Perhaps you can forgive me for taking one look at the supersized price tag on Terryl L. Givens’ new book The Latter-day Saint Experience in America and assuming that the intended audience was luckless university students operating at the behest of their profligate professors.
I approached the book with a simple question: Would this be a good resource for a college class on American religion? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ But I was amazed to find even more than that: there’s quite a bit here for Church members to chew on. It is worth buying (even at $55).
Givens’ first chapter covers the history of the Church. It is a model of what Mormon history should be: no whitewashing, no feigned objectivity, great details, consideration of the big picture. Although this is basic Mormon history for nonmembers, there are enough little gems in here to warrant the attention of the Saints, even the ones already well-versed in our history. For example, we all know about Governor Boggs’ extermination order, but I think we’ve forgotten that Boggs was responding to Sidney Rigdon, who promised that “it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.” Kind of puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? Similarly, I can’t say that I remember hearing in Sunday School about the Mormon raiders who “torch[ed] grazing land, scatter[ed] their cattle, block[ed] routes, burn[ed] baggage trains, and otherwise imped[ed] the progress” of the federal army as they marched toward Utah territory. Givens also shines at providing context: it doesn’t mean much to note that there were 5,000 men in the Nauvoo Legion unless you also know that the standing federal army was under 10,000 at this time. But Givens is at his best in the analysis of history:
“Physical plates with real heft confirmed by a dozen witnesses, seerstones and oracular spectacles, temples of stone rather than flesh, a Zion that could be located on a map, and a gathering that entailed wagons and later handcarts rather than a figurative unity of belief–in these and other ways Mormonism collapsed the historical, psychological, and ontological distance that became integral to so much of the Christian tradition. As such, Mormonism invited accusations of both banality and blasphemy.”
The second chapter explores doctrine. He has several gem-like one-liners, including this important idea lost on Saints and evangelicals alike: “Theology, simply stated from the Mormon perspective, is what happens when revelation is absent.” And: “Mormonism is better understood as enacting its central doctrines rather than systematically articulating them.” And, again, while he does an eminently competent job of sketching out the basics, he also gives the lifer something to think about: in the context of human incarnation, he notes, “it is not clear what advantages a physical body offers over a spiritual body.” There are also great ideas in his discussion of the LDS take on the Fall. He includes data not commonly available (Did you know that only about one third of eligible young men serve missions, or that the PEF took in about 100M in its first two years?).
The chapter entitled “Temple, Church, and Family” provides important nuts, bolts, and organizational details for the study of Mormonism. But there are enough wink-and-a-nods to make the chapter sufferable, nay, even enjoyable, for longterm members. Without comment, he writes, “A basketball gym (called a “cultural hall”) is typically adjacent . . etc.,” notes that Sunday meetings would tax “anyone’s post-Puritan capacity for endurance,” and refers to the “marathon” of sermons comprising General Conference. We really are a peculiar people.
His chapter on controversial issues covers all of the usual suspects: abortion, birth control, homosexuality, etc. Perhaps the best praise that I can give here is to note that I think a very conservative and a very liberal Mormon could read this chapter without feeling betrayed. One odd omission: in an otherwise able discussion of the Church’s position on homosexuality, there’s no mention of same-sex marriage legislation and the Church’s efforts to thwart it. But, overall, he does a stellar job of covering the basics while engaging the jaded pew warmer (not an easy task). Even I hadn’t ever considered the Church’s teachings on a Mother in Heaven as “the most radically feminist gesture in Christian theology.” I was a little uneasy with his section on environmentalism, because while he makes an excellent case that the scriptures and modern prophets have called us to responsible stewardship of the Earth’s resources, he doesn’t mention that environmentalism is completely off the radar of talks, books, and lessons. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.)
I’ll guiltily admit that I found myself scoffing a little in anticipation of the chapter subtitled “Intellectual and Cultural Life of the Latter-day Saints,” but Givens does a fine job with theological underpinnings and everything else from MoTab to road shows. I suppose it isn’t as bad as we think . . .
I do think the final chapter was something of a misstep: the discussion of splinter groups would perhaps have fit better in the history chapter, since the major groups have 19th century origins. Appendices include brief biographies of the prophets and other notables and, once again, are useful for the nonmember but still interesting for the rest of us. I never knew that then-Elder Hunter broke three ribs tripping against a podium or that Parley P. Pratt was murdered.
I had assumed the dust jacket’s claim (with a typographical error–eek!) that the book would examine all aspects of how Mormons “live, work, and worship” would be grossly optomistic, but Givens really does cover all bases: historical, doctrinal, cultural, and organizational. His only lacuna is CES: seminary gets a few sentences in the text, institute barely a sentence in the appendix. It isn’t just Givens, however, who underestimates the effect that CES has on community building, retention of young people, and (perhaps a double-edged sword) the shaping of doctrine and pedagogy throughout the rest of the Church. But given what he set out to do, Givens has done it remarkable well. This is the best introduction to the Church (I didn’t cringe once), and there’s plenty here to keep the lifelong member engaged. I’m pleased to have something to recommend to nonmembers, new members, and everyone else.
Note: we interviewed Terryl Givens here.