Wish you were here.
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.
I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:
MS: First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.
FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university. The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself. The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated. Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends. I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind. Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building. What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting. And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more. That being said, I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.
However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful. I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me. I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room. It is still there. The wounds are still palpable. However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.
Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young. I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer. Terryl was seated on the back row. I was seated on the front. He was self-effacing. I was not. We were married a year later. He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak. more
Note: My talented wife, Anne Marie Ogden Stewart, previously wrote an insightful review about The Book of Mormon Girl. This piece is meant to be a companion piece to that one, so I recommend you read Anne’s post as well.
Whether it was the “Pantspocalypse,” the bloggers at Feminist Mormon Housewives/ Exponent ,or faithful Mormon feminist Judy Dushku’s pointed critique of Mitt Romney, Mormon Feminists have been very prominent as of late. Call it a revival, call it a resurgence, call it what you will, but the advent of the internet and the increasing dialogue about the roles of women in American and world society has brought Mormon feminists out of their hiding places and rhetorical bomb shelters. Mormon Feminists have searched for each other and banded together. They have clamored for an equal voice in a society that has often tried to silence them and they have implored to their fellow Latter-day Saints to see them as fellow-pilgrims and not as antagonists of the faith. At the forefront of this effort has been the courageous Joanna Brooks, a professor of Comparative Literature at San Diego State University; a prominent blogger at Ask Mormon Girl and Religion Dispatches; a high profile resource about Mormonism for CNN, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and NBC Rock Center; as well as the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of American Faith.
Having loved Brooks’ blog posts, watched/read many of the interviews she was involved in, and learned to appreciate her compassionate and thoughtful approach to Mormonism, I bought a copy of The Book of Mormon Girl for my wife Anne for Christmas. Anne and I consider ourselves devout Mormons. We connect deeply with and believe in Mormon scripture and theology; we love the heritage of having Mormon pioneer ancestors; I love to study the intimate details of Mormon history (which I often write plays and screenplays about), while Anne has a deep passion for Old Testament studies; as lovers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, we’re passionate believers in Jesus Christ, and gratefully claim him as our Redeemer and Savior; we believe in the core tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and strive to find a place in our faith community. Despite that heartfelt and abiding faith, however, there have been times when we have felt like we were foreigners in our own religion.
This occasional alienation we have felt may have been a cultural quality that we thought had been overemphasized, a Pharisee-like pattern we find in certain elements and sub-groups of the membership, or a coldness we have received (or we have seen others receive) because of this or that circumstance. These, of course, are exceptions rather than the rule. I personally have found that Mormonism makes people better, if it is lived in the way it has been outlined by the scriptures and the tenets of the faith. And, of course, it is so much better to concern oneself with the beam in one’s own eye, than the mote that is in our neighbor’s eye.
Yet there are still those moments of alienation, of loneliness, of feeling like we don’t quite fit in, despite our best efforts (which are often still insufficient) to keep peace and show love. Discipleship will always have its strains, and standing up for what you believe in, whether it is to the secular world, or even to those who share many points of common faith, is designed to be a lonesome ordeal. If there is a “mold” for the “typical” Mormons, there have been times where we felt like we didn’t fit it.
It is here that works like Joanna Brooks’ The Book of Mormon Girl have given me and my wife hope. more
One of the perks of being review editor for Irreantum is receiving unexpected review copies in the mail. Some weeks ago, I opened the mailbox to find the new edition of Terryl L. Givens The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 2013) waiting for me. If you’ve never had a chance to study this book, I highly recommend that you check it out. No student of Mormon literature should overlook it.
Earlier this week, Dr. Givens graciously agreed to answer five questions I had about the new edition of Viper and other matters related to Mormon studies. Here are his replies:
What motivated the new edition of Viper on the Hearth? Was it simply the recent “Mormon Moment” or has more happened in the sixteen years since the book’s initial publication that necessitated a new edition?
Two factors led to the update. First, Viper was my first book and had a limited release. It was only available in a print-on-demand format that approached one hundred dollars. Obviously it wasn’t going to get any circulation at that price, so Oxford agreed to do a paperback. Second, it wasn’t just a matter of an additional 16 years of Mormon representations that needed filling in. A shift in the cultural winds had occurred, and Mormonism became interesting–or of interest–in new ways. One way to think about this is in terms of what I refer to as the 1893 devil’s compromise. At the Chicago World’s Fair, the Tabernacle Choir was given the silver medal, even as B. H. Roberts was denied a real forum and equal billing with other religions to present a discourse on Mormonism. The message was, you can sing and dance for us, but don’t ask us to take your theology seriously. And in many ways, Mormonism signed on to that deal. For over a century, Mormons became to a large extent acceptable and increasingly respected–but not for their beliefs. The public face of Mormonism was more likely to be an Osmond, a Steve Young, or a David Archuleta, than a B. H. Roberts or Neal Maxwell. And Americans and Mormons alike were fine with that. But as Mormonism assumed a more prominent place American political life in the last two election cycles, the compromise frayed. When a Mormon threatened to win the highest political office in the land, bringing his Mormon beliefs with him, the old nineteenth-century canards returned with a vengeance. One sign of the breakdown of coherent discussion about Mormonism was evident in the frequent insistence that, like Kennedy in his Houston Ministerial Association speech, Romney should address his religious beliefs to reassure an anxious public. Sadly, few journalists or pundits seem to have actually read the Kennedy speech. For in it, he said emphatically that he would not address those concerns: He would not “state once again what kind of church I believe in–for that should be important only to me.” His message didn’t penetrate very lastingly. In the Viper re-issue, I bring the story up to date by including those developments.
It’s taking me a while to get through Monsters & Mormons, not because it’s not super enjoyable (because it is!), but because it’s a pretty long book (which, to me, is no flaw. The upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology For Mormon Drama which I edited for Zarahemla Books is a behemoth as well). Also when I finish a short story, I feel a temporary sense of completeness, so the book doesn’t always draw me back like a novel does because I’m not left “hanging” so to speak. So I’ve decided to break up my review of Monsters and Mormons over a few different reviews so I can write while the stories are still somewhat fresh in my mind. It will also allow me to address the short stories more individually instead of as a blurred whole.
First, my overall impression of Monsters & Mormons: it’s a winner. A big winner. As some one who has lived in imaginative waters since he was a child and hasn’t been afraid to invite his religion to play in those waters with him, I totally dig projects like this. Now, I’ve never been much of a horror fan, especially when it leads to copious amounts of blood and gore. I mean, like, yuck. Not my thing. However, I do love ghost stories and supernatural monsters (I keep wanting to read some H.P. Lovecraft), and, if it doesn’t lead to too much gruesomeness, I can definitely enjoy stories like this. This is definitely not something I would suggest to some of my less adventurous or conservative thinking family and friends, but it’s something I would suggest to the imaginative Mormon who doesn’t mind mixing fantasy and religion (and I know a number of non-Mormons who would get a kick out of it!) . So let’s get to the individual stories in the first part of the collection:
Things are happening here at Monsters & Mormons headquarters. A quick update:
1. The manuscript is complete, is being copyedited and will soon be ready for layout. Our authors did an excellent job on the rewrites. Th. and I are very pleased with the final results. Also: the graphic novels look great.
2. Terryl Givens, the James A. Bostwick Chair in English at the University of Richmond, has written a fantastic foreword to the anthology. As you probably know, Dr. Givens is the pre-eminent scholar of Mormon studies and, as mentioned in our call for submissions, his work has informed this project from the very beginning. We’re delighted by his participation.
3. Anneke Majors is working on the cover. We can’t share it just yet, but should be able to in October. It’s gonna be awesome.
4. We’re still on track for an Oct. 31 launch. We’ve been rather quiet lately just trying to get stuff done and make sure that we’re going to be able to pull this off. You’ll hear much more from us next month as we build up to the launch.
That’s all for now. See you in October!
UPDATE: Call for Submissions
As Terryl Givens documents in The Viper on the Hearth (Amazon), from Zane Grey to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mormons served as stock villains in the early days of genre fiction (both pre-pulp and pulp heyday). We propose to recast, reclaim and simply mess with that tradition by making Mormon characters, settings and ideas the protagonists of genre-oriented stories to appear in an anthology simply titled Monsters & Mormons.
A formal call for submissions will be posted in early April, but we wanted to pre-announce the project now in order to get the creative juices flowing and test if this is of any interest at all to AMV’s readers (and anyone else who gets wind of it).
Three things that I will note now:
Any thoughts? I don’t know that Theric and I will be able to answer all of your questions (assuming ya’ll even have any), but if you have strong desires, radical middle ideas, or simply yeas or nays, cheers or hisses, make them known.
Finally: Yes, this is a project of cultural re-appropriation. I could go on at length about all the reasons I dig the conceptual underpinnings of this concept. But I won’t (and I’ll try to keep things brief in the call for submissions). Because it really doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that we all have fun, and that’s the primary reason I decided to take this project on — it’s time for us to cut loose in the world of Mormon letters.