ESSAY: Telling Lies About Grandpa: Historical Amnesia in the Church Today (2006)

Historical Amnesia in the Church Today
A Father’s Day Sermon preached at Bethel Methodist Church on June, 18 2006

by Jeremy Berg

Pearl Harbor Rewritten

On the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly after 7:00, “a date that will live in infamy,” Pearl Harbor was attacked by more than 180 Japanese warplanes. By 9:45, the attack was over, leaving some 2,400 Americans dead and nearly 1,200 wounded. The Pearl Harbor attack was the final straw, ending the United States’ two years of neutrality toward the world conflict, as Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day.

For 65 years the American people have viewed the Pearl Harbor tragedy as a foreign attack on American soil, and involvement in the war as the necessary response to such a national threat. However, recent investigations into the matter have slowly uncovered shocking new facts about what really happened.

Many of you may be aware that nearly a year before the Pearl Harbor attack, American technicians had cracked a top-secret Japanese code allowing them to read intercepted diplomatic messages. By November 27, just a week before the attack, based on decoded messages, American military leaders knew that Japanese aircraft carriers were on the move in the Pacific. They expected attack, but they did not know where.

What you probably don’t know is that these messages were not decoding a strictly Japanese plot. Rather, invasion plans that American military leaders were so close to uncovering turns out to be the best kept military conspiracy of history—even rivaling the legendary Trojan horse! At last, the greatest cover-up of modern history is finally being unveiled.

Here is “the rest of the story”: Pearl Harbor was ruthlessly staged by FDR himself in order gain the national support needed to join the Second World War. The Japanese planes were not flown by Japanese kamikaze pilots willingly offering their lives for the Japanese cause. Rather, they were flown into their targets by specially trained American hijackers—hauntingly similar to the 911 terrorists—secretly commissioned by FDR himself. Ever since, as you might imagine, the American government has been using every resource in its power to suppress any knowledge of this true story behind Pearl Harbor.

Ok, I’m Just Kidding!

Now, before you start hissing and throwing things at me, let me admit that this rewritten history of Pearl Harbor is purely the product of my own imagination. I made the whole thing up!

But I’m curious to know what sort of emotional reaction was provoked as you listened to me twist well known and well documented historical events and figures? Were you a bit offended as I shamelessly smeared the reputation of a beloved American president and patriot, Franklin D. Roosevelt, placing him on the level of an Al Qaida terrorist, responsible for the deaths of thousands of fellow Americans? Were your patriotic senses challenged by the claim that the American Government has been feverishly suppressing these grievous acts for decades, doing whatever it takes to keep them in the closet?

Moreover, let’s say my claims had been genuine, and I continued challenging even more commonly held views of our national history, would you not challenge me? Wouldn’t I be flooded with angry emails, letters and phone calls for the next week? I suspect I would be in a whole lot of trouble for engaging in such a blatant act of historical fact twisting. You just can’t get away with rewriting such well-known, well-documented history so easily—right? Or can you?

Rewriting the Christian Faith

In the runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown takes on the most well known events of all time—the story of the life of Jesus Christ and the history of the early church—and does this very thing. Among the many controversial allegations in this captivating page-turner are the following:

– The Gospel accounts we have in our Bible are unreliable, selected by the emperor Constantine for political reasons (p. 231).
– Jesus in not the Son of God; he was only a man. (pp. 233-235)
– Jesus was not viewed as God until the fourth century, when declared divine by the Emperor Constantine. (pp. 233-234)
– Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. (pp. 242-250)
– Mary Magdalene was to worshiped as a goddess. (p. 255)
– Jesus and Mary conceived a child and named her Sarah. (p. 255)
– Sarah gave rise to a prominent family line that is still present in Europe today. (pp. 257-258)
– The Catholic Church often has assassinated the descendents of Christ to keep his bloodline from growing. (p. 266)

In light of these controversial claims, many churches have taken the opportunity to set the record straight, reassuring some nervous Christians that the historical record supports none of these extraordinary claims. Still, millions of readers worldwide—including many church-goers—have bought into Dan Brown’s clever mixture of history and fiction. Consider again these numbers I shared a few Sundays ago:

– 2 of 5 Americans have read the book
– Millions more have seen the movie
– 2 million of those admit the book has impacted their faith in some way or another
– 24% of French—where the events take place—believe the book is based on real historical events
– 1/3 of Canadians who have read it believe Jesus has descendents still alive today

How To Respond

If you are like me, your first response to all this hoopla has been to simply say, “Hey, it’s a fiction novel – not a history book. Don’t get so bent out of shape!” But when we look into the matter more closely, we find out that there are a few reasons this answer doesn’t sufficiently address the real issues before us.

First, as these statistics show, large numbers of people believe these things really happened. Even if they don’t buy every detail of the book, their previously held suspicions toward organized religion in general and the Catholic church in particular, their skepticism regarding the reliability of the Gospel records, and other general doubts about Christianity have all been powerfully reinforced by the claims of this book. We need to meet the masses where they are at and be ready to provide a historically accurate rebuttal to these historical fantasies.

Secondly, did you know that Dan Brown himself believes that the historical claims of the book are historically factual? In a television interview, Dan Brown admitted the following:

“I began as a skeptic. As I started researching Da Vinci Code, I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and holy blood and all of that. I became a believer” (ABC’s Primetime Live with Elizabeth Vargas).

In another television interview on The Today Show, Matt Lauer asked Dan Brown the question: “How much of this book is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?” Brown responded, “Absolutely all of it. Obviously Robert Langdon is fictional, but all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies—all of that is historical fact” (The Today Show, NBC, June 9, 2003).

Thirdly, the problem goes well beyond Dan Brown’s creative imagination. Brown is not a lone ranger, pulling out of thin air these provocative theories about the unreliability of the four Gospels, the more authentic accounts of these other gospels more recently discovered, the anti-womanist agenda of the church, the idea that Jesus was only declared a god by emperor Constantine 300 years later, the giant cover-up attempts of the Catholic Church and so on.

Rather, Dan Brown’s novel has finally brought to the masses theories that have long been taught by liberal professors in our nations most prestigious universities. We are dealing with beliefs and suspicions, theories and agendas that go way deeper than a single novel. These ideas have been quietly building steam and have finally reached a boiling point with The Da Vinci Code.

Having said all this, my intentions this morning are not to go into anymore detail concerning the historical claims of The Da Vinci Code—though it is tempting and would be a worthwhile endeavor. I invite all of you to sign up for the upcoming Question and Answer Forum on this topic scheduled for Wednesday, June 28th. We will take a deeper look into the issues raised by the book and try to place all the historical evidence on the table for discussion.

Historical Amnesia in the Church Today

My concern this morning, as a student of early Christian history, is the larger threat facing the church and our culture at large—the problem I will call Historical Amnesia. We have all heard the famous saying, “Those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it.” By this, we usually mean we need to learn from our past mistakes. The point I want to make this Father’s Day morning is a little different, and perhaps even more urgent. I suggest that if we don’t know our own history, we will not only repeat it, but forget it altogether; and once forgotten, we will LOSE IT—and with it a part of our very selves.

And the topic is quite fitting on this date set aside to honor our fathers—those with us and those who have passed beyond the curtain. Our fathers live on through the memory of their lives, passed on from generation through the retelling of their lives, their struggles, and their achievements. The memory of our fathers kept alive by faithful children, willing to carry their legacy forward as a torch to light our own paths. We can stand on the shoulders of the giants that have paved our way, facing the challenges of our day with humility and the wisdom of our fathers; OR we can bury their memory, forgetting they were giants and, perhaps, cutting them down to size to heighten our own sense of importance.

The truth of the matter is this: Our knowledge of our own history must be carefully guarded and passed on to future generations. And furthermore, our understanding of the things that have happened in the world around us, things that have changed history, shaped our present world, as well as shaping us individually, should be based on reliable historical facts! Our family tree is far more than a list of names; it is a testament to those whose lives have touched our own, leaving an indelible mark on us. Their history—our history—is a part of our very being. At all costs, we must keep ourselves planted in the rich soil of our past, and toil to keep the memory of our fathers alive.

Our Universal Family History

While each of us have a particular family story that has shaped each of our lives in ways both positive and negative, this morning I want to focus on our common, universal family history, tracing itself back to Our Heavenly Father. See, Christians all stand on the shoulders of one particular Giant; the one who carried all of history on his shoulders from the darkness of Sin’s long night into the brightness of Easter’s new day. Our individual destinies, our present and future hopes, the people we are now and the people we will someday be, all hang upon the events that took place in the Middle East some 2,000 years ago.

What many Christians are losing sight of today is that the Christian faith is based on a common memory of particular events, having been carefully preserved by the first eye-witnesses, faithfully passed along orally in the earliest communities of followers, and written down in Scripture for future generations of believers.

It is extremely important to understand, in light of this current crisis, that the Bible is not just a collection of timeless truths about God’s love for humanity (though we can draw these truths from it). The Bible is not an introduction to moral ethics, providing us with a handy reference book on how to live a virtuous life (though it teaches this as well). The Christian faith is not based on a nice, warm, peaceful feeling of self worth (though this is affirmed). And Jesus was not just a great wisdom teacher like the Buddha, giving us the four noble truths to live by or an eight-fold path to peace.

The Christian faith is rooted in history where we believe God has actually accomplished something within history, something of world-altering proportions, through the life, death and resurrection of the real, historical figure named Jesus the Christ some 2,000 years ago. The Bible provides a snapshot of the grand flow of history, explaining what has gone wrong in the past, what God has done about with the Cross and Resurrection, and how the entire world will ultimately be restored to its original glory where peace and justice will once again reign. We are called to live within this story, to find our purpose and meaning in life within the parameters of this view of history and its future direction.

Consider with me the very historical nature of the following New Testament passages. First, Paul argues with some folks in the church at Corinth that our faith means nothing if Jesus wasn’t actually raised from the dead 15 years earlier:

If there’s no resurrection for Christ, everything we’ve told you is smoke and mirrors, and everything you’ve staked your life on is smoke and mirrors. If corpses can’t be raised, then Christ wasn’t, because he was indeed dead. And if Christ wasn’t raised, then all you’re doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever. It’s even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they’re already in their graves. If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries (1Co 15:14-20 MSG).

Paul is adamant here to make clear that the good news of the gospel is not simply that God loves us and showed us by sacrificing his only Son—though this is gloriously true. The Gospel is good news because it proclaims the death of Death, the turning around of the greatest problem the world faces. The resurrection of Christ is not an inspiring tale to make us sleep better at night. The resurrection of Christ is a historical fact that has assured us all that God has broken the power of sin and death and that because Jesus rose, we all will rise some day to live in God’s renewed creation!!

If these events still seem to far removed, still trapped in the ancient past, let the words of 1 John bring out the very “real-ness” of Jesus’ earthly ministry:

From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in–we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy! (1Jo 1:1-4 MSG)

How can one not be swept away by such an exciting passage from God’s Diary? The Scriptures are inviting us back into the time of these staggering events. Again, we don’t find lofty platitudes, or a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. Like reading our great grandmother’s diary, or old letters from a civil war soldier, we can get a sense of the sweat and tears that lie behind these personal accounts of these life changing events.

Like a conversation with a dear friend, we are wrapped up in the gravity of the situation and invited to share in their experience. John says, “We saw [these things], we heard [them], and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us… We want you to enjoy this, too” (v. 4). The Bible is a beautifully crafted scrapbook of our family’s long and bumpy history. Don’t let these carefully cropped pictures and passionately written love letters go unnoticed and unread on our shelves, merely collecting dust. We need to let this history shape our present circumstances and guide our future direction.

But, sadly enough, for various reasons, our Family Story is slowly being forgotten. As the effects of historical amnesia worsen, Christians (and the culture at large) are becoming more easily deceived by estranged relatives now showing up at our doors offering us strange, new accounts of our family history.

People like Dan Brown are changing the names on our family tree, adding others and spreading lies about grandpa and the life he lived. Unless we recommit ourselves to learning and preserving our family history, we will soon begin believing the lies—as many already have. So, how can we account for the apparent onset of historical amnesia present in the church today? And what can we do to turn the tide?

Explaining the Trend

1. Significant Time Gap. The first and most obvious reason is the simple fact that these events happened so long ago. My distorted account of the Pearl Harbor attack is less likely to slip under the radar of historical scrutiny simply because it happened no too long ago. Some of you may have lived through the horrific events, and could easily set the record straight. But the events of 2,000 years ago are more difficult to get our minds around. It was a different world, a different time and a different culture. Still, this is not a justifiable excuse. It turns out that the time gap isn’t the real problem. The real problem is unfamiliarity with these events. And the solution to this problem is simply to commit ourselves both individually and as a church body to getting reacquainted with our historical roots.

Coming from someone who has spent many years and large sums of money to study these things, you may think I’m expecting too much. But we are not talking about getting seminary degrees here. I’m not suggesting we learn Latin, Hebrew and Greek along with philosophy of religion and Systematic Theology. Neither am I talking about learning history for history’s sake. Rather, we are talking about knowing the basic truths our own family history, about understanding the events upon which our entire faith stands or falls. And the Da Vinci Code phenomenon is showing us all too clearly that we don’t know the basics of our family history.

Learning history is similar to making friends. When you first begin exploring the distant past, things seem strange and unfamiliar—like a 4th cousin twice removed. But the more time you spend with it, the better you get to know it and the more you enjoy it. [Example ofHistorical Jesus class]

2. The Enlightenment Legacy. The second reason for the historical amnesia in the church goes back four hundred years to the time of our Founding Fathers and the cultural-philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. For many complicated reasons, religious teachers and writers of that time decided that the Bible was filled with stories that were contaminated with myths and miracles that certainly could not be considered real history. They decided that we needed to sift through the unreliable historical narratives and pull out the real meaning of Scripture—the timeless, moral teachings of Jesus.

Thomas Jefferson is a shining example of this way of reading the Bible and understanding the faith. He went so far as to literally cut and paste the moral teachings and timeless truths into his own rewritten Bible. The task, as he put it, was one of

abstracting what is really his [Jesus’] from the rubbish in which it is buried [the Gospel accounts], easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill.

Jefferson obviously didn’t think too highly of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s preservation of Jesus’ teachings in their Gospel accounts. The beautiful teachings of Jesus were contaminated with what Jefferson believed to be outlandish stories of walking on water, raising people from the dead and changing water into wine. In the process of extracting isolated sayings and ethical teachings, Jefferson left the entire historical framework and narrative form of the Bible behind.

Instead of a collection of eyewitness testimonies of actual historical events, Jefferson’s Bible turned Christianity into a religion of good morals to help us live a more virtuous life. For Jefferson, it wasn’t the historical events of the cross and resurrection that mattered; he said almost nothing about the resurrection. What fueled Jefferson’s Christian faith was Jesus’ message of the morality of absolute love and service. In this way of thinking, nothing happened in history that substantially changed the world and the future direction of history. Jesus merely brought us another moral law to live by.

I believe that the legacy of this Enlightenment way of thinking is still very much alive in the church, preventing the historical power of the Gospel from moving beyond just making us into better boys and girls. Jesus didn’t come just to show us how to behave. The Old Testament Law did that—but in our sin-ridden state human beings were incapable of living up to the commands. Jesus came to conquer the Sin keeping the human race in bondage, and to overthrow Death that held the world captive to fear of the grave.

The Challenge

Let me close by highlighting again the good news upon which we really stand. Some 2,000 years ago, on a hill far way, one man fought the final battle with Sin, taking the world’s debt onto himself and in doing so, forever disarming it of its power over us. Three days later in a cold stone tomb, the grip of death was finally broken as the Second Adam arose to new life, and with him the assurance that all who believe will one day follow in his trail. Then, as the apostle Paul declared, Life will have the last laugh! “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting (1 Cor 15:55).”

The task of the church today is simply to make known these world-altering events to a world broken in sin and desperately waiting to hear it. We are commissioned to go and share the gospel—which is the proclamation of these earth-shattering historical events—with those still living under the power of sin and in fear of death. If we are to proclaim the family story, we had better begin reading the family diary and getting reacquainted with the faith of our fathers.

On this Father’s day, let us honor our Father in Heaven by committing ourselves to a renewed interest in His Holy Legacy preserved for us in Scripture. Then the next time someone comes along telling lies about grandpa and his life, we’ll be prepared to set the record straight.




Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to this gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now is revealed…to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever! Amen (Rom 16:25-27 NET).


Dr. Jeremy Berg is the founding and Lead Pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN, where he has served since 2010. He an Adjunct Professor of Theology at North Central University (Minneapolis) and Professor of Bible & Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy earned a doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary. He and his wife, Kjerstin, have three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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