The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, Part 2 of 5

September 13, 2013 | By: 16 Comments

The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, Part 2 of 5

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

“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.

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Maybe you'll get to this (or maybe not) but how do you see Anabaptists fitting into this?  I would argue that many people in Mennonite circles in America today don't have an Anabaptist memory.   Rather they have been given an evangelical memory through all the ways you mention.  Do you see a benefit in deconstructing the false memory and replacing it with a memory more rooted in a wider view of history?  Will this, in your opinion, hedge against the neo-reformed crowd positioning itself as the heirs to mainstream evangelicalism?


Oooh! Oooh! How will you play this? By the way, have you listened to Derek Webb's So-la-me album (soundtrack to Nexus movie)? It's along the Bladerunner lines. But if you hone in on Abolitionism as the crucible of evangelicalism, well... maybe we should have a phone call!


This is why I've always been passionate about the Missional conversation. There are important things we can all do together in a post-Christendom world. Then we can leave individual's own intellect to work this out.

That being said, the rhetoric of the neo-Reformed church leaves many of us being painted into a corner. Mind you I said rhetoric, not doctrine. It feels like they paint anyone they disagree with as heretic, and make it seem that no conversion matters unless it's a conversion to their mindset.

Recently, I spoke with a leader from The Meeting House, an anabaptist church in Toronto. They have spent two entire summers inviting those of different denominations to speak from their pulpits and explain why they're are different. When I asked why, he told me "we're Anabaptist, so we have to model how to discuss our differences in a peaceful way."

Perhaps these "false memories" are a result of a less-than-peace-driven mindset, where we have to fight and win. 

Lady Julian
Lady Julian

I recently read _An Island in the Lake of Fire_, by Mark Dalhouse: The book traces the rise of Bob Jones University from its founding as a fairly ordinary conservative religious university (poised, true, against perceived liberalism but in that not so different from other universities of the time) to its ultra-separatist stance today, which (interestingly enough) began in the 1940s and 50s, when Billy Graham left the school and Wheaton became Bob Jones's "liberal" evangelical rival. Your discussion of the importance of Holiness / Wesleyan strains of evangelicalism, especially in the early to mid-1900s, is an interesting addendum (reformation?) to my understanding of that time period. 

In any case, I wanted to encourage you to write a book on this. Much as I'm enjoying your history, I get the sense that there's so much more which could be said on the topic. I would be interested in reading a still-more-developed history of evangelicalism as it really happened.

Gene Smillie
Gene Smillie

Interestingly, one of the ongoing debates among those who have "followed" Blade Runner for decades now (it is the topic of several academic theses!) is whether Dekker himself, the Harrison Ford character is a replicant and doesn't know it, either . . . though in the Director's Cut version some scenes suggest he is beginning to suspect it.

Along that same trajectory, re: your own suggested "commonly-held memory" of evangelicalism's history as created, you say, by neo-Reformed in our day, maybe that memory of a memory is an artificial and unreliable construct.     I (a couple of decades older than you, I think) remember quite vividly that I was brought up to "know" that the real evangelicals who fought against the onslaught of liberalism were Arminians like Charles Finney and General Booth of the Salvation Army , later-to-become dispensationalists like D.L. Moody and before him Darby, and entertaining enthusiasts like Billy Sunday.   On the other hand, the Reformed purveyors of "eternal security"  and other objectionable doctrines, still addicted to priestly-like gowns and robes in the pulpit and thinking they needed extensive education to "rightly divide the word of truth," were almost as suspicious as Roman Catholics.   Those among them like Warfield and Machen who were rumored to be potential fellow-travelers with "true fundamentalists" were still awfully dangerous - they'd studied in Europe and interacted with Germans: how could anyone trust them? 

I suspect from your notice given here that you are going to correct, in your next couple of entries, the "memory" you described, by discussing earlier movements that don't fit it.  As such, we'll probably find that our views of the history of (American) movements leading into today's evangelicalism are more compatible than this first exchange might look like.  I appreciate your correct (and correcting) portrait of the founders of Wheaton College and Gordon College, for example.  But I do not share your portrait of the "implanted memory" which you apparently see as pervasive among today's evangelicals; I don't think it is how "most" or "typical" evangelicals think. And it is rather harsh, not to say unfounded, to propose that (if they do think that way) it is the result of a nefarious "memory chip implantation" on the part of the Neo-Reformed or Liberals.

  Artistically, let me say I appreciate the value of metaphor, and in this Blade Runner case, you're to be congratulated for making a most excellent and persuasive hermeneutical connection.  But I think differences in memory can be attributed to much less sinister causes.  Jimmy Carter says (probably in hyperbole) that when he wrote his memoirs of the four years of his presidency, it was the closest he and his wife ever came to divorcing -- discussing this or that event at which they were both present, their memories of who said what, and what it meant, etc., were so disparate that they simply could not arrive at agreement.  We have all experienced the same thing, about that of which we were ourselves a part.  So one doesn't need to attribute inaccurate memory of history to sneaky deliberate perversions (even while acknowledging that the phenomenon DOES exist, viz., those who try to deny the Holocaust).


@MichaelDanner You Anabaptists will need to set your own record straight. ;-)  But from what I've been hearing, Anabaptists seem to have either split into mainstream evangelicalism or mainstream liberalism, and have forgotten their own Anabaptist past. Does that sound right?


@jurisnaturalist I haven't heard DW's new album.  But, yeah, let's talk.  I'm not sure that I would say it is the crucible, but it was important. 


@Lady Julian Thanks for the encouragement. I'm still learning as I go, but I think that is how many of us are feeling.  :-)


@Gene Smillie Gene, thanks for your great comment. Don't steal all my "Blade Runner" thunder. :-)  I plan on adding a little PKD twist to the end these posts.  

Yes, on the one hand I don't think there is any overt conspiracy to wipe peoples' memories, but it is more like those who tell the narrative don't know any better (which I think is generally the case).  

But I would love hear more about the "memories" of the Arminian Evangelicals and how they have felt about their position within the broad evangelical movement. 


@geoffholsclaw @MichaelDanner From my experience, that sounds right.  Most Mennonites I know in the MC USA world describe themselves as evangelicals who don't believe in war.  This is especially true among the boomers. 


  1. […] The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, Part 2 of 5 by Geoff Holsclaw […]

  2. […] Late last week someone accused me of being grumpy about evangelical history (I’ve been writing about it here and here). […]

  3. Anonymous says:

    […] Missio Alliance | The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, Part 2 of 5 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. […]

  4. […] ‘memory’ to another. I’d encourage you to check the posts out as well: article 1, article 2, article […]

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