Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Terryl L. Givens's People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

During my first year as one of the secretaries in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Brigham Young University, I had a habit of visiting the BYU Bookstore during my lunch breaks. After eating my lunch, I browsed the aisles perusing the books on sale and gazing at the beautiful leather covers of diaries and journals. If a title interested me, I opened the book and flipped through the pages to read a section. I found some excellent topics that an author had researched. Some of the titles were written by current faculty members and alumni. I felt like I was at a store where there was a treasure trove of information. As much as I wanted to, I never could find enough money in my budget to buy a book. Even if I did have some extra cash, studies took a chunk of my time. So, I left many books on the shelf for other customers.

There was one book that did catch my eye during one of my many trips to the bookstore. A big display stood beside the main walking aisle promoting the new release of Terryl L. Givens’s People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, published by the Oxford University Press of New York in 2007. I seriously took an interest in this book because I wanted to know in detail the idiosyncrasies of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I did not have any question about the doctrines of the LDS faith; I just wanted to know why some members thought and acted the way they did. Why did some members take for doctrine a policy handed down by a bureaucratic entity? What did Mormon culture comprise of anyway? Why was it that most LDS literature stunk? I found out that a chapter or two were devoted specifically to literature, which sparked my interest. I really wanted to read the book, but again I had neither the money nor the time to invest in the book.

Years later, I tried finding it in the Harold B. Lee Library on campus, but each time I looked for it, it was checked out. I found a copy in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, but I could only read one chapter before the librarians told me that they were closing and that I had to give it back. I could not check it out because they kept that copy as a reference book. I started regretting not having bought it when I walked out the door. It took moving back to my hometown to find a copy at the Gerald R. Sherratt Library on the campus of Southern Utah University. Now I could scratch that itch that I had been having since it came out.

The author divides his work into three sections pertaining to time periods since the church’s inception in the early nineteenth century until now. He provides numerous sources and he traces the “tensions” or “paradoxes” of Mormon theology that have produced Mormonism’s distinct view of the universe (xiv). The tensions he analyzes include: obedience to authority and individual radical freedom (Chapter 1), the investigation of knowledge and the certainty of truth (Chapter 2), the spaces of the holy and the profane (Chapter 3), and the longing for inclusion and the costs of exile (Chapter 4). In succeeding chapters, he takes those tensions and applies them to fields like art, education, architecture, theater, city planning, and film.

The first highlight answers my question about the quality, or lack thereof, of artistic expression in LDS art. Personally, I was mulling over wanting to create a book of poetry influenced by LDS perceptions, but not focused on the LDS church. For some reason, the expression just did not coalesce. I figured out that the poetic expression I was searching for could not coexist with the plain and simple points of the gospel. Givens gives me the corroboration saying, “Mormonism’s obsession with certainty, with plenitude and prophets and gospel fullness, can be intensely sterile ground for the artistic endeavor. […] The Latter-day Saints have endured physical hardship. But they do not wrestle much with metaphysical anguish” (34). Yes! I wanted a metaphysical exercise in poetry, but I had no metaphysical anguish to rely upon. That is why most paintings of the westward trek seem depleted of wonder—they are just depictions of historical events. The event that it happened is certain; there is nothing metaphysical about it.

Through the course of the book, I see how the early LDS culture becomes revolutionary to cultural norms of the time. If the mainstream thinks one way, the culture thinks another. If the gentile culture feels this way, the Mormon culture counteracts it with an opposing tradition. It is as though the Mormons are saying to the world to lighten up. Dancing is not a tool of the devil. God is closer than you think. Come to the theater and enjoy yourself. Do not limit yourself to be just an angel in the Lord’s kingdom. “As LDS prophet Lorenzo Snow so starkly simplified Joseph [Smith]’s radical theology: ‘As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.’ […] In so literally embracing the divine potential in man, Mormons ennoble human nature to such a degree that even the most exuberant Renaissance humanists would blanch” (42).

Givens quotes Brigham Young about parents prohibiting their children to search for entertainment. He tells his congregation the following:

“Now understand it—when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theater, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents” (145).

Can I get an amen?

Later on, I caught another insight that perfectly coincides with Pedro Salinas’s visions of red rocks and mountains, a topic I researched and later published as “Pedro Salinas’s Theory of Tourism” in an academic journal. Although relating to a few decades prior to Salinas’s sightseeing tour, the act of contemplation was experienced by like-minded individuals while they gazed at the same vistas near and around Salt Lake City. Givens writes:

“Much of American art at this time was still steeped in the Romanticism that originated in continental and British landscape painting earlier in the century. Like Caspar David Friedrich in Germany or J. M. W. Turner in England, a number of American artists found the vast landscapes and dramatic vistas of the American wilderness perfect material for their highly subjective, at times mystical, engagement with a land they clearly saw as infused with divinity” (186).

However, when it came to Mormon artists, Givens continues, their renditions of the landscape took on more realistic forms, because they experienced that landscape daily. Even in the style of the Impressionists, their paintings dealt in the real. Although not stated explicitly in the book, the Mormon artists used Impressionistic techniques to convey religious events, a practice not followed by their European counterparts.

Lastly, I have found out that even I perpetrate a silly foible. For instance, Givens reviews a particular book entitled The Backslider. He writes, “[Levi] Peterson manages to touch on most every facet and foible of Mormon culture, from testimonies tied to Tabernacle acoustics to Three Nephite mythologies that proliferate like fungi” (313). Testimonies tied to Tabernacle acoustics? Oops. I’ve done that. Guilty as charged. While I was helping the dean of the Physics Department host a conference of the Acoustical Society of America located at the Hilton, I took the opportunity to attend a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I sat in the balcony in the back corner. When the choir practiced a drill, the sound completely enveloped me in this gentle vibration. I imagined angels flying around and over the audience. I could not help it. As for the stories of the Three Nephites, I have heard stories, but I never proliferated any of them.

People of Paradox will please readers that like histories and essays. Adults will find value in this book. Teenagers and younger readers may not get past the first page.



  1. AMEN! I'll have to read that one. "Tabernacle testimonies"? Haven't heard of that before.

  2. I hadn't either until he brings it up in his synopsis of The Backslider. I think I will want to read that one day.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


Related Posts with Thumbnails