Nov 27, 2013

The First Thanksgiving

Much praise has already been directed toward Robert Tracy McKenzie's wonderful new book, The First Thanksgiving, and I don't have much to add. Many better-connected and smarter folks than I have weighed in, and I direct you to their good work in the links that follow this post.

So I'll be brief. I mean, really, why add words to praise a book when a cool animated short has already been created in its honor?

I was initially interested in this work for its insights into the story of the Pilgrims, knowing that McKenzie is a Christian historian studying a topic of some interest to American Christians, and knowing that he debunks a good deal of the First Thanksgiving Myths and silliness accompanying our National Football-Watching Feast.

He does a great job of looking at the facts and telling us what we can and cannot know about the Pilgrims and their feast of 1621 (and their more recognizable feast of thanksgiving in 1623). I particularly appreciated his tongue-in-cheek characterization of the 1621 feast as more accurately the "First American Protestant Thanksgiving North of Virginia and South of Maine." I know now that eels and deer were likely featured on the menu, along with fowl (though ducks and geese more likely than turkeys) and beer. I know they were not wearing the silver-buckled dress clothes in which we picture them, but more inexpensive and colorful clothing, duds characteristic of the poor Dutch neighborhoods from which they came. Wait; Dutch?

Remember, they came from Holland to America (via an English port), after first having left England in search of freedom for their religious practices. But if they were able to worship freely in Holland, why come to America? A great question that McKenzie answers clearly, with respect for the evidence and a genuine love for the people themselves. And with a high regard for the truth, rather than an agenda to select facts that will "teach us a lesson" from history.

In the end, however, it is this "regard" for the truth -- this humble, fact-marshaling historic method -- that this book is really about.

As I said, I would have been interested in the book for its pure, sweet history alone. It's a really good history book. But this book is great-- one of the most effective books that I have seen at setting out a faithful approach to an academic discipline-- and Christian thinking generally. What makes this book wonderful is that it is double-barreled. With one barrel, it instructs-- clearly, cogently, humbly-- on how Christians might think deeply about the past. And with the other barrel it gently models the work of the Christian historian. It's a beautiful thing!

The subtitle really says it all: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. In short, McKenzie's book is a primer on how to love God as we think about the past. His introduction is worth the price of the book (but read it online free if you like) and is the heart of his work. It could stand alone as an essay on thinking Christianly, and I know I'll be coming back to it again and again.

He does not shy away from naming the virtues central to the task of Christian thinking as he delivers a strong challenge to "think deeply about the past," something that in our times "is a countercultural and even a radical act." At the risk of oversimplifying and streamlining the virtues that McKenzie encourages in those engaged in the task of "thinking deeply about the past," I'll share an exemplary three that seem to me to be most central to his work (and ours).

Wisdom. McKenzie frames the study of history beautifully: "At its best, the study of the past can be part of a life-changing dialogue with the ages in which we confront enduring questions and seek a heart of wisdom." He cites the advice of Bildad (!) recorded in Job 8: "Inquire, please, of the former age and consider the things discovered by our fathers; For we were born yesterday, and know nothing." In short, "attention to history" . . . "enables us to glean wisdom from our ancestors." This focus on wisdom continues throughout the book. For example, after detailed discussion of the economic and theological reasons for the Pilgrims' journey to the new world, he turns his attention to his readers:
In the midst of these severe but commonplace trials, the Pilgrims grappled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we "shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves "unspotted from the world" (James 1:27)? . . .
If we listen closely, we might even hear the Pilgrims directing questions our way-- uncomfortable, probing questions.
pp. 70-71.

Throughout, McKenzie helps us to practice what he preaches: the search for wisdom through careful thinking about the past.

Humility. Another recurring theme in The First Thanksgiving is the admonition to "beware of the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination-- more to prove points than to gain understanding." He notes that there is a danger in "knowing too definitely what we want to find in the past," anticipating that we can use the findings to simply "reinforce values that we already hold." There is no shortage of examples in the book, as one might imagine (and see Dr. McKenzie's blog posts, here and here for some low-hanging fruit of the genre).

At the heart of this admonition came an unexpected challenge with regard to history: Love your neighbor as yourself. Explains McKenzie:
The figures we study from the past are image bearers just like us. . . . [A]nd when we ignore the complexity of their world to further neat-and-tidy answers in our own, we treat them as cardboard props rather than dealing with them seriously as human beings. Put simply, we aren't loving them; we are using them to further our ends. Isn't that the tendency at the heart of so much of our sin-- namely, our propensity to treat other human beings as things?
p. 17. As I said, this is much more than a history book. Like his advice on the seeking of wisdom, his warnings regarding history-as-ammunition are echoed throughout. In fact, the work is characterized by both the practice of and admonition to humility as we seek to love God and learn from history.

Perspective. Being born yesterday, we lack perspective on our times. The way to "combat that limitation," says McKenzie, is to "search the Scriptures."

Yet the study of the past itself can help provide perspective as well. One of the books main themes is that "knowledge of the past" actually provides us perspective on the present age:
We cannot study the past for long, however, without encountering peoples-- including committed followers of Christ, not just non-Christians-- who have looked at the world in ways that seem strange to us, even bizarre. Seen through their eyes, the cultural conventions that mold us come into sharper focus.
p. 14.

Our limited perspective hinders us as we think about the Pilgrims. McKenzie dedicates an entire chapter to providing perspective on these people, their way of life ("not our next-door neighbors"), their theology ("Should we prohibit church marriages? Outlaw the celebration of Christmas? Banish Quakers?"), their patriotism ("pilgrims, not patriots"), and their view of liberty.

On a site near Plymouth Rock, a sarcophagus stands, bearing the inscription, among others, "This Pilgrim band laid the foundations of a state wherein every man, through countless ages, should  have liberty to worship God in his own way." McKenzie's take: "that's just nonsense." And then he spends the following ten pages to explain why.  

The book, in short, is a delightful modeling of the task of the Christian scholar and a strong, but gentle guide to thinking about the past.

For more, see what others have said:

Many of the reviews, videos, and interviews are collected at the IV Press "Storyify" site

From Books & Culture

The Gospel Coalition review

Thomas S. Kidd at Christianity Today


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