A Review of Terryl Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Terryl Givens’ new book is an important and welcome addition to Mormon studies and will be required reading for understanding the evolution of Mormonism as a distinct culture, especially where Givens moves out of the much-explored territory of the nineteenth century and ventures into the less-explored twentieth century.

However, the book is not without flaws.

The preface is extremely brief. Aside from acknowledgments, Givens states his general purpose as follows:

“I can only insist that I made no attempt at comprehensiveness. My purpose is to plumb in tentative fashion the range of Mormonism’s intellectual and artistic productions, to see if one can find there the contours of consistent themes and preoccupations, a unity between theological foundations and history, on the one hand, and cultural production, on the other. My ambition is not to define Mormon culture, but to delineate some key components of that cultural identity as it appears through artistic and intellectual activity, from Mormonism’s origins up to the new millennium.” (viii)

Further disclaimers follow: “vast swaths of material and popular culture” have been excluded, “including folk expressions in art and music and media from furniture to quilts.” The focus instead is on “high culture” or “serious art” (viii). (Political culture and clothing, just to name two neglected areas, receive no attention in the book.)

The introduction sets the tone and establishes the framework for the rest of the book. Givens borrows his understanding of the concept of “culture” from the critic Raymond Williams, for whom it encompasses three general areas: a general habit of mind, the intellectual development of a society, and its general body of arts (xiii). These three “emphases,” then, “and their interrelationships,” Givens takes as his “particular focus.” That is, they provide the architectural structure of sorts.

A second structural component is provided by what Givens views as “unresolved tensions inherent in [Mormon] culture” (xiii); Mormonism, he suggests, “seems especially rife with paradox—or tensions that only appear to be logical contradictions” (xiv).

What are these “tensions”? Givens focuses on what he considers to be four “rich and fertile tensions, or thematic pairings, in Mormon thought,” pairings which have “inspired recurrent and sustained engagement on the part of writers, artists, and thinkers in the Mormon community.”

The first four chapters examine one by one these four fields of tension: (1) a “polarity of authoritarianism and individualism,” (2) “epistemological certainty” versus “an eternal quest” for knowledge and perfection, (3) the “disintegration of sacred distance,” which is more of a “collapse of polarities” than a “tension between them,” and (4) “exile and integration” (xiv-xv).

Part I, then, sketches the foundations of these four “paradoxes.” Part II examines “the varieties of Mormon cultural expression” from 1830 to 1890. The chapters have the following topical emphases: (5) Mormons and the life of the mind, (6) architecture and city planning, (7) music and dance, (8) theater, (9) literature, and (10) visual arts. Part III focuses on similar topics for the subsequent period, i.e., 1890 to the present: (11) life of the mind, (12) architecture, (13) music and dance, (14) theater and film, (15) literature, and (16) visual arts.

The chapters in the second and third parts each serve as useful mini-summaries of particular cultural developments for the given period. Indeed, I found this to be the most useful aspect of the book. Each of these chapters (five through sixteen) reads something like an extended encyclopedia entry: all the essential names, dates, events, and references are here, in chronological order. None of the chapters is comprehensive, of course, but each gives a useful and succinct entry into the subject at hand. Most readers of Mormon history are likely to be familiar with much of the information, but Givens offers, in an engaging tone, fascinating details and stories behind areas of Mormon culture—particularly in the realms of theater, music, and dance—that are likely to be new to many people. (Many of the main ideas and references will be familiar to readers of Givens’ earlier books.)

Despite the book’s clear usefulness, for the reasons given above, it also left me unsatisfied on a number of levels. It is imbalanced in various ways, it is long on information and short on analysis, it frequently offers on the “island view” of Mormon history, and generally takes an exceptionalist, triumphalist stance. The following comments will explain what I mean in more detail.

The first part of the book does a nice job overall of laying out the foundation of a basic Mormon cultural paradigm, including history, doctrine, scripture, belief, and practices. But the focus falls very heavily on the person and prophetic career of Joseph Smith. There is almost no discussion of whether, and how, Joseph’s ideas were disseminated, absorbed, and transformed by others, of how we might distinguish between his ideas and experiences and those of others. Yes, Joseph intended each participant in the restoration movement to be a seer in some sense (22), but surely the outcome of that intention needs to be examined, not assumed or ignored. The presentation of Mormonism in the early chapters is something of an ideal-typical one, in the Weberian sense. In addition, the first part stands on its own, and the latter two parts stand together as an independent unit. There isn’t much constructive engagement between the two.

Some of the oppositional pairs are more useful than others. Authority versus freedom is of course as old as humanity, and can be used to frame an analysis of almost any kind of human interaction. A tension more distinctive to the Mormon case, or bearing greater intellectual weight, may lend itself to greater analytical depth (the three tensions suggested by Michael Hicks on 255 may have served as a better set). The tension between pre-destination (or fore-ordination) and human agency, for example, would seem a natural choice. There may exist some tension in the pair “certainty versus searching,” but it seems an awkward choice for an oppositional framework, in part because the obvious opposite of certainty is doubt (as Givens’ analysis of Dutcher’s “God’s Army” illustrates, doubt and certainty form a profound tension in Mormonism [274f]). Givens refers to “the recurrent Mormon paradox” of “the independence and loneliness of an exiled people” (289): In what sense is this phrase a paradox? Finally, the third “tension,” as mentioned above, isn’t an oppositional pairing at all but rather a common, even universal phenomenon of human religiosity which, I think, Givens wrongly views as distinctly Mormon. In the end, I am simply not persuaded that Mormons can be called a “people of paradox” any more than anyone else.

Givens’ background as a Romanticist and literary scholar informs this book in a variety of ways, some of them subtle, others not. Samuel Coleridge gets more references than Ezra Taft Benson or Gordon B. Hinckley, William Blake gets twice as many as Richard Dutcher. It would be helpful to have Romanticism as a movement more clearly present as a specific cultural background with which Mormonism interacted; a known quantity, part of the analysis, in other words, instead of a range of literary references whose purpose often isn’t clear. (For example, to what extent does the “collapse of sacred distance” owe its roots to Romantic ideas? Givens seems to hint in this direction, but not until a rather casual comment nearly the end of the book [293].)

There is a terrific amount of information on display here, and I suspect every reader will learn something new. Yet I often wished that Givens had stopped and analyzed a claim or a quote: had probed in depth rather than rushing on to the next reference. To put the matter differently, the book doesn’t ask very many hard questions. Givens is mostly satisfied with previous explanations and theories; he could have written this book in his sleep. He takes for granted that LDS speakers receive a “high rate of responsiveness from church members, even compared to another authoritarian institution, Roman Catholicism.” His example? Abortion, which is clearly highly atypical as an example of what it means in the modern church to “follow the Prophet.” There are numerous examples of this tendency not to ask hard questions. Here are a few: Givens claims an “abiding suffusion of the miraculous in LDS religious culture” (43). Mormonism is “still young enough for the angel Moroni to seem a near-contemporary” (43). Mormon temples are “reminiscent of Solomon’s” (43). As noted above, Mormonism’s tendency to “conflate heaven and earth” is portrayed as strikingly unusual, as if other religious traditions had no means of mediation (46ff.); the claim is backed up with references to Tertullian, Nietzsche, Coleridge, and of course Rudolf Otto. A discussion of a tension between “Mormon clannishness” and “Christian brotherhood” proceeds without mentioning the complicated history of ecumenism in the twentieth century (58f.). The “world religion” claim is mentioned repeatedly, not without some pride, but without any suggestion that the concept has a history, and that the claim is much debated (e.g., 60). Prophets don’t need schooling (69), yet two pages later “knowledge is primarily to be painstakingly acquired the old-fashioned way” (71). The Book of Mormon is produced “in about three months of spontaneous, unrevised [implied: continuous] dictation” (73). “It is hard to say exactly when the art of public oratory began its rapid cultural decline in America…” (79). (Aren’t there books, articles, and theses on the history of public oratory in America?) Givens accepts without discussion the familiar claim that “the church does stand or fall on the veracity of the official version of its early history” (222). Must we take this claim for granted? Is it not possible that many people—thousands, even—find fulfillment and salvation in the church while knowing almost nothing about “the official version of its history”? Surely Givens could find some complexity in the notion that “LDS doctrine as a whole is rooted inescapably in history.” Givens claims (229f) that in the twentieth century “religion moved increasingly to the private sphere, or became compartmentalized and domesticated in the academy.” Surely such a claims needs some unpacking, or at least a source. “At least one impressive archaeological find substantiates Book of Mormon historicity,” Givens claims (234). Isn’t that a stretch? Oddly, Givens claims that it “appears unresolved” whether “dissidents like McMurrin” are “part of the Mormon intellectual tradition” (236). In the same context, Givens sides with LDS church leaders against McMurrin where far more nuance is called for (239). These and other examples suggest a need for more depth, more complexity, more analysis.<

A triumphalist tone—a “‘so there!’ attitude,” as Givens calls it, in a different context (64)—underlies the book as a whole, and irrupts occasionally with particular fervor. Do we really need to know that the Princeton Review voted BYU’s library the number one “Great College Library” in America (224)? This brochure-style enumeration of, one might say, “our many wonderful features” is closer to cheer leading than scholarship. Similarly, do the detailed academic credentials of prominent Mormon scholars really belong in the main body of the text (233)? There’s a strange “Look at us! Look how far we’ve come!” quality to all of this.

To conclude, I enjoyed the useful historical summary and many fascinating details that Givens presents in this survey-style history. Occasionally, too, there are glimpses of an authentically Mormon cultural critic in the making: instances where Givens makes a bold, original claim, or offers an unusually insightful remark, or asks a difficult question (e.g., 31, 32, 43, 61). Hopefully Givens will return, at some point in the future, to these questions for a more sustained, in-depth, original analysis.

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