A Thanksgiving/Chanukah Reading List
1. Mourt's Relation by Anonymous, 1622
We possess an original first-person account by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, two pilgrims who crossed on the Mayflower. We hear in their very own words about their coming to America, and what they thought of their establishment of a permanent colony. It starts like an adventure tale, starting with the moment they first set eyes on America:
... after many difficulties in boisterous storms, at length, by God's providence, upon the ninth of November following, by break of the day we espied land which was deemed to be Cape Cod, and so afterward it proved. And the appearance of it much comforted us, especially seeing so goodly a land, and wooded to the brink of the sea. It caused us to rejoice together, and praise God that had given us once again to see land.
We hear about the very first moment of establishing self-government, an American tradition that was to change the world:
This day before we came to harbor ... it was thought good there should be an association and agreement that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose, and set our hands to this that follows word for word.
It is quite amazing to read a description of the first Thanksgiving in their own words -- not far off from the version that used to be taught to schoolchildren, even to learning from the Indians to put a dead fish in their planting holes to fertilize their corn.
It makes perfect reading for Thanksgiving. You can buy it or read it online.
2. On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding by Michael Novak.
The Bible was read daily by New England families. As taught by their ministers, it indelibly formed the Puritans' "essential outlook of the Hebrews: that the Creator gave humans a special place among all other creatures, and made them free, and endowed them with incomparable responsibility and dignity," Michael Novak explains.
The liberal secularists who dominate academia and the public school system teach us what is not true -- that America was founded primarily on Enlightenment ideas -- and do not teach us what is true -- that America was equally founded on the Protestant understanding of the Hebrew Bible. On Two Wings is a book full of fascinating information and portraits of our founders and their religious beliefs.
In one key respect, the way the story of the United States has been told for the past one hundred years is wrong. It has cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies, her compact with the God of the Jews. ... John Adams warned Thomas Jefferson - the latter less tethered to the Bible's realism, more tempted to simple rationalism - these words: "Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws."
James Madison stayed an extra year at Princeton University to study Hebrew and Scriptures under the revolutionary patriot and Presbyterian theologian President Witherspoon. Witherspoon's students included twelve members of the Continental Congress, five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and scores of officers in the Continental Army.
Witherspoon's most famous sermon, on the Israelites rebelling against Pharaoh, was distributed to 500 Presbyterian churches seven weeks before the Declaration of Independence, preparing people's consciences to accept this revolutionary act. Why have we never heard of him?
3. A short web entry on a little-known moment in colonial history: the first American to fight against unjust taxes, and to insist on the right to bear arms, was colonist Asser Levy, who refused to pay a special tax on Jews and won the right to bear arms and stand watch equally with other citizens.
4. The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony.
Although I had one friend who stayed up until two in the morning reading this book, I find it meaningful to dip into it to read about a particular prophet, when I am needing a prophetic message.
Hazony explains in an interview:
Hebrew Scripture is an intensely personal subject for me. In some ways, I feel a very deep sympathy for biblical figures like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These are people who saw the destruction of their nation with their own eyes -- something that we can hardly even imagine. The Hebrew Bible is the record they left us of what this unimaginable catastrophe, and of the lessons they thought future generations should learn from it.
I think that when someone leaves you a record like that, it's a very special thing. These people sent us, you could say, a message in a bottle, telling us what happened to them. This bottle contains all their most intimate suffering, but also their reflections and ideas -- ideas they thought we'd need so that we'd remember and not make the same mistakes ourselves. But today for all sorts of reasons we ignore that message. For most people the Bible is just a closed book.
... You know, I can't say it better than this young woman I met at an airport in the UK last year. I was on my way to Scotland and she was coming from Ireland and on her way to Israel -- she was getting onto a plane I had just gotten off of. It was her second trip. She told me her husband hadn't wanted to go so she was going alone. I asked her why it was so important for her to go, since she wasn't a Jew. She said to me: "I can't explain exactly. But I know that going back to the Bible is going back to the root of everything. It's who we are."
I think this young Irishwoman had it right: The Hebrew Bible is who we are, and what we are.
... When you're cut off from your roots you often come to feel an ache and an emptiness that you can't explain. And often enough that vacant space ends up getting filled with all sorts of crazy things, with fascism and communism being just two obvious examples of what the world looks like after all the roots have been torn out.
... But then I meet people like this woman from Ireland, and it makes me think maybe something could change.
5. Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired by Benson Bobrick. The concepts of liberty and freedom, guided the Puritan revolutionaries of 16th-century England, were primarily derived from the King James Bible. A moving account of the Scripture's liberating power in history.
6. Americanism, the Fourth Great Western Religion by David Gelernter.
Gelernter, in this very readable extended essay, starts with the Pilgrims and Puritans, and how their values were developed and realized by the generation of 1776 and President Abraham Lincoln. The topic is not academic to Gelernter, who draws out the crucial importance of knowing and embracing this precious heritage as we face the 21st-century challenges of war by Islam on the West.
Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams were raised as Puritans, reading the Geneva Bible, which had marginal notes throughout the Old Testament that preached against kings as tyrants, church hierarchy, and obeying wicked laws.
7. Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (Mcgill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion: Series Two) by Paul Charles Merkley
From the Amazon description:
Paul Merkley argues that Christian attitudes towards Israel reflect fundamental theological attitudes that must be studied against the long historical background of Christian attitudes towards Judaism and Islam. He draws on a wide range of research and literature published by Christian organizations and on interviews with key figures within the government of Israel, spokespeople for the Palestine Authority, and leaders of all the major pro and anti-Zionist Christian organizations to demonstrate that Christian attitudes towards Israel remain remarkably polarized.
I can't say enough good things about this book and its healing potential to bring Evangelicals and Jews together as moral and political allies. I'd like to give it to liberal Protestant friends, but sadly, having read the book, I am older and wiser about the deep roots of liberal Protestant hostility to Israel (and Jews). Merkley is wonderfully frank and honest about difficult topics.
On a happier note, Merkley has fascinating information on why and how the main Evangelical groups have become such ardent Zionists and philo-Semites.
8. Under the Cope of Heaven. Religion, Society and Politics in Colonial America by Patricia Bonomi.
I especially liked her chapters on the American Revolution and the Great Awakening. Bonomi writes:
When one farmer who had fought at Concord Bridge was asked ... whether he was defending the ideas of such liberal writers, he declared for his part he had never heard of Locke or Sidney, his reading having been limited to the Bible, the Catechism, Watt's Psalms and Hymns and the Almanac.
Few of us know how far the roots of the Evangelical movement go in American history, let alone its importance. The spread of evangelical radical teachings, based on the Bible, prepared the way for rebellion against Britain.
Benjamin Franklin was an enthusiastic supporter of George Whitefield, the most popular of the Great Awakening's roving evangelical preachers. Franklin printed Whitefield's sermons on the front page of his newspaper, the Gazette. He arranged to publish all of Whitefield's sermons and journals. Half of Franklin's publications in 1739-41 were of Whitefield, and they helped the success of the evangelical movement in America.
The Puritans and the Jews shared something else beyond the moral wisdom of the Bible: they shared the turn of mind that comes from reading and thinking about the Bible for oneself. Being intellectually challenged by biblical realism makes you smart, and the lessons of personal responsibility become part of one's very character. Freedom and responsibility plus hard work is a formula for success shared by America's earlier generations and current-day Israelis. Gilder (who is not Jewish) sees the Israelis as the greatest living embodiment of innovative capitalism and the work ethic. How others react to their seemingly miraculous success is a litmus test -- the "Israel test" -- on how we respond to free enterprise and the success it brings.
Judaism, he argues, "perhaps more than any other religion, favors capitalist activity and provides a rigorous moral framework for it." America's ability and desire to defend Israel will define our future survival as a nation: "If Israel is destroyed," he says, "capitalist Europe will likely die as well, and America, as the epitome of productive and creative capitalism spurred by Jews, will be in jeopardy."