Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Mapping the Pathways of the Heart

Phyllis Tickle, influential religious writer and publisher, has died at her home in Lucy

Phyllis Tickle, author of more than two dozen books about faith and religion, died of lung cancer on September 22, 2015, at her home in Lucy, Tennessee. She was eighty-one.

In 1992, at the age of fifty-nine, Tickle was tapped to launch a religion department at Publishers Weekly just as the protestant branch of Christianity in North America was undergoing a seismic shift. “I became a student of religion by being cast dead center of the maelstrom and having to learn to swim right there and right then,” Tickle wrote in her landmark 2008 book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Investigating and understanding those changes captured her imagination and became her professional focus during the last two decades of her long life.

Phyllis Alexander was born in 1934 to academic parents in Johnson City. In 1955 she married Samuel Tickle, whom she had known since childhood. The Tickles moved to Memphis so that Samuel could attend medical school, and they stayed in the area ever after, raising seven children on their farm in Lucy. (Samuel Tickle, a pulmonologist, died in January of this year.) Before she joined Publishers Weekly, Tickle worked first as an art and Latin teacher in public schools, then as a professor at Rhodes College and Memphis College of Art, and later as managing editor of St. Luke’s Press. But writing was always her first love, and she ultimately published more than two dozen volumes, among them a number of bestsellers and a beloved series on fixed-hour prayer called The Divine Hours.

“There was no question in my mind that my service to God was done in prayer and in the seven little Tickles,” she told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 2001. “It would never have occurred to me that anything I would write or produce professionally would become equal or even take precedence, until The Divine Hours came along.” Because of her lively spirituality and her ability to translate exhaustive research into layman’s terms—what USA Today once called her “rigorous mind and hand-in-the-dirt humility”—Tickle became a sought-after national speaker on the subject of Christianity’s past, present, and likely future.

In a recent profile for The Washington Post, David Gibson of the Religion News Service wrote, “In poems and essays, homilies and memoirs, countless public talks that explored sociology and history and the next big thing, Tickle has diligently mapped the pathways of the heart and the demographics of the soul while becoming one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals on all things religious.”

In a 2013 interview, Chapter 16’s Tina LoTufo asked Tickle what she hoped her legacy as an author would be. Tickle answered with characteristic humility: “Only that what I have written and spoken prove to have been accurate, useful, and as devoid of Phyllis Tickle as any principles and insights and observations ever can be devoid of their human conduit.”

Tickle’s ideas will certainly endure, though not entirely devoid of her unique animating spirit and intellectual reach: Religion News Service announced this week that a biography, titled Phyllis Tickle, will be published in 2017.