The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, Part 2 of 5

(See Part 1, Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5)

“It’s a test designed to provoke an emotional response…Describe only the
good things that come to mind about your mother.”

Leon Kowalski then stands up and blows away his interviewer because he has no memories of his mother.  Leon is a replicant robot built for menial off-world tasks, has no memories of a mother, and is being hunted because he is trespassing on Earth (Blade Runner [1982]).

But of course there is a twist.  There is Rachael. She is also a replicant, but one who thinks she is a human.  Beginning to suspect the truth she protests to Dekker (a ‘blade runner’ who hunts the wayward robots) that she has memories of her childhood. “Look,” pulling out a picture, “it’s me with my mother!

But, alas, her manufacturer at Tyrell Corporation had implanted fake memories taken from the CEO’s nieces. “Those aren’t your memories,” Dekker comments dryly, “they are some else’s.”


Blade Runner, as with Total Recall (both stories by Philip K. Dick and adapted for the big screen), complicates our understanding of ourselves and our memories, making us ask questions about who we really are and where we came from.

And like Rachael, we evangelicals often think we know who our (church) mother is. But as I said in the part one, “we have been given fake memories and don’t know who we really are.” With Rachael, we need to realize that our evangelical memories aren’t ours, they are someone else’s.

Where to begin?

When telling your life story it is always hard to know where to begin.  “Well, we moved here 3 years ago… My first son was born 9 years ago and… 15 years ago we were married… In the town I grew up in we would…” Back and back we go, searching for the perfect place to start.

Most evangelicals (and their mainline/progressive antagonists) begin with those pesky fundamentalists battling the liberals to uphold orthodoxy way back in the 1920s. When defeated the fundamentalist ran off and started those fundamentalist-turned-evangelical(-but-now-turned fundamentalist-again) schools like Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (with Fuller Seminary somewhere in-between).  Evangelicals, our ‘memories’ tell us, are the spiritual children of these fundamentalist, but less mean about stuff, more into theology, but just as conservative socially, politically, and theologically.  These memories tell us that the conservative (fundamentalist/evangelical) battle against liberalism (mainline) is the best and only way to understand evangelicalism, that it has been the Hatfields and McCoys ever since.[1]

How do I know these are your memories?  Because if you are a typical evangelical who listens to sermons, reads a little theology, or watches the media then this is the ‘manufacture memory’ that has been implanted in your mind!  This memory is used by the Neo-Reformed (and other conservatives) who would like evangelicals to think that ‘true’ evangelicalism is always a ‘conservative’ movement against those bad progressive liberals, and it is used by ‘liberals’ to marginalize evangelicals as fundamentalists with a smile.

Three Problems

1) These ‘memories’ centering on the fundamentalist-modernist schism only follow the destinies of intellectuals (mostly white-male, upper-class Calvinists: Edwards, Hodge, Machem, Carl Henry) and ignores the average Christ-follower of the time who didn’t care about the fundamentalist-liberal squabbles, i.e. most of America at the time.  These ‘memories’ prioritize intellectual history at the expense of the common religious experience of people at the time. [2]

2) And who were these ordinary people that were ignored?  Well, they weren’t the well to do (educated and elite Calvinists and Liberals), but the middle- to lower-class Wesleyan-Holiness-Pentecostals who were engaged in on the ground ministry, and who to this day are still the majority of evangelicals (even though they’ve begun to believe they are sub-evangelicals in need of Reformed correction).  As historian Joel A. Carpenter quips,

“In a reversal of the usual fate, where the winners write the history, the Calvinist “losers” in the competition for the American religious market have dominated the interpretation of its past. Perhaps the Wesleyan “winners” have been too busy making history to reflect upon it.”[3]

And, remember that supposed “fundamentalist” founding of Wheaton (I heard this on Facebook last week)? It was actually started in the late 19th Century by Wesleyans and Congregationalists, and their first president blanchardoil-sm(Jonathan Blanchard) was a radical reformer who didn’t think that OT prophets were all that different from NT evangelists (a distinction that Billy Graham, a later Wheaton grad, so famously used to justify why he wasn’t involved in social matters).  And remember Gordon-Conwell, now a center of Neo-Reformed thought based in the theology of Calvinist B. B. Warfield? Well, its founder, A. J. Gordon, was an evangelical revivalist and reform worker who believed in miraculous healing, and was regularly ridiculed by Warfield for his supernatural ministry. [4]  Can you sense the irony? Can you feel the memory wipe?

3) But the real problem is these memories don’t go back far enough.  Preceding the rise of fundamentalism is a two-hundred year trans-denominational, trans-atlantic evangelical consensus.  And to get a handle on where we came from, who we are, and where we are going, we must remember these other memories.

So like Rachael in Blade Runner, the picture of our (church) mother is probably a fake.  But unlike Rachael, we really shouldn’t be asking just about our mothers, but our (church) grandmothers, or our great-great-grand mothers who lived in an evangelicalism before fundamentalism.

It matters because…

…only by understanding our history will we understand that evangelicalism should not be judged by its adherence to Neo-Reformed distinctives, nor that being “conservative” as opposed to liberal is its founding moment.  If we don’t know our history we are destined to continue repeating our false history, perpetually stuck in a conservative-liberal battle.  And we are liable to keep blowing people away just like Leon the replicant. 

Next week’s post will dive into the roots of “classical evangelicals” before fundamentalism/modernism, and what this evangelical consensus  looked like (post 3).  Only then will we get a true feel for the “great reversal” that occured during the rise of fundamentalism (post 4) and the neo-evangelical reaction.  And only them will we notice that the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements aren’t totally foreign to evangelicalism.

(Also see Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4)

[1] George Marsden perpetuates the conservative vs. liberal perspective in his otherwise very informative book, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (GR: Eerdmans, 1991).

[2] See Joel A. Carptenter, “The Scope of American Evangelicalism: Some Comments on the Dayton-Marsden Exchange,” Christian Scholar’s Review 23:1 (1993), pp. 59-61. A fairly good history of evangelicalism that doesn’t fall into these traps, i.e. he took to heart Dayton’s critique, is Douglas A. Sweeney’s The American Evangelical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

[3] Joel A. Carptenter, “The Scope of American Evangelicalism: Some Comments on the Dayton-Marsden Exchange,” Christian Scholar’s Review 23:1 (1993), 59-60.

[4] See Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1976), 7-14.

Geoff HolsclawGeoff Holsclaw is a native Californian who now calls Chicago home.  He has served for over 10 years as a co-pastor at Life on the Vine.  He recently co-authored, Prodigal Christianity, and is affiliate professor of theology at Northern Seminary.  You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, orYouTube.