It’s Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022.
I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
This is our annual Thanksgiving edition of The Briefing and we’re going to be turning to some really deep, and I think very urgently important, issues related to Thanksgiving. But first we’re going to turn to something that I found very interesting and I think you’re likely to find interesting as well. It comes down to the fact that when you think about the Thanksgiving holiday, and in particular the Thanksgiving meal in the United States, for a very long time the centerpiece of that meal has been a turkey. But here’s where we need to understand. There are some pretty deep issues that are always raised when we look at cuisine, when we look at food because it is so essential to who we are as human beings, but it’s also so integrally related to the development of culture, different cultures, different foods, right down to different tastes and different diets.
So who came up with plucking a turkey and roasting it and eating it for a feast? Well, the answer is we’re not particularly sure, but at least human consumption of turkey probably goes back to the earliest settlers from Europe to the United States, partly because the turkey is a native North American bird. Now, technically two different forms of turkeys, but the most important thing to recognize is that if you’re looking at a big bird like that, human beings look and say, “I think that might taste good roasted.”
In one sense, by the time of the American founding, the turkey was so well known and admired as food in the United States that Benjamin Franklin was ready to name the turkey America’s national bird. Just think about how things might be different if the bald eagle had been supplanted by the turkey as a national symbol. Somehow it just doesn’t feel right. But for many decades in the United States, the big problem with the turkey as a centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal is that Americans ate turkey only at the Thanksgiving meal, which meant that the commercial raising in production of turkeys was not a continuous business 12 months a year. It turns out that even now there’s a disproportionate interest in turkey at Thanksgiving, and again to a lesser degree at Christmas. But when it comes to the rest of the year, for most of American history, Americans didn’t eat turkey.
You think about that now and you compare it with the fact that we put turkey into sandwiches, we put turkey into pot pies, we put turkey into casseroles. Here in Kentucky, we put turkey into the famous hot brown. But when did all that start? Well, more recently than you might think. The fact that Americans would eat turkey 12 months a year, that would’ve been beyond the comprehension or for that matter, the tremendous hopes of the turkey farmers and industry going back a matter of a century ago. But it was in the 20th century that Americans decided they would eat turkey on days other than Thanksgiving, and it all started with a frozen pot pie.
It was in the year 1952. World War II was over, America was getting back into business. Americans were having babies, and Americans ate turkey at Thanksgiving. And Swanson, which was then the largest turkey grower in the world, had a lot of leftover turkey after Thanksgiving. And so Swanson armed with frozen food technology and also with all those turkeys decided to put them together, cook the turkeys, slice them up, and to put them in the form of Swanson TV dinners. The first box said, “Quick frozen turkey dinner. Just heat and serve.” There were those who were absolutely convinced that a frozen turkey dinner would not sell in the United States. Certainly 52 weeks a year however, they were wrong. At the end of the first year of Swanson’s frozen turkey TV dinners on the market, Americans had bought and presumably consumed 10 million of them.
Now, historians believe that this had a great deal to do with how Americans decided that turkey was something they would eat all year round. And of course there are other benefits. It is a form of poultry. It is low in terms of fat compared to some other meats, and thus a lot of Americans like it. However, Bee Wilson writing the Table Talk column for the Wall Street Journal points out that turkey isn’t unproblematic when it comes to cooking, and there are many cooks, especially younger, newer cooks, who are perplexed by what to do with the turkey. She writes, “Few dishes create as much cooking anxiety as a roast turkey. Since 1981, the Turkey Talk-Line run by Butterball has been answering queries about how to prepare the bird. The lines are staffed by people trained to answer intricate questions on the virtues of spatchcocking, how to get the legs cooked through without drying out the white meat, and whether it is worth brining the turkey before you roast it. But, says Bee Wilson, “apparently the most popular question by a long way is simply, ‘How do I defrost it?’.”
I’m just going to offer some lay advice here and say step one is take it out of the freezer. Some historians, again, going back to the pilgrims in Plymouth Colony believe that they ate turkey as early as their second Thanksgiving meal. I’m not absolutely sure about the first, but the point is that turkey is now considered central to the American Thanksgiving, but is increasingly rather central to the American diet. Not everybody’s going along.
Inventions such as the dry turkey sandwich or turkey meatballs, well, it is explained in this article that “both were inventions of the post-war turkey industry designed to get people to eat more turkey year round.” And Americans are eating a lot of turkey. How much turkey did you eat last year? Well, the average American eats 15.4 pounds of turkey every single year, perhaps sometimes even unknowingly. Just guessing a bit here.
Animal rights activists and vegans and others are suggesting products such as Tofurky, which is tofu, not turkey but meant to taste like turkey. And we are told that the sale of Tofurky rose 37% in 2020, and yet even though soaring sales, the total Tofurky market in the United States is around $50 million, that’s real money, but the actual turkey market is $5 billion. Turkey wins big time over Tofurky. And by the way, if you’re eating a wheat-free diet, you might want to note that Tofurky is made up of both tofu and wheat.
Now, I just want to say that the Wall Street Journal was big this year on news reporting about turkey, including telling us that turkey is now showing up at least as a taste or flavor in what the paper calls unusual dishes, including turkey ice cream. Charles Passy is the reporter in this article. And just in case you had never eaten turkey ice cream, let me just say I am unlikely by my own choice ever to eat it myself. I actually have a new goal in life, which is avoiding ever eating turkey ice cream. But evidently it’s a seller. Especially at a firm called Salt and Straw, identified as an ice cream company with locations throughout the country, it offers Thanksgiving themed ice cream flavors, including pumpkin and ginger snap, but also roasted peach and sage cornbread, stuffing Parker house rolls with salted buttercream and even caramelized turkey and cranberry sauce.
Now, all that is problematic and troubling enough if you ask me. But nonetheless, a craft beverage brand known as the Jones Soda Company has come out once again with its turkey and gravy soda. I’ll just say as a matter of nature, I think that’s not right. Nonetheless, we are told that the company has featured the same flavor, turkey and gravy soda in the past. The Wall Street Journal tells us, “Marketing director Kurt Thompson explains that the brand relies on natural flavorings to create the soda, which is vegan friendly.” He then says, and this is a direct statement, “No turkey was harmed.” So I just have to ask the question, if no turkey was harmed, how exactly did you get those natural turkey flavors? I don’t think the turkeys are passing the flavors out.
Speaking of the ice cream, we are told, “Salt and Straw co-founder Tyler Malek says The Thanksgiving offerings can create their share of controversy noting that a mashed potatoes and gravy flavor served in the past was especially divisive, but he said this year’s turkey ice cream has gone over well.” In his own words, “It’s surprisingly delicious.”
Well, I’ll say it honestly, I’d be surprised.
But at a far deeper level of interest to Christians, it is very interesting to watch, to overhear, to observe the conversation about Thanksgiving especially in an unbelieving culture.
The New York Times offered an editorial piece by columnist Pamela Paul entitled Thanksgiving Bash, and she makes very clear she likes Thanksgiving. But in one particular paragraph, she really caught my attention and also my heart. She writes this, “Boiled down to its essentials, Thanksgiving is a holiday about shared gratitude. We could just think about the thanks in thanksgiving for a change. That gratitude may have originally been intended towards God and those Native Americans who help the newly arrived colonists survive and for whom atonement may have been more appropriate.” She says, “But even for us secular humanists, Thanksgiving offers a moment to appreciate whatever good this year wrought even if by accident or chance.”
Now, I’m not saying that Pamela Paul doesn’t mean what she writes here. I think we should just take her at her word. She does believe in the possibility and even the appropriateness of a secular humanist Thanksgiving. Interestingly with regards to history, she looks back and says, “It was pretty clear that the first Thanksgiving wouldn’t have happened without giving thanks to God. But now evidently we know better,” she implies. And even yet in our secular humanist age, our increasingly secularized culture, we can and should still observe thanksgiving.
But then again, you’ll notice her honesty when she says that “even for us secular humanist, Thanksgiving offers a moment to appreciate whatever good this year wrought even if by accident or chance end.” Now, let’s just take that statement seriously for a moment. Let’s just try to enter into this worldview sympathetically for a moment. And it does remind us of the fact that if we have no explanation for the world, for the cosmos, for our own existence other than materialism and chance, then this is about all the thanks we can be thankful for. That is to say things turned out better than they might have. I’m happy about that.
But here I want to come back to a very basic biblical principle, and that is the Thanksgiving has to have a referent. There has to be a referent. There is a to whom we are thankful. I remember going to a school program some years ago when the who being thanked, the who or the whom was the Native Americans who had assisted and befriended the pilgrims. Now, that’s just not historically accurate. That’s not to whom the thanks was given. That is the respect that was given by one to another, but the Thanksgiving was addressed to God. And that has been very clear throughout American history. That has been very clear throughout say even something as civic as presidential proclamations. The language of America’s civic and political leaders has not been thankfulness towards thankfulness but thankfulness towards God.
One of the reasons why this takes the shape of a certain civil or civic religion is the fact that if you are the President of the United States and you do speak about being thankful, you’re going to have to come up with someone to whom the thanks is to be directed. And thus, political leaders, even if they do not personally have a relationship with God, they nonetheless have to have a verbal relationship with God because otherwise Thanksgiving doesn’t make sense.
Just to remind ourselves of some of the language used by American political leaders, consider the fact that the first national day of Thanksgiving was declared by President George Washington in the year 1789. And then he called upon Americans “to unite in most humbly offering our prayer and supplications to the great Lord and ruler of nations.” Understand again, the thanks is directed to God, not directed towards thanks for being thankful.
Certain American presidents actually took the occasion of Thanksgiving to offer some of the most theologically textured and deeply emotional statements of national gratitude. These would include Abraham Lincoln’s statements during the Civil War and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proclamations for Thanksgiving during the trials of World War II. In the middle of that horrifying war, President Roosevelt offered these words, “The Almighty God has blessed our nation in many ways. He has given our people’s stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. So we pray to him now for a vision to see our way clearly, to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for our fellow men, to the achievement of his will to peace on earth.”
Just think in this secular age what might be said of a president who would speak that theologically, but that particular speaker was not a Christian preacher, but rather Franklin Roosevelt, president of the United States. A couple of issues for us to think about there. First of all, after the travail of the Great Depression and in the horrible reality of World War II, how could Thanksgiving be directed towards the Great Spirit or towards nature or towards the cosmos? You’ll notice how specifically and theologically President Roosevelt addressed his Thanksgiving proclamation.
By the way, the Bible not only commands thankfulness by the creature toward the Creator and by the creature towards the Provider of all things, and that is our heavenly Father, but we are also to thank God.
We are to have thankful hearts as Christians for the atonement accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ, for our salvation from sin, for all of the blessings that come to us in Christ and from the hands of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the gift of the church and the communion of saints, for all things we are to be thankful. The same God who gives us bread to eat is the God who gave us Jesus Christ as the very bread of life. Thus, there is also another logic to New Testament Christianity, and that is this. One of the primary signs of theological error, one of the primary signs of Godlessness, one of the primary signs of sin is indeed ingratitude. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to ground sin in a lack of thankfulness and also to ground specifically idolatry in a form of godless unthankfulness.
In Romans 1:20–22, the Apostle Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen being understood through what has been made so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” But you’ll notice the key phrase in the midst of so many important phrases is this, “They did not honor him as God or give thanks.”
Now, what I want us to note is that that is one sentence, that is one statement honoring him as God is to give thanks. And that is why a heart that is not a thankful heart can never be a godward heart and can never actually be an honest heart.
Theologians have long debated what is the most foundational or basic sin, and there have been answers given that have ranged from lust to pride. Nevertheless, it would seem that being unthankful, that is refusing to recognize God as a source of all good things is very close to the essence of the primal sin. What else explains the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the garden? A lack of proper thankfulness was at the core of their sin. God gave them unspeakable riches and abundance, but prohibited them the fruit of one tree. A proper thankfulness would’ve led our first parents to avoid that fruit at all costs and to obey the Lord’s command. Taken further, this first sin was also a lack of thankfulness in the decision to eat the forbidden fruit, which indicated a lack of thankfulness that took the form of the assertion that we creatures, not the creator, even know what is best for us and intend the best for us.
But you’ll notice something else about that statement. They did not honor him as God or give thanks. Giving thanks properly understood, giving thanks honestly, giving thanks accurately means honoring God as God. From whom else have we received these things? Who gave us this cosmos? Who framed it for his glory? Who gave us our life and all good things? It is God himself, and there is no other. Sinners saved by the grace and mercy of God know a thankfulness that exceeds any mere human thankfulness.
We properly are grateful to fellow human beings. We properly express thanks to fellow human beings who have given us much, who give us much and will give us much in the future. But the fact is that nothing would exist, no good thing would exist, no blessing would come to us and we would not exist, but for the benevolent, glorious power of the Creator who made us indeed as human beings, made us in his image and made us for his glory. And at least a part of making us to know him and to know his glory is to know thankfulness and to know that our proper response to the creator everywhere all times is thankfulness.
My point here is not just to point the finger at the secularist and to the emptiness of their thanksgiving, because after all, they’re just thinking through and living out the consequences of their worldview. A few years ago, Emily Heil writing in the Washington Post before Thanksgiving offered an article with a headline saying, “Grace: How a moment of thanks religious or not adds meaning to our meals.” Well, the Christian purpose is not merely to add meaning to our meals, but rather to understand the meaning of the universe, the meaning of the cosmos.
And that comes down to the existence of God and to the fact that he reveals his grace and his glory in creation and shows it to us. He redeems us from our sin and calls us to thankfulness.
Finally about Thanksgiving, I just want to encourage you with one of the greatest biblical statements about Thanksgiving, which is found in Revelation 7:12.
We read these words where those before the throne of God declare, “Amen. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” It’s just so important to recognize that in the middle of that sequence is that word once again, the word thanksgiving. It is so important on the part of the creature towards the Creator that it is a part of the throne language of God.
The blessed ones before the throne declare His honor and His power. They declare His glory and His wisdom. They declare His might. But notice they also declare thanksgiving. Because what could the creature possibly do in light of the Creator’s glory and love and grace but say thank you and live out a life of thankfulness?
Sometimes Christians feel a little bit awkward when we say we can’t reduce something as constant, something as infinite and something so immense as thanksgiving to a national holiday, much less to one meal shared with family. But you know what? God is infinite, but we are not. We are extremely finite. We can’t keep everything in our minds all at once. Even when we’re trying to think about something like being consummately thankful, well, someone’s going to be hungry in the middle of that prayer of thanksgiving.
That is something about what it means to live as a sinful human being, but also something that just points to our finitude. And our finitude means it really is good that at times we make certain that on the calendar we say certain things, we articulate certain truths, we draw attention to certain commands. We make very clear the disposition of thankfulness that should be 24/7 for the entirety of our lives, our absolute and consuming passion. But being finite human beings, it is not always so.
And a holiday like Thanksgiving just reminds us by the very word we use for it necessarily so, to give thanks.
I pray for you and your families. With many of you no doubt traveling today and over these days, may you have a blessed gathering together and may you know a most blessed Thanksgiving.
And I join you in giving praise and honor to God from whom all blessings come.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.
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