I was sad to hear today of the passing of Dr Ian S. Rennie. I met Ian in the 1980s, and for a decade and more he helped me learn about, understand, and then write about Canadian evangelicalism—since no one knew more about that subject than Ian Rennie.
Ian was one of those scholars who perhaps know more than they can handle. (Others of us, of course, know less than we seem to.) His memory was truly prodigious: One of his former Regent College students told me that they had nicknamed him “Facts.” He seemed to know about everyone in the far-flung and intricate networks of Canadian evangelical Christianity; he seemed to have met most of them; and he seemed to have a firm grasp on their interrelationships, right down to who had married whose cousin.
I long urged Ian to record what he knew. “Write it down!” I would beg. “Dictate it into a recorder. Do something to preserve these astonishingly complex relationships: No one will ever know what you know!”
And now no one will, for Ian wrote precious little…again, perhaps because the sheer volume of what he knew on any subject overwhelmed the historical imperative to reduce: to reduce the flow to a stream properly banked and directed, without too many complications to confuse the reader and diffuse the argument. In conversation, Ian could go on and on…not out of egotism, but out of sheer delight in the constellations of facts and relationships that shone in his mind. But to write, you can’t go on and on, and so Ian taught much, conversed even more, but published not nearly as much as we, his fans, wish he had.
Ian was particularly good to me as a doctoral student returning to Canada after learning all I could about the United States and Europe via graduate work in Chicago. Ian helped me come to grips with the school he had left, Regent College, and the school he was then serving, Ontario (now Tyndale) Theological Seminary. But he also helped confirm my interpretation of Trinity Western University, having had a front-row seat for its development, and also of Prairie Bible Institute, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Sermons from Science, and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada—whose leaders, yes, but also whose staff members, major donors, and notable alumni/ae all seemed well known to him.
It was especially gratifying, then, for Ian to review my book on the subject, an expansion of my dissertation, in glowing terms. To be sure, Ian was an enthusiast, despite his Scottish Presbyterian heritage (of which he was deeply proud), and he could be fulsome about anyone he was boosting, as he generously boosted me upon my permanent return to Canada in 1990. But knowing that he knew so much, and that he could be sharply critical of scholars who did not do their homework to know what he thought they ought to have known, I was greatly encouraged as a very junior and vulnerable scholar by his support.
A few years later, at the one major conference ever held to focus upon Canadian evangelicalism (led by the late George Rawlyk at Queen’s University), Ian was honoured in the closing banquet with the role of valedictorian, and it was the last time I ever heard him speak. In the years that followed, my scholarship moved away from Canadian evangelicalism and Ian moved closer to retirement. When I relocated to Regent and Vancouver in 1998, our paths crossed a few more times, including one or two splendid lunches replete with Ian’s fascinating anecdotes and hearty laughter. But he then began to fade, and over these last years I quite lost track of him, alas.
So I am sad today for his family, who have lost a fine man. But I am also sad for my tribe, Canadian evangelicals, and for my country’s history, since we haven’t yet developed the technology necessary for the greatly important task of uploading Ian’s amazing memory into an archive from which we can all benefit.
I was one of many who did, however, benefit from it…as from his big heart and his twinkling eyes. We look forward to meeting you again, Ian, and to having all the time we need, at last, to hear all you have to say.