A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Darryl Hart
If the owners of the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers had read Robert Tracy McKenzie’s short book on the study of history they might have let Kate Smith be. Readers may recall that in the Spring of 2019, executives in both franchises’ organizations learned that the woman who made famous the song, “God, Bless America,” had in the 1930s also recorded songs with racist lyrics. That knowledge led the Yankees to stop using Smith’s version of “God, Bless America” in seventh-inning stretch rituals. It also prompted the Flyers, who had in the 1970s even employed Smith to sing the song live before Stanley Cup playoff games – the Broad Street Bullies’ very own good luck charm, to remove a statue of the singer from outside the team’s home arena. (That Smith merited a monument from the Flyers is testimony to her iconic status in team history.) But if Yankees’ and Flyers’ executives knew how to think about the past, they might have understood that judging Smith’s 1930s recordings by 2010s standards is a classic example of presentism – what is true now is the standard for the past. As McKenzie well shows, studying history is one of the best inoculations against making the present our norm.
A Little Book for New Historians is a great introduction to historical inquiry, designed chiefly for high school or college students, that still has lots of insights for those well beyond undergraduate studies and even healthy reminders for those who study the past for a living. A historian at Wheaton College, McKenzie is especially good at persuading readers why the past matters. Even in our personal lives, we only make sense of who we are and what we try to accomplish on the basis of how we relate to our past. In fact, to lose one’s memory, as in the case of Alzheimer’s victims, is to lose identity and meaning. McKenzie quotes Soren Kierkegaard who wrote, “We live forward, but we can only think backward.”  This runs against the grain of American character, which in its democratic tendencies, produced Henry Ford’s famous remark, “History is more or less bunk.” 
The book comes in two sections. The first makes a case for studying history, which may be the most thought-provoking since McKenzie clarifies well what historical knowledge involves. He argues that the word “history” is commonly and simply associated with the past. But the study of history, while involving the past, captures an infinitesimally small part of it, like the difference between everything that occurred in a persons life, 26,000 days worth (roughly seventy years) versus the parts that make it into a 700-page biography. “Remembered past” is another qualification. It is that part of either personal, institutional, or national narrative, that informs a person’s identity, say the way Americans use memories of July 4, 1776, to define national purpose. This way of conceiving “history” allows McKenzie to make the entirely correct and seemingly obvious but also profound point that people always live with some sense of the past. Even at the level of personal awareness, we tend to understand who we are in relation to events, circumstances, family backgrounds. As such, the past is inescapable. Since this book is written specifically with Christian students in mind, McKenzie also extends his brief for studying history to Christianity itself. What it means to be Christian (as varied and contentious as that may be) is bound up with the past if only because Christianity (and Judaism) depends on historical events in which God intervened in human events to carry out his purposes.
The second part of the book walks readers (and would-be students) through the basics of doing history correctly. It may not be rocket science but the academic study of the past (even carried out by non-academics) requires attention to sources, historiography (the study of what other historians have said), and best procedures for making credible arguments. McKenzie is again particularly strong in arguing that history, properly conceived and executed, guards against interpreting the past according to contemporary norms. He gives the example of undergraduates trying to make sense of Abraham Lincoln’s seemingly contradictory statements about slavery on the eve of the Civil War. A tendency, once students confront the tensions, is to conclude simply that the president was inconsistent (like all presidents). But a better approach is to let history challenge the present by placing the living and the dead in a kind of community where both sides challenge each other. This would not allow excuses for slavery. But it would also provide ways for considering that people living now face moral dilemmas every bit as difficult to resolve as those faced in the past. Historical investigation carried out this way allows McKenzie to conclude that history matters. It not only improves understanding but also cultivates humility. “In thinking about the past … we work to identify with those whom we are otherwise tempted to judge,” he writes. “We acknowledge that their propensity to sin is no more developed than ours.” 
Such assertions demonstrate that McKenzie seeks to do justice to Christian motivations for studying the past. He is successful in this regard except for one matter that could well have improved his case for historical consciousness. The Bible itself not only tells lots of stories from the past but also shows that understanding salvation depends on knowing the difference between God’s ways of redeeming his people before and after Christ. What had been norms for the Israelites, as the New Testament shows, especially Paul, were no longer binding on Christians. Consider the difference between circumcision and baptism. In other words, to understand the Bible aright, even the gospel, requires an awareness of chronology and historical development.
McKenzie’s book is a welcome reminder of history’s importance for understanding human experience as well as the temporal character of creation itself. By implication, he also shows that an awareness of the past is necessary for understanding Christianity itself.
Buy the books
A LITTLE BOOK FOR NEW HISTORIANS: WHY AND HOW TO STUDY HISTORY, by Robert Tracy McKenzie