The Scandal of Evangelical Memory (Geoff Holsclaw)

Geoff, teaching pastor at Life on the Vine Church and a colleague of mine at Northern Seminary, participates as well in Missio Alliance.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, Part 2 of 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 theconservative (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 (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 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.

[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 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 Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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  • Rick

    Good post.
    “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.”
    Gordon can be seen as a founder, but not the founder. It should not be missed that Russell Conwell also was a founder, as were Ockenga, Pew, and Graham (in the merger).
    Also, how does define “Neo-Reformed”, and how has Gordon-Conwell become such an institution? I know some called Neo-Reformed in some circles but who are actually very frustrated by those they consider the actual Neo-Reformed.
    Finally, depending on how you define “Neo-Reformed”, the supernatural ministry claim is confusing. If you are including groups such as Acts 29 in the Neo-Reformed camp, then you may be surprised on how many of their churches are charismatic (I have even heard perhaps 50% of them, or more). So Neo-Reformed (again, depending on how you define it) does not equal anti-supernatural.
    Since the post is about poor memory, let’s be sure we are defining and getting the facts straight.
    But again, good post, especially about the Wesleyan aspect.

  • I think the biggest issue with a lack of historical memory is that we forget that we don’t always know what we are talking about. Mark Noll makes a pretty convincing argument in The Civil War as Theological Crisis that the evangelicals were mostly on the wrong side (as we now view it) because they were defending scripture. Even most Northerners that were opposed to slavery were opposed not because they saw it as against Christian values, but because they viewed it as a particularly cruel version of slavery. (Slavery isn’t bad in and of itself, but American slavery is bad).

    But more than that, the many social experiments that Christians have been a part of over history that failed, or the many times that Christians have set a particular date for the second coming or the many wars that they saw as signs that the world would end in their lifetime have pretty much all be wrong.

    How can we not be much more humble with any claims that we make when we look back at how bad other sincere and devout people have been predicting how things would turn out?

  • Ryan Mahoney

    Did he really mean to call Wheaton a school that has turned back to Fundamentalism?

  • This post kind of spoke to my heart since as a progressive Christian I cannot consider myself an evangelical or a liberal and am struggling to define my own identity:

    To my mind, I would define Evangelicalism as a form of Christianity centered on the Bible as a source of knowledge about God, whereby some folks believe in strict inerrancy, other in inerrancy allowing allegories and myths and others rejecting inerrancy for other views of inspiration.

    Since I don’t buy the idea there is a fundamental difference between books within and outside the Biblical Canon I am definitely not an Evangelical.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Rick

    What is your take on the activity of the Holy Spirit, and what/who He inspires (assuming you believe in the Holy Spirit)?

  • Beginning in the 1960s, I enjoyed reading about the history, theology, and personalities of the developing evangelicalism of the second half of the 19th century and beyond. This was the time of Moody, Simpson, and Darby. Some of the developing currents were the Keswick movement, the Holiness movement, divine healing, Princeton theology, and dispensationalism.

    Some of the earlier influences on the movement were the camp meetings of the second great awakening, German pietism, and Finney.

    Christian social work was important at the time, and missionary activity was in full growth mode. In America, the counter movements were Unitarianism, Christian Science, and spiritualism. The backlash against evolution and German biblical criticism had not reached its crescendo.

    I look forward to your next post in this series.

  • Interesting post, but I seem to be discovering this series late. Where can I find part 1?

  • I believe in God’s spirit but don’t know if He, She or It is separated from the Father.

    N.T. Wright believes the holy ghost is better described as having female features.

    I believe that God gives a reason, moral intuitions and also passions which can lead us naturally to right conclusions about ethics and God’s nature tough sin can get in the way.

    Of course the holy ghost can give us ideas and inspire us (in the same way other humans can do and space aliens could telepatically do) but I fail to see any evidence that She was more active in inspiring Canonical books than in non-Canonical books.

    I even fail to see that She is more active in Christians than in non-Christians, if one objectively compares their moral achievements.

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, he did say and mean that.

  • Ryan Mahoney

    Well, before I take offense I guess I need to explain where I am coming from and ask a few questions.

    I recently came out of a local, megachurch that is well within the neo-fundamentalistist camp. So, I think I know fundamentalism when I see it.

    I also graduated recently from Wheaton’s graduate school with an MA in Historic and Systematic Theology. The only reason that I read NT Wright, Scot McKnight, David Fitch, Hauerwas, Barth, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Irenaeus, etc., is due solely to the introduction Wheaton made between me and The Great Tradition. It is fair to say that Wheaton rescued me from neo-fundamentalism, and because of this exodus provided by Wheaton, I feel a little bit perplexed by the statement that associates Wheaton with fundamentalism.

    Perhaps we are using the same terms to describe different things. So, what does Geoff mean by Wheaton? The President? The collection of biblical scholars that delivered me from fundamentalism (Vanhoozer, Perrin, Block, Treier)? The student body? What does he mean by Wheaton?

    What does he mean by fundamentalism? If fundamentalism is defined as a group of Christians that practices 2nd degree separation then Wheaton most certainly is not part of fundamentalism. But, how does he define fundamentalism?

    I don’t mean to nitpick. I actually have enjoyed and largely agree with Geoff’s articles regarding Evangelical memory. However, fundamentalism (in my mind) is a rather ugly charge, and to see it publicly associated with Wheaton, an institution that served me immensely, troubles me. Blessings.

  • Ryan,
    Thanks for the pushback. I think sometimes I’m slipping between audiences when I’m writing on this topic. I have many mainline friends that consider Wheaton to be created and sustaining fundamentalism in its nicer forms so I was probably thinking of their perceptions (“memories”) in that sentence. I have also know people passed over for professorship at Wheaton based on doctrinal issues that are very conservative. So certainly what they teach may be open, but who may teach it may not be. I know that at Trinity and Wheaton people think Vanhoozer is a liberal (if you can imagine). So yes it is all a mixed bag, and I’ll ty and be clearer and more careful. Thanks for the engagement.

  • Ryan Mahoney

    Geoff, Thanks for the clarification. I have appreciated these posts, so keep up the good work. Blessings.

  • Tom F.

    The other movie comparison is “Inception”. It’s not just that our memories have been implanted and we need to get back to reality. Just like the main character’s wife and the main victim of the plot, we often will prefer to stay in the fake memories because they are more useful to what we want right now. I think the truth is still in there somewhere, but we struggle against ourselves as well in finding that truth.

    The question of who is a “true” evangelical, whether debated through history or theology, seems to be about power and influence as much as anything else. One group (self-identified “conservatives”) looks to redefine “evangelical” so as to exclude or marginalize those whom that group perceives as problematic (i.e., “liberals”). Some accept the rejection (self-identified “liberals”) and struggle and fight for control over a bigger signifier (perhaps “Christian”). Others reject the redefinition (including the binary “liberal/conservative” definition lines), and fight over “evangelical”. The winner will get more influence over determining the priorities and values of those who identify with “evangelical”.

    Now, I get that not everything in the church is going to be totally different than in the world, but I fail to see many differences between this process and the cultural process of struggle and legitimation over say the signifier “Republican” or “Democrat”. Where am I supposed to discern God in this process? Is it just a matter of human intellectual struggle?

    Just like memories in “Inception”, I am really beginning to wonder if these signifiers’ purpose is not to provide a truthful account or a helpful concept. The signifiers are things we invented to soothe ourselves, and to create anxiety in our opponents. The basic premise shared by all these signifiers is the illusion that we can be ethically/spiritually safe if we belong to this group or that group, when our safety is really up to God, and just not something we really have full control over.

  • Recently finished reading Jacques Barzun *From Dawn to Decadence* and in there (a small part of the 800 page, 1500-2000 treatment, that I found remarkable, even if his cranky curmudgeony conservatism flared in parts, especially in the 20th century for which he seemed to loathe) he discussed how the term *evangelist* has morphed over the past centuries — that originally, it meant *Lutheran*, then *Puritan* (or other Anglo-Separatist sect splitting off), then turned again with the Great Awakening to itinerant preachers of the day, then at the dawn of the 20th century, another rift and becomes the term becomes crystallized on the conservative/fundamentalist backlash to modern historical biblical critical study, then again in the 20th century as *evangelist* is delineated from *fundamentalist*.

    Found it fascinating — not just terms like *evangelism*, but Barzun highlights many other words that morphed over history, including, *campus*, *liberal*, *secular*, *romanticism*, *modern*, and many others.

  • Rory Tyer

    It is not correct to say that people at Trinity think Vanhoozer is a liberal.

    *edit- This sounds really curmudgeonly. But as someone who works & studies at Trinity I was puzzled by that.

  • Tom,
    Great comment. And I love “Inception”, and “Memento” before that. Yes, they both deal with the realities that we create for ourselves and how they function to give us identity.

    About the power issue, yes I think the definition of terms like “evangelical” is a matter of power, but also a matter of identity, and for me it is personal identity (who am I really? where did I come from? what is my heritage?) Certain these can relate to questions of power, but also purpose and direction (sometimes we need to reject who we have been, sometime embrace who we have been, all in the process of becoming who God has made/called us to be). So I just want to push back a little that questions of defintion are reducible to power plays (although I’m not denying that that can be part of it).

  • Tom F.

    Hi, Geofth.

    You are probably right that it is not all reducible to power. On the other hand, you explicitly linked your post to say that this matters because “evangelicals will not have to get drawn up into the battles of conservative/liberals”. This is what I meant by hoping to have influence over what evangelicals do.

    Note also the progression in your post of the different sub-groups of evangelicals- in the beginning the holiness and pentecostal are out, and the neo-reformed and fundamentalist are in. By the end, this pattern is reversed, and the majority of the groups you mentioned are in, and the neo-reformed and fundamentalists are out. The way you have structured your post implicitly communicates a kind of power struggle.

    I’m just a cynical person, I suppose. Identity is certainly important. I suppose I am just sensitive enough to the power stuff that I would likely define my own identity as an evangelical without reference to those I disagree with. Certainly, those who read between the lines would be able to tell who would disagree with me.

    I don’t say this because I am some big fan of either fundamentalists or neo-reformed. I say this because I had a big struggle with some more conservative friends awhile back, and the implicit question always was “am I/are you a real evangelical”. It was exhausting and fruitless. Or on the left flank, over “Christian”- its more rare, but I have had people write me off because I had some reservations about affirming the entirety of a more liberal approach to LGBTQ issues. At some point, I just don’t care anymore. I, at least, had to figure out that for me, the urge I had to tell everyone that “No!- of course I’m _______” was really more about reducing my own anxiety than anything else. But maybe that’s just me.

    Thanks for the interaction.