Terryl Givens: The Scholar as Celebrant

November 30, 2007 | 14 comments
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Terryl Givens is doing a great deal in People of Paradox. He offers an ambitious interpretation of Mormon beliefs and then sets out to show how the paradoxes that he identifies as the deep structure of Mormon thought can be traced through almost two centuries of Mormon culture. He builds on the massive outpouring of scholarly research on Mormonism since 1950, or so, but he firmly transcends the narrow confines of the New Mormon history by doing something that it seldom did: He offers up Mormonism as a big story about big ideas.

The New Mormon History, in contrast, was mainly interested in nailing down the details of past events and chronology, its primary intellectual spur being the constant need to assert its professionalism and legitimacy over against both traditional Mormon hagiography and anti-Mormon polemics. To the extent that it offered up a narrative of intellectual drama, it was virtually always the much-touted tension between “official” history and “honest” history. It is almost as if the searing end of Arrington’s Camelot was so traumatic as to have crowed other historiographic narratives to the margins. (Think of the reviews of Rough Stone Rolling; how many of them had anything to talk about other than the question of whether a believing Mormon could write a “real” biography of Mormonism’s founder?) The result has been a steady march into the chloroform of internecine debates over minutiae that the protagonists try – with increasingly less success – to endow with enduring ideological significance. As Jan Shipps observed recently in the Journal of American History, “the books and more especially the articles that made up the new Mormon history sometimes belabored arguments about issues that readers unfamiliar with LDS historiography probably regarded as minor.” For a concrete example of what I am talking about consider debates over the dating of the restoration of the priesthood, or the nineteenth-century meaning of the term “secret combinations.”*

Givens manages to transcend the genre of the New Mormon History by doing two things. First, he engages the substance of Mormon beliefs but does so using language different than that used by Mormons themselves. In contrast, previous scholarly treatments of Mormonism have tended to either ignore Mormon theology, or else to treat it in a purely descriptive way. Givens, in contrast, sets forth Mormonism as a system of thought worthy of dignity in its own right. For Givens, the Restoration need not be confined to its own patois for the same reason that one can be a Platonist in language other than Attic Greek: The interest of both conversations exceeds their particular historical context. It is not clear, of course, that Givens is always correct in how he presents Mormonism in the first part of his book. Carlyle-quoting-Romanticist that he is, Givens has a penchant for great man history, inscribing into the minds of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young cultural tensions that may well have exceeded their thoughts, if not their thought.

Givens’s second strategy is to catapult Mormonism into big conversations, both historically and intellectually. Trench warfare over the precise nature of Joseph Smith’s brush with the law over treasure digging in the upper Susquehanna is replaced with primal dialectics of freedom and authority, certainty and questing, or the need for a God who both transcends the world and connects intimately to it. And so on. Indeed, the conflicts of the New Mormon Historians are not offered up as a historiography at all, but rather become a single character in much larger intellectual drama. Although not quite mingling with gods, in Givens’s book Joseph rubs shoulders with Blake, Jefferson, and other intellectual worthies. Likewise Mormon culture, despite the frequent evidence of immaturity that Givens trenchantly discusses, becomes a theater in which fundamental – and unavoidable – paradoxes are played out. The parochialism of youth reveals a depth worthy of attention.

In this work, I think that Givens is also offering us a model of how Latter-day Saints might conduct scholarship on their own tradition. After publishing his monograph The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, Sterling McMurrin, so the story goes, was accosted by a colleague in the University of Utah philosophy department. “The problem with your book,” he reportedly said, “is that you make Mormon theology look too good.” In response, McMurrin quipped, “Well, I felt that I had to because Mormons make it look so bad.” Givens lacks the smug condescension that characterized McMurrin’s discussions of Mormonism, but the story has possible application to Givens’s work. Givens is a critic in technical sense of the word and, occasionally, in the popular sense as well. It is clear that he is annoyed at the cultural gaffes of the Saints from time to time, and recognizes spiritual and aesthetic dangers within the tensions of Mormon theology. But above these concerns, I think that it would be safe to describe Givens as a scholarly celebrant of Mormonism. He makes it look good.

There is depth and critical bite in Givens’s work. Still, he labors hard to dispel the myths of utter Mormon conformity, Mormon banality, and – above all else – Mormon boringness. What he sees is not a stasis , either of an inspired perfection of triumphant answers or an empty wasteland of anti-intellectualism and mediocrity. Rather his vision of Mormonism is agonistic: a constant struggle of paradoxical ideas locked together with one another in an arena where no one approach ever claims final victory. There is something very Romantic, in my mind, about the sensibility that Givens seeks to capture and place at the heart of his story. It casts Mormonism as a kind of tragic – or at any rate interestingly conflicted – hero. Such an approach, ultimately refuses to package itself as simply analysis, however elegantly presented. Rather Givens’s book itself is an artifact of Mormon culture, one, I think, that seeks to transform the very thing it describes. In the end we have more than a history; we have a roadmap to the tensions where Givens sees the drama of art as possible. It is not simply a description of Mormon aesthetics, but the construction of a Mormon aesthetics. His construction, however, recasts the materials from which it is built in ways that change them subtlety, bringing out what Givens sees as their latent virtues. For those predisposed to see Mormonism as little more than an idiosyncratic off-shoot of American fundamentalism, Givens’s treatment will seem bizarre. For those (inside and outside the church) willing to risk a more nuanced picture of Mormonism, it offers a powerful vision of its cultural possibilities.

*To forestall the inevitable accusations of intellectual ingratitude that always follow any criticism of the New Mormon History let me say for the record, that I like the New Mormon History, I think that represents a quantum leap forward in the quality of Mormon intellectual discussions, and I do not favor the suppression of events uncomfortable for Mormons when writing Mormon history. More original research is always better than less original research. Some of my best friends are New Mormon Historians, and I have even invited them into my home. I would even let one date my daughter (if she were a bit older).

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14 Responses to Terryl Givens: The Scholar as Celebrant

  1. Kevin Barney on November 30, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    A nice articulation of why Terryl’s work is so powerful, Nate.

  2. SusanS on November 30, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    I say thanks to the new Mormon history. They traced down the facts. Did the basic groundwork that makes it possible to wax eloquent, theorize more broadly. I’m one of those lazy theorizers who is so thankful that someone slogged through the manuscripts, dug out those factoids, established a cast of characters and a basic timeline. It’s so easy to be superior (I’m sure that’s not your point, dear Nate) to your elders. But we stand on a place enabled by the hopes, dreams, failures, of our predecessors. Let’s acknolwedge the place we stand in time and celebrate those who went just before us. We might not want to do what they did. But we aren’t standing in their shoes, at their place on the horizon.

    One little additional addendum: I find that those I disagree with are generally more useful in assaulting my comfort at what seems self evident than those I agree with. Comfort, that which is self evident–that is often the biggest barrier to insight, beauty, soul, spirit. . . . .

  3. Nate Oman on December 1, 2007 at 8:30 am

    “I say thanks to the new Mormon history. They traced down the facts. Did the basic groundwork that makes it possible to wax eloquent, theorize more broadly. I’m one of those lazy theorizers who is so thankful that someone slogged through the manuscripts, dug out those factoids, established a cast of characters and a basic timeline. It’s so easy to be superior (I’m sure that’s not your point, dear Nate) to your elders. But we stand on a place enabled by the hopes, dreams, failures, of our predecessors. Let’s acknolwedge the place we stand in time and celebrate those who went just before us. ”

    Agreed.

  4. Ardis Parshall on December 1, 2007 at 11:46 am

    I admit that I have been having great difficulty slogging through PoP, and the chief reason I keep trying is because it has the feel of an Important Book regardless of whether it speaks to me or whether I recognize my people in it. This Symposium has been tremendously helpful, with each essay suggesting a way to tackle arguments that (to me at least, with my down-to-earth harmless-archival-drudge tendency to seize on specifics that can be evaluated for accuracy) seem so — what? I need a word that means “not anchored to bedrock, pinned to idiosyncratic choices rather than to inevitable evidence” — that I believe directly contrary conclusions could be reached simply by choosing different, equally valid cultural examples for illustrations. Nate’s essay may be the most personally helpful for distinguishing between what Givens is doing and what I am most comfortable with (dangit, misdating and misidentification matter when a book is called history), and maybe I’ll be able to slog along a little further by reading PoP for what it is, and not trying to force it into what I would prefer it to be.

  5. Robert C. on December 1, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks, Nate, this is probably the first review that actually makes me want to take the time to read the book.

  6. Jim F. on December 1, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    Nate, I think this is the first review I’ve read that understands what Givens is up to. Thanks. I would like to see a lot more of this kind of work by Saints, work that uses imagination carefully (though, admittedly, sometimes not completely accurately) to think about who we are.

  7. Rosalynde Welch on December 2, 2007 at 11:11 am

    Nate, this is a great review. It strikes me as a piece written by someone whose intellectual proclivities run to history and philosophy, and will appeal to philosophers and historians (and us amateur wannabes, too). Your primary referents are Plato, Arrington and McMurrin, rather than someone like Barbara Kiefer Lewalski and other cultural historians. Part of the book’s power is that it can be reviewed with interest by historians and philosophers as well as textual scholars.

  8. Aaron on December 3, 2007 at 9:57 am

    Celebrant, yes; scholarly, maybe. A scholastic celebrant would be the best turn of phrase, since all Givens does is restate received wisdom and well-established ideas in flowery language.

  9. Matt W. on December 3, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Aaron, sure, but I love that flowery language. Givens is like Ardis in that way. He could write me the phone book, and I’d read it.

  10. Nate Oman on December 3, 2007 at 10:27 am

    Aaron: Is your criticism that being a celebrant disqualifies one from being a scholar? On this view I take that you think that Givens scholarlly aparatus is simply window dressing. Alternatively, is your criticism that while one may be a celebrant Givens’ work is not real scholarship because he offers nothing new?

    For the record, I disagree with both claims, but I am trying to figure out which of them you are making.

  11. Aaron on December 3, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Nate, I think that Givens’s scholarly language and textual formatting is window dressing, but the reason is that he offers little that is new. Consider that his most successful book is a long literature review on the Book of Mormon. Yes, one can be a celebrant or a critic and be a scholar. But one cannot simply rehearse minimal community stories of self-identity without forfeiting the title.

  12. BHodges on December 3, 2007 at 6:33 pm

    Great explanation, thanks.

  13. Adam Greenwood on December 3, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    I’m no polymath, but has there really been a lot of scholarship doing what People of Paradox does?

  14. Ben H on December 3, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    You put that really powerfully, Nate. Yes, I think that is what is so exciting about this book.