Book review: Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History (InterVarsity Press, 2019).

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Book Review: Robert Tracy McKenzie, A Little Book for new Historians: Why and How to Study History (InterVarsity Press, 2019)

This is a well-written but fairly standard history methods book with an interesting Christian and conservative perspective.  Like dozens of authors before him, McKenzie begins with a definition of history that draws a distinction between the past and history (i.e. the study of the past).  The first four chapters are devoted to explaining what history is and to defending the study of history. McKenzie is strongest when building a case for the importance of history, historical thinking, and historical consciousness. But missing from the book is most any historical thinking exercise, explanation of specific historical approaches to the past (quantitative, Marxist, progressive, etc), or examples of how historians have solved certain historical problems. There is also little or no discussion of epistemology like the perennial topics of bias and subjectivity.

Readers are exhorted to look to primary sources, and I found at least three times when McKenzie repeats the trope that “facts do not speak for themselves.” Readers are also told to focus on interpretations instead of facts, to study the historian before studying their writings, and to think about having a conversation about the big picture. This is all fine, but how then is evidence to be interpreted? What topics should historians focus on and what tools should they use? While the book will help students to clarify their thoughts about what history is, it is less helpful in showing them how to do history.

McKenzie provides some general wisdom about how to think historically. For example, he spends a few pages summarizing the work of Sam Wineburg (my review) showing that historians are more patient and more context-oriented than non-historians. But if McKenzie accepts Wineburg’s pessimism of the average person’s ability to think historically, McKenzie is then perhaps too optimistic when he defends history education by saying that it teaches students to “read closely, think analytically, argue logically, and communicate persuasively” (35) My colleague Jason Brennan, in his new co-authored book Cracks in the Ivory Tower, demonstrates how philosophy departments often use similar language to promote the usefulness of their major. History departments, like philosophy departments, often make such claims about transferrable skills, higher tests scores, improved critical thinking ability, etc. Defenders of the discipline might point to test scores and data about student achievement, or career achievement and earnings. One problem with this line of thinking, as Brennan and Magness note, is that students who select for certain majors may be more likely to already have such skills than do their fellow students in other disciplines, or they might actually develop such skills not because of their direct training from these departments, but because of their own initiative or development. It is a difficult sell to argue that history education blesses all or most students with better reading, thinking, and communicating skills.

Nevertheless, whatever its minor shortcomings as a primer to historical method or historical thinking, this book adds something new to the discussion about how to be a Christian historian or a Christian and a historian. The sections on Christian history seem oddly juxtaposed with the rest of the book, and I wonder if McKenzie could have written a better and more popular book had he just focused on the Christian history theme all the way through. In a way, however, the approach he has taken is a marketing success for its established evangelical publisher, InterVarsity Press.  Christians, especially conservative Christians who teach history methods at religious colleges will find this a welcome alternative to the historical methods books heavy on Marxism and postmodernism.  Indeed, there is nothing here that is to the left of E.H. Carr or Marc Bloch. There is no Hayden White, not linguistic turn, no race, class, gender. Through the book McKenzie quotes a number of mostly conservatively-friendly historians like Hebert Butterfield and John Lukacs. (read my article on the Conservative view of history).  Unusual for a history methods book, the author’s most frequently cited author is C.S. Lewis. (Which by the way, reminds me of the old three-part strategy for writing a Reformed sermon: cite C.S. Lewis, define a Greek word, read from the Gospel).

McKenzie introduces the Christian theme in chapter one, but his justification for doing so seems absent.  He only says that for 30 years in academia, he has been wrestling with “what it means to think Christianly as a historian.”  Fair enough, and to his credit, they are very few good answers out there on this question.  I haven’t been satisfied with the old writings on this theme by E.C. Rust, Jacques Maritain, Gordon Clark, etc., nor with the more general writings about what it means to be a Christian and a scholar, like Richard Mouw’s Called to the Life of the Mind.

McKenzie introduces two elements here: awe and humility. He says that Christian historians should be awed by God’s vast creation and stand humbled by the “near infinite past.”  Now, of course, Christian historians have exclusive rights to neither awe nor humility, and while we might say that Christian historians should have these traits, that seems far from sufficient for making them Christian historians. At any rate, what I’m getting at is that it is still unclear to me what a Christian historian should do, how he or she should think, and what a Christian history should teach about methods or philosophy.

McKenzie is more clear when he writes that Christian history must be linear, not cyclical, and this means that it is moving towards something. (31) This means furthermore that Christian historians should reject the idea that “history repeats”.  McKenzie is aware that “history repeats” is an ambiguous idea. One could be a Christian historian and still defend certain understandings of repetition in history. Most of the time when someone says that history repeats, they don’t mean by this some law of historical determinism or some absolute congruence between two historical events or era; they simply mean that they see a pattern or a commonality between two events in the past.

Chapter 5 “Discipleship”  asks “Is there a specifically Christian case for the study of history?” (47) which is an interesting questions, but obviously a different one from what the Christian view of history should be, or how historians who are Christians should think and act. Yet, this chapter is a useful defense of history for Christians. McKenzie presents the following points: (1) God created us historical beings. (2) History is absolutely foundational to Christianity. (3) If we have accepted Christ, we are members of a community of faith that binds living and dead, present, and past. (4) Our faith informs us that the entire unfolding of human story is worthy of attention.  (5) In striving to understand the past, we stand on holy ground.

At first glance, these don’t seem like very controversial propositions, but are they true? And what do they even mean? Let’s deal with each of the five points. First, are humans created as historical beings? I guess so, but that seems pretty vague. By design, we have a past, McKenzie argues. That may be true, but to what extent we should care about our past is the question. From this proposition, I don’t see sufficient reason to justify historical study.

Second, history is foundational to Christianity. It is true that in the Christian view, the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection take place in a particular place and time; a historical context, namely. So, Christianity has a universal message that unfolds in history. But this proposition seems almost uselessly vague.

Third, as Christians, we are members of a historical community, stretching across time.  How exactly we are bound to Christians of the past or future is not laid out here. Are these ethical obligations? Obligations to try to understand Christians of other eras? Or is this point only intended to sanction Christian historical study?

Fourth: is the entire human story worth of attention? It seems that as historians, we must decide that most of human history is not worthy of attention. Historians, by their nature, have to select what is worthy and what is not worthy of study. Or perhaps one can read this point not so much as saying that all human history is worthy of the historian’s attention (what I had for breakfast this morning is hardly important for any historian), but that all human life and activity has value.

The fifth point seems to be that we ought to have awe and respect for history, since in thinking about the past, we are looking at God’s creation. The past, in this metaphor, is holy ground.

I’m left wondering to whom these five points are addressed?  Are there Christians, and specifically Christians (?) who oppose historical study, who are some kind of Platonic idealists who think that faith in the divine stands completely outside of history? Are there arch anti-empiricists who think historical cases for the truth of religion are bound to be unconvincing?

Curiously, McKenzie does not much defend providential history, though he notes that “As a Christian, there are elements of this approach that I very much respect.”   McKenzie argues that historians must be willing to play by the rules of academic history and not explain historical events through appeals to God’s influence on the past. The reason they shouldn’t do this, it seems, is that they will be ridiculed by mainstream academics and therefore unable to participant in historiographical dialogue.

My jaw dropped though when I read McKenzie was going to argue against Providential history on theological grounds.  (96) I just wasn’t expecting that tack, but McKenzie explains himself well.  The problem with providential history, he says, is not that God does not influence events. Indeed, history works out according to His plan, McKenzie states. The problem is that it is impossible to apply this principle when looking for historical cause and effect. To what degree was God responsible, and to what degree was man responsible for a particular historical event? Modern interpretations of the past are not in the same category as revealed truths of scripture that explain when God was at work in human affairs. McKenzie distinguishes then between historical conclusions and prophetic declarations. A historian, qua historian, cannot say that God shaped American this way or that, but a Christian, as a Christian, can.      McKenzie shows in a following paragraph that he is skeptical of moral judgements in the past. This seems congruent with his view that we should be skeptical of applying explanations by way of God’s hand in historical accounts.

Providence, then, seems to become some kind of meta-mover, not the proximate cause of historical change, but its underlying or perhaps overarching influence. But does this expel God from history proper, from the understanding of day to day actions of people in the past? Is the ultimate shape or direction of history determined by God, but the smaller on the ground developments determined by man?  These are problems that Christian historians have to deal with and which McKenzie should be lauded for attempting to answer.

I imagine a fundamentalist Christian would warn that McKenzie is on a slippery slope to expelling God from history. Is this a historical God-of-the-gaps they might ask, or a God who watches but seldom intervenes in history?  Shouldn’t Christian historians always explain the past by reference to God’s will, the secular explanations of their secular colleagues be damned?!  Should Christian historians cede ground to non-Christian academics so that they can have a conversation with them, or should Christian historians go their own way, taking with them their own kind of historical methods?

In the end, this book will inspire and convince students that history is a worthwhile enterprise. It will be less useful in teaching them the methods required to be an historian.

One comment

  1. […] McKenzie’s book is a very fine introduction to the topic of history.  For a more in-depth review than I will attempt, read what historian Michael Douma says on his blog review–found HERE. […]

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