Review of ‘The First Thanksgiving’ by Robert Tracy McKenzie


Robert Tracy McKenzie, The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving and God and Learning from History (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). Paperback / Kindle

This Thanksgiving, like millions of other Americans, I will sit down with family around a beautifully decorated table to eat a sumptuous feast of turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. We will share stories of gratitude for God’s blessings throughout the year drawing to a close. And then we will watch football or—in my case, since I’m not a sports fan—take a long, postprandial nap.

What I will not do is think that our Thanksgiving celebration has anything to do with the Pilgrim’s “first Thanksgiving” in 1621. Not after reading Robert Tracy McKenzie’s new book, The First Thanksgiving, which is equal parts a historical account of that feast and a theologically informed reflection on how Christians should (and should not) use the past. As he tells it, we don’t know much about the “first Thanksgiving” except that it probably didn’t occur in November, wasn’t eaten indoors, didn’t include turkey (but might’ve included turnip and eel), wasn’t a multicultural love fest (evidently, the Wampanoags just showed up, uninvited), and wouldn’t have been considered a day of thanksgiving by the Pilgrims in the first place. Moreover, the celebration of thanksgiving days was, for the first 220 years of American history, a New England phenomenon that wasn’t explicitly linked to the Pilgrim feast of 1621.

In short, most of what you think you know about the “first Thanksgiving” is bunk. But over the years, that bunk has been found to serve a variety of useful ends, underwriting Northern abolitionism, American individualism and religious freedom, and a providential reading of America’s Christian history, among other things. And that’s why the fiction continues to be promoted instead of the facts.

To think Christianly about the Pilgrims and their 1621 feast, we need to put these fictions aside and recognize the weakness of the historical accounts that promote them. And then we need to reflect on why we study this history anyway. “The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley once wrote; “they do things differently there.” That’s certainly the case with the Puritans and their Separatist brand of Protestant Christianity. Present-day Christians share the same faith, but they do not practice it in the same way. Both the similarities and the differences play a role in how we interpret and practice our religion.

For McKenzie, one of the key things that contemporary American Christians can learn from the Pilgrims is that “we are pilgrims too.” He writes: “to know we are pilgrims is to understand our identity and, by extension, where our ultimate hope lies…American Christians over the years have been tempted to confuse patriotism and piety, confounding our national identity as citizens of the United States with our spiritual identity in Christ…We should thank God daily for the blessings he has showered on our country, but to know we are pilgrims is to understand that our hope of ‘survival, success, and salvation’ rests solely on our belong to Christ, not on our identity as Americans.”

Amen, and thank God!

Now, would someone please pass me another helping of mashed potatoes?

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. InterVarsity Press posted this funny little video about the “first Thanksgiving,” based on McKenzie’s reconstruction of it.

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Thanksgiving Is Good for the Soul (1 Corinthians 1:4)


Several years ago, I suffered a bout of deep depression. It lasted for months. And I don’t want to experience it ever again. But I learned something out of that depression that has proved invaluable to my mental—and spiritual—health:

Giving thanks is good for the soul.

During my depression, I kept a journal in which I monitored my feelings and their causes in minute detail. The more I analyzed my depression, the more depressed I became. So one day, I tried something different. I wrote a list of everyone and everything I was thankful for. To my surprise, it was a very long list. I can’t say my depression instantly disappeared that day, but its hold on me lost considerable purchase.

I don’t know whether Paul ever suffered depression. As we read 1 Corinthians, we’ll discover that Paul had plenty of reasons to feel deeply sad about the church in Corinth. It was a moral and theological mess. Yet Paul nevertheless gave thanks for it. His word of thanks is six verses long (1 Cor. 1:4-9), but here I want to focus only on the first verse:

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus (1:4).

Let’s take a closer look at this sentence:

I: Giving thanks cannot be delegated. It is our privilege and responsibility.

Always: Paul wasn’t thankful on good days and ungrateful on bad days. He was always thankful. You can see the constancy of his gratitude when you look at his words of thanks for other churches he wrote to (Rom. 1:8, Phil. 1:3, Col. 1:3, 1 Thes. 1:2, 2 Thes. 2:13, 1 Tim. 1:12, 2 Tim. 1:3, Philem. 4). We should be constant in our thanksgiving too.

Thank God: Paul’s thanksgiving is radically God-centered. Paul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles by the will of God. So every time Gentiles decided to follow Jesus, Paul gave thanks to God for them. Do you thank God for others?

For you: Notice that Paul doesn’t thank God privately for the Corinthians—or for any other church. He thanks God for the Corinthians in front of the Corinthians. God knows whom you’re thankful for. Do they?

Because of his grace given you: If Paul looked only at the Corinthians’ present behaviors and beliefs, he might not have had much reason to give thanks. They were a “problem child.” But when he looked at where the Corinthians had been in comparison to where they were, he had lots of reason for gratitude. God’s grace had started them on their spiritual journey and moved them far along. Our gratitude will grow when we focus more on the progress God gives than the problems others cause.

In Christ Jesus: God’s grace is always mediated to us by Jesus Christ. Whenever you get frustrated with others, remember this: Jesus Christ loves them and gave himself for them (Eph. 5:2).

So, give thanks. It’s good for the soul: yours—and theirs!

Barack Obama’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


Nearly 400 years ago, a small band of Pilgrims fled persecution and violence and came to this land as refugees in search of opportunity and the freedom to practice their faith. Though the journey was rough and their first winter harsh, the friendly embrace of an indigenous people, the Wampanoag — who offered gracious lessons in agriculture and crop production — led to their successful first harvest. The Pilgrims were grateful they could rely on the generosity of the Wampanoag people, without whom they would not have survived their first year in the new land, and together they celebrated this bounty with a festival that lasted for days and prompted the tradition of an annual day of giving thanks.

This history teaches us that the American instinct has never been to seek isolation in opposite corners; it is to find strength in our common creed and forge unity from our great diversity. On that very first thanksgiving celebration, these same ideals brought together people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and every year since, with enduring confidence in the power of faith, love, gratitude, and optimism, this force of unity has sustained us as a people. It has guided us through times of great challenge and change and allowed us to see ourselves in those who come to our shores in search of a safer, better future for themselves and their families.

On this holiday, we count our blessings and renew our commitment to giving back. We give thanks for our troops and our veterans — and their families — who give of themselves to protect the values we cherish; for the first responders, teachers, and engaged Americans who serve their communities; and for the chance to live in a country founded on the belief that all of us are created equal. But on this day of gratitude, we are also reminded that securing these freedoms and opportunities for all our people is an unfinished task. We must reflect on all we have been afforded while continuing the work of ensuring no one is left out or left behind because of who they are or where they come from.

For generations, our Nation’s progress has been carried forward by those who act on the obligations we have to one another. Each year on Thanksgiving, the selflessness and decency of the American people surface in food banks and shelters across our country, in time spent caring for the sick and the stranger, and in efforts to empathize with those with whom we disagree and to recognize that every individual is worthy of compassion and care. As we gather in the company of our friends, families, and communities — just as the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag did centuries ago — let us strive to lift up others, promote tolerance and inclusiveness, and give thanks for the joy and love that surround all of us.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 24, 2016, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together — whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors — and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this
twenty-third day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand sixteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-first.

BARACK OBAMA

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln

George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation


[New York, 3 October 1789]

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor–and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be–That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in thecourse and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions–to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Review of ‘Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’ by Johan Norberg


Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (London, OneWorld, 2016).

“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days,” wrote Franklin Pierce Adams, “than a bad memory.” The good old days, in other words, weren’t so good. Indeed, if Johan Norberg is to be believed, the good old days are right now.

Drawing on a variety of social science data, Norberg points to ten ways the world has progressed over the last three centuries:

  • Food is plentiful and cheap.
  • Clean water and good sanitation are increasingly available.
  • Life expectancy is longer.
  • Poverty has fallen dramatically.
  • War and violence blight fewer lives.
  • Increasing wealth has benefited the environment.
  • Literacy is widespread.
  • People are increasingly free of arbitrary authority.
  • Equality is increasingly experienced and demanded.

None of this denies specific counterexamples, of course. Hunger, pollution, terrorism, and poverty are facts of life for many throughout the world. Still, in historical perspective as well as in absolute terms, these ills are on the decline.

Take extreme poverty, for example. Norberg writes:

…In 1981, fifty-four per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. This already marks an historic achievement. According to an ambitious attempt to measure poverty over the long run, with a $2 a day threshold for extreme poverty, adjusted for purchasing power in 1985, ninety-four per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme population in 1820, eighty-two per cent in 1910 and seventy-two percent in 1950.

But in the last few decades things have really begun to change. Between 1981 and 2015 the proportion of low- and middle-income countries suffering from extreme poverty was reduced from fifty-four percent to twelve per cent….

…By all our best estimates, global poverty has been reduced by more than one percentage point annually for three decades.

The next time you and your friends debate income inequality, keep that statistic in mind. Yes, there is income inequality in the world, but the floor of that inequality is no longer extreme poverty for the vast majority of the world’s population.

That’s good news, right? Of course it is! And it’s a reason—along with other improvements in the material conditions of humanity—to give thanks at this time of year.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’ by Michael Connelly


Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye: A Bosch Novel (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016).

Harry Bosch is back in this just-released novel by Michael Connelly, with an assist from his half-brother Mickey Haller. This time Bosch is a private investigator, as well as an unpaid reserve officer in the San Fernando Police Department. The Wrong Side of Goodbye finds him solving two cases, a serial rapist case for the SFPD and one for a reclusive billionaire seeking a long-lost heir from the wrong side of the tracks.

I pre-ordered this novel in March, got it Tuesday, and read straight through it. The action is not as high-octane as in some of Connelly’s other novels, but it’s a page-turner nonetheless. There’s nothing quite like being grabbed by a plot twist you didn’t see coming.

What I love about Connelly’s novels, especially the Bosch series, are the backstories: Harry’s, obviously, but also Los Angeles’. All of them treat the city itself as a character in the story.

I recommend this book. Heck, I recommend all of Connelly’s novels. They’re police procedurals at their finest.

As soon as Amazon posts Connelly’s next book, I’m preordering it too. The wait is worth it.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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