12 Questions for Terryl Givens

January 31, 2005 | 9 comments
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Professor Terryl Givens–who has another book out within the last month, The Latter-day Saint Experience in America (Greenwood Press)–has been kind enough to answer twelve questions for us.

1. How did you manage to get published by Oxford? What do you think their view towards Mormon scholarship is?

Luck, perhaps. Oxford’s religious editor responded favorably to an early draft of Viper on the Hearth. I suppose their attitude toward Mormon studies was evident when I showed surprise that they would be willing to publish two monographs on Mormonism in their Religion in America Series (Phil Barlow’s was the first). “Good heavens!” she replied. “Mormonism is the American religion. I think there is room for more than one book on the subject in our line.”

Later, I made a case for a reception study of the Book of Mormon, the most distributed book every produced by an American, and which until then had never been the subject of any monograph published by a secular press. The editor very quickly offered a contract, based on that proposal and, she said, the critical reception of my first book.

2. What did you think of the response to your work by non-Mormons? (Here thinking of the Christianity Today review)

I have been pleasantly surprised that both of my works have been for the most part well-received and fairly evaluated by non-Mormon media and scholarly journals. What that suggests to my mind is that there is a generally prevailing level of interest in things Mormon, and an openness to letting Mormons share in the telling of their own story and analysis of their own tradition. We are perhaps too insecure about our ability to do so honestly. The myth that one must be a skeptic, a cynic, or disaffected to write “objective” history does not appear to be one that most scholars or the public buys into.

3. What has been the official (or semi-official) reception by the Church, FARMS, etc?

I haven’t had any official communications with LDS leaders about my work, though I have had some personal expressions of appreciation proffered. If there has been any disapproval or discomfort with my writing, it hasn’t come to my attention. FARMS, judging by the reviews that have appeared, was favorably inclined toward the two books. This is not surprising, I think, considering that in the latter book especially, I help make some of their work accessible to a broader audience than Utah. I am glad to do this, since even their critics acknowledge that they are producing scholarship of the highest caliber. Certainly they are an apologetic organization, and undoubtedly there are issues of confrontational language and feuding with Signature Books that put off many people. But my concern was with actual scholarship that addresses book of Mormon historicity, and that is what they are producing. That work needs to be integrated into a real, ongoing discussion with outside scholars and critics, so that its quality can continue to be tested and productive debate can proceed.

4. In order for the Book of Mormon to become an essential text in any religious studies department we must move beyond the “it’s true”/”it isn’t true” polemic. Any ideas how this might happen?

First, we need to recognize that this barrier was put there by Joseph Smith, not by FARMS or fundamentalist Mormons or missionaries or Mormon academics. Mohammed claimed to receive scripture from a divine source. But mere claims to visions and resulting holy writings are not falsifiable. Physical plates and a purported history of Mesoamerica are. So Joseph’s story was immediately and invitingly falsifiable in two ways from the very beginning. And as a result, maybe we will never succeed at making the Book of Mormon a popular subject for study among academics who wish to skirt the truth-issue. That’s not defeatism, that is simply a recognition of the difficulty of extricating the book from its enshrouding tales of angels and seerstones, as well as a recognition that making the book accessible to the merely intellectually curious may not be part of the book’s mission as Moroni construed it.

On the other hand, obviously I want to see something like that happen, or I wouldn’t have written an academic book on the subject. In the heyday of New Criticism, we would have had a shot at formalistic analyses of the book, severed from author, context, referents, and all kindred distractions. Today, in literary studies at least, cultural studies scholarship emphasizes the “cultural work” that texts perform- (the kind of approach I used in Viper). This bodes well for Book of Mormon studies. In particular, much remains to be written on the way the Book of Mormon responded to issues of passionate concern in 19th c America, how it comported with powerful American myths about frontiers, self-fashioning, autonomous societies, moveable Zions, etc. On another front, the book poses a wonderful case study of how a text becomes a scripture. (At Claremont, there is a center for the study of scripture. Any number of religious scholars have been working to challenge conventional notions of scripture, canonicity, and sacred texts. What a ripe environment for the Book of Mormon!) In addition, someone needs to be doing work on how and why the Book seems to be successfully negotiating the transition from an appealing “history of the Indians” to a book more relevant and appealing to an international proselytizing pool. I would like to see a day come when the textual approaches to the Book of Mormon so convincingly situate the Book as an ancient text that it is studied alongside other ancient texts. But I don’t see that happening, Harold Bloom and other scattered aficionados of Joseph Smith’s religion-making notwithstanding. Although I will share one encouraging story from my file. Shortly after Hand‘s publication, I received this reaction from a Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology from a respected eastern theological seminary: “The crucial point for me was to understand the complexity of the BOOK OF MORMON. You cannot deal significantly with such a book by calling it the result of a fraud or emotional illness. Christians need to approach it as a theologically significant text and proceed with the analysis of its doctrine. Obviously it does not support the orthodoxy of Nicea and Chalcedon that underlie the confessions of the mainline churches. Yet just as obviously, it draws on similar sources and, perhaps, even on ancient sources outside the canon. The differential analysis of these matters could be of great help to us all.”

5. Any particular reaction from those in your college dept.? Do they think it’s great, or a little bit weird, or do they not have much of a reaction to it one way or another?

The University of Richmond was founded as a Baptist school in 1830. I appreciate the irony, but the founders are probably not resting well in their graves. University administrators are happy with and supportive of any scholar who produces work that is published at the better presses and is well-received critically. Most colleagues here in the South are probably incredulous that anyone outside Utah is reading, let alone publishing, this stuff. Let’s face it: we like to imagine a day when Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, and Mormon Studies frequently occur in the same breath (and the same campus). But where I live and work, Mormon Studies still sounds a little strange to the ear.

As an example, my chair recently told me I was up to teach a graduate course the next semester, and would I put together a topic and advise him what it would be. I sent a memo to his secretary, saying simply, “The Book of Mormon as Literature.” Then I phoned the secretary to ask what his reaction had been. She was still laughing. He had rushed out of his office with my memo in hand (he is an excitable type), pulling his hair, and his voice falsetto with anxiety: “what am I going to do? This Mormon stuff is going to Terryl’s head. He can’t teach a course like that here!” Before he could calm down, I followed up with a memo requesting department funding . I wanted monies to take a graduate class on a field trip to Temple Square. At that point, the secretary told me, he saw the gag and laughed sheepishly. Now this is a funny story, but it is also a sad story. Teaching a course in a literature department on a book that helped create a possible world religion, and that has been read by more Americans than any book in history, should not be a joke. In my department, we have had courses on the Mary Tyler Moore show. But the Book of Mormon is unthinkable?

6. The importance you attach to the plates’ objective physical reality is established in your book’s memorable opening paragraphs and beyond, with references to “the pure physicality of the plates” (p. 4), the “artifactual reality” of this “tangible medium” in a “realm . . . of empiricism and objectivity” (p. 12), the “tactile reality of supernaturally conveyed artifacts” (p. 22), and an extended discussion of the eight witnesses’ experiences, who “matter-of-factly . . . handled them, turned over the leaves, and examined the engravings” in an ordinary human instance of “empirical observation” and “tactile experience” (p. 40).

You discuss a single instance of “alleged equivocation” by Martin Harris, who was reported to have “never claimed to have seen them with his natural eyes, only with spiritual vision” (p. 41-42). But Martin was one of the three witnesses–whose experience, as opposed to that of the eight, was presented in clear supernatural terms–and your conclusion is that “Dream-visions may be in the mind of the beholder, but gold plates are not subject to such facile psychologizing” (p. 42).

There does seem to be good evidence that several people, believers and otherwise, hefted some heavy object wrapped in a frock or cloth (p. 25-26), and taken in isolation the language of the eight witnesses’ statement seems straightforward; but on the other hand, is there not a context of visionary worldview that should inform possible understandings of the eight witnesses’ detailed statement (as opposed to more generic hefting something heavy wrapped in cloth, which could have been a prop)? Should we recognize that there may be more than a single “alleged equivocation” by only one witness (Martin) that ought to be considered? What are we to make of indications from sources both hostile and friendly–collected for example in chapter 6 of Grant Palmer’s book–that each of the eight witnesses were involved in other experiences that, while obviously visionary in character, feature elaborate interactions involving multiple senses (e.g. walking into large chambers in Cumorah filled with artifacts)? Or of the report of an LDS interviewer of David Whitmer that he “was somewhat spiritual in his explanations. He was not as materialistic in his descriptions as I wished” (quoted on p. 197 of Palmer’s book)? Given all this, are materialistic characterizations like those quoted above from your book truly valid, or might they represent an unjustified imputation of concreteness to their experience that derives from the expectations of our modern scientific outlook? Particularly in discourse with non-believers examining all sides, should we allow that the eight witnesses’ visionary worldview allowed them to perceive a detailed multi-sense experience as “real” even without an atmosphere of ordinary, detached “empirical observation” and “tactile experience”? Does this possibility deserve more consideration than dismissal as “facile psychologizing”?

This is an entirely fair question. Let me explain why I think any explanation other than the literal one fails and is therefore dismissible–although I may be essentially repeating what I thought was sound reasoning in my original treatment. While it is certainly important to consider the “visionary world view” of the eight witnesses, any such world view needs to be considered not in isolation from, but in conjunction with, all other circumstances of the eight’s testimony. Viewing a physical artifact is not inconsistent with a visionary world view. But using language like “handled with our hands” and “seen and hefted” is inconsistent with describing a non-physical object–especially when such a description is buttressed by numerous other similarly worded descriptions originating in non-visionary circumstances (such as household dusting around them). So, in simplest terms, the literal explanation satisfies all requirements. The “visionary language” explanation only works if we ignore the other parts of the total picture.

But there is a final reason I find the “visionary world-view” not relevant here. I was trained as a literary scholar, not a religious critic. If I am to doubt the most straightforward rendering of a text, I must ask myself: If I wanted to write that testimony in such a manner as to preclude all misunderstanding, to forestall figurative interpretation, or to close the door to any reading other than that conveyed by simple denotative rendering of the language, how would I have done it? And in this case, I can find no language that could have conveyed their emphasis on literal, concrete, this-worldly reality more clearly and unambiguously. So I am compelled to read the text as it was manifestly intended to be read. Especially given the fact that a) the adjacent testimony of the three witnesses certainly made clear there was no a priori necessity felt by their peers to excise supernaturalism from a published affidavit and b) an abundant grammar of visionary experience (Pauline or more contemporary) was available to convey with more honesty an experience that fell outside the parameters of the quotidian, if that was the object.

Therefore, I can see no reason to compel a non-literal reading of the Testimony of the Eight, other than sheer reluctance to accept supernaturalism. And that is a reluctance I cannot argue with. That is why the only alternative to a literal reading that I do not think is easily dismissible is Hume’s more general argument against miracles: the reliability of witnesses is more easily impugned than the reliability of natural laws.

7. Could you please comment on your forthcoming book on the cultural history of the Mormon people? I’d be interested in hearing how you plan to approach this subject and what sources you plan to use.

I am trying to accomplish two things in this study. First, if we or the scholars out there are serious about Mormonism becoming a world religion, and given the long standing recognition of Mormonism as a culture or sub-culture or the equivalent, a study of how that culture has taken shape in the realm of actual cultural production would seem overdue. In other words, that history and those predictions alike presuppose a coherent galaxy of themes that would find more or less consistent expression through intellectual and artistic expression. We wouldn’t expect to find such a thing as Presbyterian art, probably. Presbyterianism is not a culture and manifests itself as a religious system, though we may certainly associate it with some cultural continuities that follow from a core set of religious beliefs and practices. But if Mormonism is really, or really about to become, something that transcends denominational categories, then we would expect to find patterns of cultural expression and production that likewise transcend the merely theological. So for the purposes of this study, I am looking at what common threads we might find in Mormon art, music, literature, etc.

Second, in identifying some of those recurrent motifs and themes, I am trying to explain them principally as outgrowths of principles and ideas traceable to Joseph Smith. In thinking this through its preliminary stages, the project quickly revealed, to my way of thinking at least, a number of powerful tensions and paradoxes and conflicts in the intellectual universe of Joseph’s mind. Many theorists of culture have argued that cultural production is most fruitful when artistic and intellectual expression serve as ways of working through these foundational tensions. (Levi-Strauss, of course, found such a dynamic at the heart of myth). So I proceed on that basis–seeing in Mormon culture repeated reflections and refractions of four of these insoluble paradoxes (authority and radical freedom; perfect knowledge and Faustian insatiability; the sacred and the banal; chosenness and alienation).

8. Do you consider your works at all apologetic?

I think it’s important to recognize that term as a slippery one. An apologist, in today’s intellectual climate, usually means, you write respectfully about an idea or group which I think should be discredited. And those who cry bias, I have found, are usually the ones who carry their own. It is important that LDS scholars, or any scholar who is also a believer, not be intimidated into playing on this uneven playing field. Honest people everywhere recognize that complete objectivity and disinterest are not only impossible, they are not desirable. All good books argue a thesis, make a case, struggle to assert an interpretation. All writers are in that sense apologists for the positions they have come to hold. The only questions that I find meaningful in this regard are, Are you asking genuine questions? And are you honest with the evidence? In the case of Hand, the question I began with was an earnest one. How can reasonable people find the story of the Book of Mormon a compelling one. To answer that question, from the perspective of either faith or cynicism, would require elucidating not only the absurdities, but the beauties and strengths of the Book of Mormon’s appeal.

9. I would just like to say that the section on the “Sacred vs. the Profane” in Chapter 5 of Viper on the Hearth is perhaps my favorite piece for really explaining the difference between Latter-day Christianity and Creedal Christianity. It can provide a real “aha” moment for contemplative students (from either side) who want to place their finger soundly on our fundamental distinction. Thank you! I just don’t think it fits well within the context of that book–the result being that something that should be waved around is kind of hidden. Have you got any thoughts to build in a future work on the kind of approach that piece takes?

Locating the common thread of the Mormon heresy in the collapse of sacred distance is a theme I am still working on. I did raise the topic again in Hand in a few places. I have done a few other pieces, one on Byron and one on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which try to contextualize that issue as one on which much Romantic thought hinges. One way of reading the latter’s novel, for example, is as a crushing disillusionment and subsequent retreat when “chimeras of boundless grandeur” find concrete realization. I think Edmund Burke and his work On the Sublime and Beautiful mark a huge watershed here, not just in aesthetic sensibility, but insofar as his reconceptualization of the sublime facilitates the migration of a religious sublime into the secular sphere, and thus broadens the concept’s appeal and legitimacy as a substitute for a more authentic religious sensibility. So yes, I would like eventually to make that event the subject of a major study.

10. A portion of BHM summarizes the reception history of the Book of Mormon. What would you characterize as the most original (and/or significant) new ground that was broken in that book? The discussion of revelation perhaps? The fact that it was published by OUP?

As I wrote above, I began the study by asking the question, how do we understand the phenomenal appeal of this book? And the best answer I could find was the one expressed by John Greenleaf Whittier of Mormonism generally: It spoke, he said, “a language of hope and promise to weak, weary hearts, tossed and troubled, who have wandered from sect to sect, seeking in vain for the primal manifestations of the divine power.” Those primal manifestations, I think, were made accessible through the book’s modeling of what I called “dialogic revelation.” That is a contentious claim that has elicited a number of reactions. One prominent scholar thought it was a convincing argument for an important theological contribution of Mormonism. Catholic and Evangelical scholars have expressed indignation that Mormons (i.e., I) would claim as monopoly or even novelty what they consider to be a quasi-universal birthright and experience of all Christians in all ages. But some things cannot be denied. Protestant religionists from Alexander Campbell to Craig Blomberg explicitly condemn the Book of Mormon’s version of dialogic revelation–(so you can’t have it both ways). And religious scholars from William Abraham to Rodney Stark have commented that the notion of revelation has become so watered down in theology as to be virtually meaningless. So at any rate, I hope to have initiated a conversation that will continue, in which both the historical diminution and the LDS understanding of revelation get a fresh look.

11. Do you have any advice for young LDS scholars wanting to work on Mormonism?

I don’t feel qualified to give much advice in this regard. I have been fortunate in finding a way to combine my background in literature and intellectual history with my love for Mormon history, scripture, and culture. I never set out to work in Mormon studies (though the nineteenth century was my period). I suppose I would ask yourself, what strengths do you bring to bear that allow you to use an appropriate language and an appropriate intellectual context with which to ask new questions–that are genuine questions. I really wanted to understand if there was a constant factor in hostility to Mormonism, one that transcended polygamy and gathering and claims of angels and all the other historically particular irritants. And I turned to popular fiction–a seldom utilized source–to look for the answer. So in essential ways, my first two books were situated, methodologically and substantively, within literary studies. I didn’t jump into this unrelated field called “Mormon Studies.” This was the beauty and strength of what happened at the recent Claremont Conference on Positioning Mormonism. The approach was not, lets create this new field called Mormon Studies. Rather, the intent was, lets find out where the Mormon element has been missing from our disciplines, how both those disciplines and the study of Mormonism could be enriched by including that element, and see how we can go about making that happen.

12. What are your thoughts on the tone or voice an LDS scholar should employ when writing about his religion professionally?

There are, perhaps, too many considerations to factor into the equation for me to give a simple answer, so I will just offer up some ideas to ponder. Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Russian critic, used the expression “dialogic [or polyphonic] imagination” in connection with the great novelists whose characters speak with authentically disparate voices. I have always thought that is a useful example for scholars to consider. “The many competing ideologies and discourses in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels,” writes one scholar “are never resolved through a Hegelian synthesis but exist in mutual tension throughout the work.”

Now in literary studies, tone refers to the relationship an author manifests to 1) his material and 2) his audience. My engagement with Mormon material is animated by a very real respect for the scope and power of Joseph Smith’s accomplishment. I have no hesitation in revealing that respect and admiration in my work. Some people seem to think that such open esteem is a betrayal of scholarly objectivity when it comes to Mormon Studies–even though such a concern is rendered silly when one considers the work of almost any successful historian writing today–or in the past. The great biographers in our tradition have always been motivated by open regard for rather than cynical disdain or pretended disinterest toward their subject. At the same time, I don’t consider anything about Joseph Smith’s thought to be glibly comprehended or summarily dismissible. There are very real tensions in my mind that confront me every time I explore Mormon theology or Mormon history in any depth. I hope that gives my writing a quality of sincere engagement rather than smug assertiveness or tendentiousness or moralizing. Heidegger said that the font of genuine thinking is astonishment.

The related issue is, how do we address our audience. I think living in the south, surrounded by fundamentalists growing up, and having as my three closest professional associates a Jewish, a Catholic, and an Episcopalian intellectual–in addition to a mercilessly exacting wife who is a convert–I have learned to take little for granted. I always hear discussions of Mormonism through their ears–literally and figuratively. Those four people were the first readers of my draft manuscripts. So I have experienced vicariously if not firsthand the shock of Mormon certainty, the hurtful oversimplifications of our version of ecclesiastical history, the presumptions born of our disrespect for theology, a casualness fostered by intra-Mormon dialogue, and so forth. This is why I am suggesting as a safeguard against these things, a Mormon Studies that is not compartmentalized but rather integrated into existing disciplines, where Latter-day Saint scholars are not just talking to each other.

What I hope I have emphasized in all this is that while “voice” or “tone” can suggest artifice or calculation, authentic passion for the subject and authentic respect for the audience have formed my own writing. And while some LDS colleagues have expressed surprise to me that Oxford “allowed” me the freedom of expression they have, our own surprise may be more worth pondering than their editorial openness. I think that’s where the moral lies.

Terryl Givens
Professor of Literature and Religion
James A. Bostwick Chair of English
University of Richmond

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9 Responses to 12 Questions for Terryl Givens

  1. Kevin Emperor Ashworth on January 31, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    There appear to be some typos, starting with the probably very interesting beginning of answer 3. Also bolding with 6 and the end. And maybe others.

  2. Brad Woodworth on January 31, 2005 at 8:41 pm

    > I would like to see a day come when the textual approaches to the Book of Mormon so
    > convincingly situate the Book as an ancient text that it is studied alongside other
    > ancient texts. But I don’t see that happening, Harold Bloom and other scattered
    > aficionados of Joseph Smith’s religion-making notwithstanding.

    This seems to imply that Harold Bloom would favor, or at least countenance, the study of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. I’m quite confident in saything that he would not.

    Brad Woodworth

  3. Kevin Winters on January 31, 2005 at 9:49 pm

    Question #3 got truncated; could someone fix the HTML code?

  4. Kevin Winters on January 31, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    Oh, and thank you for the interesting questions and answers. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. :o)

  5. Jim F. on January 31, 2005 at 11:02 pm

    As anyone who read the post before this can see, I was too hurried when I coded Professor Givens’s response. I think I’ve fixed everything (though I didn’t see the typos–point them out and I’ll take care of them). Sorry about that.

  6. Clark on February 1, 2005 at 12:08 am

    While I agree that Bloom wouldn’t consider it an ancient text, I think he’d be quite accepting of far more ancient elements to the text than most.

  7. Jason on February 1, 2005 at 12:20 am

    Thanks, Professor Givens, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.

  8. Christian Cardall on February 1, 2005 at 10:47 am

    I echo thanks to Professor Givens, and ask further questions.

    As I recall, By the Hand of Mormon discusses how for much of the Church’s history the Book of Mormon was more a sign of the Church’s authority than a serious source of doctrine. It was more revered than read.

    Do we have a similar situation with another key concept in the book, `dialogic revelation’? Do we claim exclusive custodianship of revelation through the gift of the Holy Ghost mostly as a sign of authority, while not actually participating in much divine dialog per se? We speak much of `promptings’ and `confirmations’ of the truth, but these seem to be mostly one-sided or ambiguous single-exchange interactions at best. Even at the general level, we hear of `inspiration’ and are presented with proclamations, but nothing in the way of ‘Thus saith the Lord’ that would seem to be expected under the label ‘dialogic revelation’.

    This is a marked contrast to the Book of Mormon, where `Thus saith the Lord’ dialog permeates a thousand years’ history. Could a skeptic be forgiven for wondering whether ‘dialogic revelation’ was actually limited essentially to Joseph’s spurts of active revelation—including the history of revelation in the Book of Mormon, invented by Joseph according to his expectations for what a long prophetic history would have been like?

    Or is the fault with us? Do we (or our leaders) truly have access to the full alphabet on the Ouija board, but choose only to use the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ markers? Has no one since Joseph had the cajones to declare that God is giving responses more detailed than what an 8-ball might return?

  9. Boris Max on February 1, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    Professor Givens should also be thanked for discouraging the institutional creation of an intellectual ghetto called “Mormon Studies.” It is so refreshing to see an accomplished academic declining the opportunity to create an empire for him- or herself. Imagine the fun some poor slob with a newly minted Mormon Studies PhD would have at the MLA, ASA, or [insert your favorite professional alphabet soup here] convention.