Terryl Givens was kind enough to share some reflections on his book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, in response to our questions. His answers follow, in italics.
What led you to this project, and what did you hope to accomplish?
What led me to this project was the genuine question, what does it mean to refer to Mormonism as being or having a distinct cultural tradition? Is it premature to refer to Mormon culture? I wanted to ask this not as a sociologist, interested in patterns of social organization and religious praxis, but as an intellectual or cultural historian, asking about patterns of (high) cultural production. That meant further inquiring, first, is there a cohesive, recognizable set of characteristics that describe Mormon cultural production, second, is there a distinctive set of values or ideals that inform and give shape to those themes and motifs, and finally, how does that cultural tradition evolve in relationship to the larger, surrounding culture?
What I hoped to discover, in addition to answers to those questions, was how those contributing to such an evolving Mormon culture, assuming there is such a thing, are negotiating the space between merely superficial Mormon cultural signs and trappings on the one hand, and the total absence of an identifiable Mormon identity on the other.
What were you most and least satisfied with?
I was pleased to find how much Mormon art and literature avoid glib celebration on the one hand, and cynical disengagement on the other. Better LDS fiction and film especially seem to be earnestly striving to wrestle with the unresolved and often competing demands of the LDS theological tradition. I donâ€™t think it’s always a highly self-conscious confrontation with theology. And I by no means believe I have identified the only paradoxes or tensions within that theological tradition. But I do believe I have focused on a core set that informs large swatches of the LDS artistic production and intellectual heritage. I have convinced myself, at least, that Mormon art, broadly speaking, does signify more than art that is produced by people who happen to be Mormon.
What I regret most are my own limitations and those of space, that have already left me lamenting the absence in my treatment of great spiritual icons, like Lowell Bennion, and poets, like Marden Clark â€“a list and lamentation that will only grow with time, I am sure. (By way of self-consolation and defense, I will only say that I already exceeded my contracted word-length by over 30%.)
How might the outcome of this project shape your future work?
The results of my study have persuaded me that the argument I made at the Library of Congress [archives here] is worth making, that is, that there was something deliberate and almost systematic about Joseph Smithâ€™s method of working by contraries. I have always been partial to Hegelâ€™s view of a tragic universe as one in which the highest Goods often come into fatal collision with each other. This view seems amply borne out in Josephâ€™s thought, and illustrated in our cultural response.
Do you think it would be better for Mormons to resolve or somehow get past these
Finally, do I think we had better try to move beyond, or to resolve, some of these paradoxes? No indeed. I believe Paradox is the sign of a healthy universe, voracious enough to insist on having its cake and eating it too. Paradox is a sign of richness and plenitude. It is Adam and Eve, reaching for both godly aspiration and childlike submission. It is priesthood that is power with no compulsion. It is the weeping God, an infinitely powerful deity who is sovereign of the universe and as vulnerable to pain as the widow with a wayward son. I believe paradox is the inescapable condition of moral agents inhabiting a universe that does not readily yield to our values.