Phyllis Tickle has had a rich career as an author, a respected commentator on the state of religion in America today, and a visionary and futurist for the Church. She turns 80 this year, and the occasion has inspired tributes from the many whose lives she has touched, professionally and personally. A festschrift celebrating her life and work—Phyllis Tickle—Evangelist of the Future—was published last month (Paraclete Press, Jan.). Among her many other achievements, Phyllis Tickle was the founding editor of PW’s religion department.
When sales of religion books took off in the early ’90s, Publishers Weekly responded. At the urging of Southern sales rep Robin Mays and with the enthusiastic support of then-executive editor Daisy Maryles and publisher George Slowik, the magazine created the position of religion editor, a first step toward a defined department. Then, through Robin, Daisy found the perfect person for the job.
Phyllis Tickle was a doctor’s wife from a small town just outside of Memphis, Tenn., the mother of seven children. She had been a college professor and dean, an author, and a publisher. With her husband, Sam, she created Tickle Publishing, with four imprints, including St. Luke’s Press, publisher of At the River I Stand, a compilation of oral histories on the Memphis garbage workers strike and the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as books related to Elvis Presley and other topics of regional interest. In the early ’80s, the Tickles sold St. Luke’s to Peachtree Press, and Phyllis became an editor there. She then went to Wimmer Publishing, where she was editorial director. In 1989, Phyllis says, “God was telling me, go home and be a writer,” and she retired from Wimmer. But her time alone in the writer’s room didn’t last long.
“Phyllis had written a My Say [column] for us,” says Daisy Maryles, “and that’s how I first got to know her.” As an independent scholar of religion and someone who knew publishing, Maryles felt that Tickle was ideal for the job. Protesting that she “had no formal religion training,” Tickle finally was persuaded and flew to New York to plan the department with Maryles and Mays. Notes Maryles, herself a Modern Orthodox Jew, “The mission from the beginning was to be inclusive of all religions,” a vision Tickle shared.
With Tickle’s hiring and the establishment of the department in 1991, “Everything changed” regarding the religion coverage in PW, says Maryles. There were more reviews, along with at least three feature pages a month and space to cover news. The bulk of religion publishing happened outside of the New York book world, and, according to Maryles, “we started going out to meet the publishers. We gained their respect right away because of Phyllis.” The two began to attend and cover religion-specialty trade shows and meetings. More religion houses exhibited at BEA, often at the urging of PW’s two ambassadors.
Religion books were posting double- and triple-digit sales gains by the early ’90s. (In 1993, Tickle says, “There was a 246% gain in the movement of religion product through Ingram.”) The books were topping consumer bestsellers lists, and the national chains began to carry evangelical Christian titles, which had previously been sold almost exclusively in Christian bookstores. Religion books were going mainstream, and PW’s attention provided some of that impetus.
Mays’s vision was crucial to the growth in religion coverage in PW, Tickle says. “Robin was tireless in her pursuit of getting religion houses to support our coverage.” Mays took on the role of religion marketing manager and launched a marketing newsletter with tips and ideas for publishers.
This reporter met Tickle in 1992 as I was figuring out how to use my newly minted master’s degree in religion and my experience in book publishing. We arranged to meet at a conference in suburban Chicago where she was speaking; I wanted to pitch a story. Though my pitch wasn’t accepted, Tickle soon gave me another assignment, and then another. By 1993 I had joined PW as religion correspondent and was helping to cover trade shows, as well as writing and editing features, reviews, and news.
PW’s coverage continued to expand, with a quarterly print supplement, Religion Update, and Religion BookLine, first launched as a tabloid-format newsletter, of which I was founding editor. Mays spearheaded two publisher-sponsored research studies on the category. (Mays died in 1998.)
Tickle spoke across the country on the burgeoning sales of religion books and was in demand by print and broadcast media. She published Re-discovering the Sacred (Crossroad, 1995), examining the phenomenon and what it said about contemporary religion. As Americans became increasingly unmoored from church or synagogue or the practice of any traditional religion, she wrote, they turned to books as “portable pastors,” seeking the guidance and inspiration they might once have gotten from the rabbi or local preacher. God-Talk in America (Crossroad) followed in 1997; in it Tickle argued that there has been a “democratization of theology” in the modern era, with concepts of God both reflected in and shaped by popular culture and the new freelance spiritual seeker.
In 1995, Tickle left the magazine. “She wanted more freedom, but I showed her she didn’t have to sever her ties to PW,” says Maryles. Tickle became contributing editor in religion, and ceded to me the title of religion editor, in January 1996.
Among the many publishers Tickle has guided is Paraclete Press, the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, based in Orleans, Mass. A member of an Episcopal church, Tickle structures her prayer life around the Benedictine Rule and prays the Hours, set prayers at certain times of day. (Her four-volume Divine Hours series was published by Doubleday beginning in 2000.) Members of the Community of Jesus also follow the Rule, and Carol Showalter, marketing manager at Paraclete, recalls, “I first heard her speak at a conference, and I realized she was talking our language.” Showalter invited Phyllis to the Community, and since then “she’s been a part of us. She guided us in our early days of publishing and was our first outside editorial board member. Phyllis told us what we should publish, helped us figure out our position in the marketplace, and encouraged us to be ourselves, to not get caught up in trends and fads.” And, adds Showalter, who is 75, “she’s an inspiration to me, still working hard at 80.”
Tickle has become a key commentator on emergence Christianity, a tricky-to-define umbrella term for various movements and organizations arising from the same impulse: to renew the relevance of the Church as it faces the challenges of postmodernity. Her three most recent books have been The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Baker Books, 2008); Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why (Baker, 2012); and, with Jon Sweeney, The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church (Baker, Jan.), a third book on emergence that focuses on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.
Tickle has written and edited many other books, from memoirs to devotionals to poetry and children’s books. She maintains a travel and speaking schedule that would fell a much younger person. Now she is “retiring from public life” to devote herself full time to writing—“I’ve quit taking new contracts beyond February 1, 2015, and I’m going to be staying home to work on the next thing, which is the rapprochement between Judaism and Christianity in the West. I see a significant shift in the relationship and want to explore it.”
Those of us who know Phyllis have seen her brilliance and charisma, but also her generosity, her humor, her modesty and earthiness. (The secret to living and working so long? The country cure, she says: “Two shots of Jack [Daniels] every night.”). Scholar, author, mentor, friend: Phyllis Tickle will continue to be a vital influence on American religion and religion publishing.