see that it is a pursuit of meaning that can be broken down into those three categories.

This cable of meaning, like every good cable woven together of three strands, has a loosely knit sleeve that lines the casing of the cable and holds the three strands together. This sleeve is the ‘common imagination.’ The outer casing of the cable that holds everything together is called ‘story.’ As long as the story holds, the inner workings of the rope of meaning will bob along and anchor the boat, and everything will be fine.

When story gets pushed back—when story for some weird reason gets pulled away—then that loosely knit sleeve of imagination is exposed. We humans have a tendency to put our little fingers through the little holes and worry it to death. Then we stick that strand back in, pull out another one and worry it to death. Eventually we get the third one out and play with it, and then stick it back inside. In time we paste the [sleeve] common imagination back, smooth the story on and we go back to being happy for a long time.

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