A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History (Little Books) by Robert T. McKenzie. 120pp. IVP Books.
Robert McKenzie’s book called A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History is a timely resource. As I write this review, we are amid a national crisis with a virus. Because we live in a very pragmatic, and “present-tense” culture, people aren’t familiar with the past, nor do they seem to care about the past. As he notes “ we have lost the sense of physical with the past. The generations that have gone before us have become abstractions” – pg 26.
McKenzie has taught history to several students and he knows the reality of trying to make a living with a history major. Even though those whose study history may not become professors of history, he notes “history has practical benefits that include an array of intellectual skills that are integral to any number of occupations.”- pg 35. Studying history can help one to read closely, think analytically, argue logically, and communicate persuasively.” -pg 35. He rightly notes that in our current pragmatic culture, one can trained in a vocational skill without being educated in a deeper sense” – pg 38.
He notes that for the follower of Jesus, history is foundational to our faith. After all, “we are members of a community of faith that binds the living and the dead, past and present.” – pg 49. Also, “Historical truth is God’s truth and thus precious to him.”- pg 52.
Anyone knows that none of us were there to talk to the first witnesses of Jesus. But as McKenzie notes “ historical evidence can be studied through primary and secondary sources.” – pg 59. Primary sources are are forms of evidence that come to us directly from the periods or persons or events we are seeking to understand. Secondary sources are what historians produce when they look back on the past and try to make sense of it.” Pg 59. I found these definitions to be a little different than what I had heard before, Anyways, for a Christian to be disinterested in historical method and the study of history itself, makes little sense.
McKenzie notes “Presentism” is “our unthinking inclination to view the past through the lens of the present and to misread what we are seeing as a result.” – pg 78. Of course, McKenzie notes we can train ourselves to not do this. But he quotes historian Margaret Bendroth who says, “Americans are happily stranded in the present.” – pg 21. He notes the overload of technological change has caused us to live in the present and look to the future. Learning about the past simply isn’t a huge priority. He notes that “equating technological change with progress, we conclude all previous generations have been backward, which in turn undermines any argument for the past to be taken seriously.” – pg 25.
On final note about the relationship between God and history. McKenzie notes that “ scholars label such efforts to trace God’s handiwork in the past to providential history.” – pg 95. But sadly, as he notes, when it comes to being an historian in an academic setting, Christian historians can’t appeal to God’s actions in history because the academy has a set of rules to play by which is generally methodological naturalism (all historical events can be explained by natural laws and forces”- pgs. 95-96. But McKenzie rightly doesn’t think we should make a sharp divide between primary and secondary causation. God is the Primary cause of events in history (a miracles such as the resurrection), but he also works through natural, or secondary causes.
As I was writing this review, I was thinking of the present crisis in our country. We are certainly looking for pragmatic solutions and we need be in the present. But what can we learn from the past about this issue? Some have mentioned other times in history when we had a crisis, or we had to deal with other illnesses. This event is causing some people to possibly look to the past for answers. There is no way around that. I enjoyed this short book every much and I hope it gets the widest possibly reading.