A Rhetorical Review of The God Who Weeps

8.16.13 | | 2 comments

Givens, Terryl and Fiona. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak (an imprint of Deseret Book), 2012. 160 pages. $19.99 in hardback, $11.49 Kindle. Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

There’s been a lot of fuss about this little book, co-written by Terryl Givens, a professor of English at the University of Richmond, who is one of Mormonism’s most prominent current scholars and apologists, and his wife Fiona, whom I believe he has referred to as an unacknowledged collaborator on his earlier work, which has included such items as the seminal study The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, published by Oxford University Press in 1997 (now available in an updated 2013 version); By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, also published by Oxford University Press in 2003; and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, again from Oxford University Press in 2007.

I haven’t read those other books (though some are high on my list to read at some point), so I can’t compare the style of this book to Terryl’s earlier books. My assumption would be that this book is written in a less academic style, intended to appeal to a broader audience composed both of believing Mormons and non-Mormons with a potential interest in knowing what the basis is of Mormonism’s appeal to some of its thoughtful adherents.

Certainly the book succeeds in that. This is a book I think can be read and appreciated by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. In short: the book lives up to its hype. Paraphrasing the Pythons (but with less ambiguous intent), I can wholeheartedly recommend this book for those who quite like this sort of thing — which I think will include the bulk of literate believing Mormons, and many non-Mormons with a thoughtful and tolerant frame of mind. It’s already on my Christmas gift list for several family members. In fact, I just recently bought a copy for my mother, because I didn’t want to wait until Christmas to talk about it with her.

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The God Who Weeps is structured around 5 premises, each of which is the central theme of one of the book’s 5 chapters. As stated in the Introduction, they are:

  1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain.
  2. We lived as spirit beings in the presence of God before we were born into this mortal life.
  3. Mortality is an ascent, not a fall, and we carry infinite potential into a world of sin and sorrow.
  4. God has the desire and the power to unite and elevate the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and, except for the most stubbornly unwilling, that will be our destiny.
  5. Heaven will consist of those relationships that matter most to us now. (pp. 6-7)

All fairly standard stuff theologically, for Mormons, and not stated in a way that is likely to raise many Mormon eyebrows — even #4, though this is one that’s been interpreted variously by different LDS thinkers depending on whether they choose to emphasize the large majority who (in LDS theology) are destined for a kingdom of glory, or the rather smaller number who will attain exaltation in the celestial kingdom. Fiona at least, based on an excellent interview here at A Motley Vision, appears to be a committed Universalist (i.e., one who believes that “God must have made provision to ensure that all His children were granted the opportunity to return to Him, not matter how long it takes”). And yet even if sometimes the Givenses go places Mormons don’t typically go in exploring their beliefs, and get there by less-trodden paths, their conclusions are pretty solidly founded on LDS scripture and basic Sunday School beliefs.

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There are several interesting things going on in this book, rhetorically speaking.

The most obvious of the Givenses’ purposes (in my view) is to explain to non-believing readers just why Mormonism might reasonably appeal to intelligent, thoughful people. The purpose isn’t to persuade any such readers to belief in Mormonism themselves, but rather to open-mindedness and acceptance: “Your belief isn’t mine, but I can see why you would believe, and why this has value for you.”

At the same time, the Givenses certainly get in their licks, in terms of pointing out ways that Mormonism makes sense of a lot of things that more mainstream Christianity doesn’t do as well with. In that respect, it’s like a more literate and urbane version of LeGrand Richards’s classic apologetic volume, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, though the style and rhetorical strategy are different. Unlike Richards’s biblical proof-texting, the Givenses combine personal perspective with quotes from a variety of thinkers, ancient, modern, and in between, theologians, noteworthy writers, and others, showing how some of the more distinctive Mormon beliefs align with the beliefs and ideas of thoughtful people from many different traditions, even when those ideas went against the dominant religious traditions of the day. In chapter 1, for example, they cite within a few pages Huck Finn, the agnostic Ivan from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Elie Wiesel, the Biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve, Sarah Edwards (wife of famed fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards), and early Church Father Origen in support of a compassionate God bound as against the vengeful God of traditional orthodox Christianity.

It’s not about citing authorities to provide evidence, so much as it is about showing that Mormon thought and belief have a respectable pedigree, or at least family tree. At the same time, as a reader you can’t help but notice — indeed, the Givenses are at pains to point out — how much more satisfying Mormonism’s responses are in a number of areas that have a troubled history in Christianity and cultural history in general.

There’s something in our spirits which recognizes truth, regardless (or in spite) of upbringing: at least, that’s something most Mormons believe. This book, I would say, is based on that underlying premise. If the fundamental doctrines of Mormonism can be explained clearly and in their proper perspective, their underlying beauty and rightness will shine through for readers, whether they are intellectually persuaded or not. This is a book about the beauties of Mormon belief.

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And then there’s what’s going on for the audience of believing Mormons.

The God Who Weeps is not about finding common ground with mainstream Christian believers. Rather, it’s about celebrating Mormonism’s distinctiveness.

A key question for the Givenses is why, given the existence of a deity, he/she/it/they/gtst might deserve love and worship. This, they claim, is a question that is often unjustifiably dismissed by religionists, when in fact it is “entirely proper” (p. 14). While God’s reasoning may often be above what humans can understand, still “it makes little sense to recognize in our conscience a reliable guide to what is virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy in the world where God has placed us, while suggesting He inhabits a different moral universe” (p. 19) — as has in fact been argued when attempting to justify such (in human terms) morally reprehensible orthodox Christian doctrines as Predestination, or the damnation of those who have died without hearing of Christ.

From here they go on to argue, in what I think is the central premise of their book (hence its title), that — in contrast with the abstract God of the Greek philosophers who could not be affected by human feelings and failings, lest He cease to be divinely perfect — in fact the defining characteristic of our God, the God we as Mormons find worthy of worship, is that He has chosen to make Himself vulnerable to us: to allow us and our fates to matter to Him. “We love him, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And it is not some kind of abstract untroubled love, but rather the kind of love which, in one of the most peculiarly Mormon of scriptures, causes God to weep because of the torment humans bring on themselves through sin (Moses 7:28-40). Christ’s empathy, “dearly paid for, each day of His mortal life, filled as it was with all the trauma an uncomprehending world could inflict on perfect innocence” (p. 27), was not the exception but rather represents a “vulnerability, [an] openness to pain and exposure to risk,” that “is the eternal condition of the Divine” (p. 32; emphasis in original) — a vulnerability the flip side of which is God’s joy in our happiness.

And in this anyone familiar with conventional Mormon sacrament meeting talks and Sunday School lessons will quickly see that the Givenses are presenting ideas which, while quite reasonable as a part of LDS doctrine, aren’t part of the way most Mormons describe our own beliefs to ourselves. Certainly a lot of this was stuff I hadn’t ever thought of before, or not in anything like this way. And yet it’s all so reasonable, so well presented, and (as the Givenses explain it) so consistent with core Mormon scripture and teachings that rather than seeming foreign, instead this feels — to myself at least — like I’ve simply learned more about what my beliefs really mean.

Which is, I think, part of the Givenses’ intent: to get us as Mormons to think more deeply about the implications of our beliefs, and at the same time better recognize the differences between what we think and believe and what mainstream Christians think and believe. We really aren’t mainstream Christians in terms of some of our core beliefs, and that’s a good thing. Those differences are part of why Mormonism can be a satisfying framework for thoughtful people who had been put off by contemporary religion.

Atheists often get a bad rap among many Mormons, but Mormonism has historically attracted some noteworthy adherents who, dissatisfied with what they saw as the irreconcilable problems of traditional religious perspectives, had turned away from religion and God entirely before finding in Mormonism an answer to those questions. Without wanting to doubt the sincerity of believers from many different traditions, it is also true (in my view) that people can be atheists for reasons Mormons should sympathize with. I doubt many LDS readers will have this reaction, but I personally was reminded of how reasonable it would seem to be an atheist if I thought about God the way that traditional Christianity talks about him.

Aside from the specific ideas the book presents, The God Who Weeps issues an implicit invitation and challenge not to leave the LDS Church without spending some time thinking about what the Church teaches and the value those teachings may have. I’m thinking here less about those who have issues with specific doctrines and practices than those (especially LDS youth) who have never really connected powerful to the doctrines in a personal way: the critical phase referred to as getting a testimony of our own. The Church has more to offer than you may think, this challenge goes.

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I can imagine some readers being put off by the Givenses’ style, which is allusive and suggestive as opposed to more formal and rigorous. People who are actively dissatisfied with Mormonism for whatever reason may feel that rather than deal with their objections straightforwardly, the Givenses have instead carefully crafted a sampler plate of things that look good while ignoring the ugly bits. But then, the purpose of this book is to explain the Givenses’ reasons for belief, not answer the objections of others. Personally, I like the style as well as the content, and I think a great many others will too.

Now if only Deseret Book will issue it in paperback…

2 comments: “A Rhetorical Review of The God Who Weeps

  1. Mahonri Stewart

    Great review, Jonathan!

    This was one of the best reads I had in years and climbed to my all time favorites list. The book touched me deeply.

    I definitely recommend Terryl’s other books (personal favorites are probably Parley P. Pratt, By the Hand of Mormon, and People of Paradox) and I look forward to both his and Fiona’s future contributions. Fiona’s mentioned perhaps doing some independent work, as well as more future collaborations with Terryl.

  2. Wm Morris

    “while quite reasonable as a part of LDS doctrine, aren’t part of the way most Mormons describe our own beliefs to ourselves”

    This is an important observation, Jonathan. When we describe our beliefs in new ways, those beliefs gain in complexity and usability.

    It’s also why I’m invested in the project of Mormon culture.

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