As he admits, the question of whether Latter-day Saints can be considered Christians does not yield a universally acceptable or historically obvious answer, no matter what Mormons may claim. You might say that the answer depends on who is asking the question, and when.
Throughout their church's relatively brief history, Mormons have been torn between a desire to separate themselves from other Christians and other Americans and a desire to assimilate and be accepted.
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The "dynamic tension" that Givens detects between these poles runs like an electrical current through all the other paradoxes and contradictions that he believes define Mormon culture. If the assimilationist ethic is ascendant in Mormonism at the moment, with Mitt Romney apparently trying to sell himself to evangelical Christian conservatives as a slightly eccentric fellow traveler, the separatist tendency remains imprinted in the faith's cultural and theological DNA.
At the very beginning of Smith's prophetic career, when he was a year-old boy in the woods of western New York state, Jesus Christ personally appeared to him and instructed him to steer clear of all existing Christian churches, saying that "all their creeds were an abomination" in his sight. Toward the other end of his short life, which ended with his "martyrdom" at the hands of an Illinois lynch mob in , Smith began to formulate the most infamous theological ideas in Mormonism.
These are many and various they include the covenant of "celestial plural marriage," for example , but for sheer heresy nothing outdoes Smith's pronouncement that God did not create man from nothing, since God and man are eternal and coexistent spiritual entities. God is himself a perfected form of man, Smith taught; in fact, God used to be human, and after long ages of exaltation in the afterlife, men can become gods. As Givens observes, "It would be hard to conceive an idea Smith's theological vision, Givens notes, violates the traditional Judeo-Christian distinction between everyday experience and the sacred or transcendent sphere.
If God, angels and human beings "are all of one species, one race, one great family," in the words of early Mormon philosopher Parley P.
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Pratt -- and if these entities appeared numerous times, in tangible, physical form, to a backwoods boy in 19th-century America -- then "the sacred distance at the heart of Western religious experience comes near to collapsing. This particular sacrilege against conventional dogma is both the source of Mormonism's unique appeal and what makes it such a threat to older, more established denominations: If miracles and divine visitations came routinely to the Hebrews of the Old Testament, Smith demanded, why shouldn't they come to us?
In recent decades, many evangelical Protestants and some Roman Catholics have warmed to the possibility of modern-day miracles and personal communication with the deity over and above inherently private and subjective religious experiences, like visions and prayer. To some Mormons, this is evidence that their restored gospel is working its magic. One of the central paradoxes of the Latter-day Saint movement, then, is that Mormons want to belong to a larger Christian fellowship when it's socially and politically convenient to do so, while hewing to a set of beliefs most Christians find outrageous and following a prophet who has told them they are the only true Christians.
Givens quotes architectural historian Paul Lawrence Anderson on the peculiar design qualities of Mormon churches, which reflected "a delicate balancing act [of] wanting to be different, but not different enough to be marginalized. Another of Givens' conundrums is that Mormons belong to the most hierarchical and authoritarian church this side of the Vatican, yet one that also has "fanatically individualistic" qualities; every Mormon, after all, is "vouchsafed the right to personal, literal, dialogic revelation with God.
Exaltation and godlike perfection lie eons in the future, at the end of a long and difficult road of spiritual and intellectual learning. Behind all those apparent contradictions, Givens discerns an overarching view of the universe as "essentially, as well as existentially, paradoxical," in the words of Mormon essayist Eugene England.
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No better example can be cited than the testimony of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, the purportedly ancient scripture that Smith claimed to have received from the angel Moroni in , on a set of gold plates he apparently translated into pseudo-King James English by talking into his hat. Virtually alone among Abrahamic theologies, Mormon scripture interprets the fall of Adam and Eve as a providential act: "If Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
Givens observes that in one stroke Smith cut through a problem that has troubled Talmudic and biblical scholars since the dawn of the Judeo-Christian tradition: Why did an all-knowing and all-powerful God allow his children to fall from grace? At the same time, in doing so Smith launched a morally simplistic, eternally optimistic theological tradition without much room for anxiety, tragedy or doubt. Mormonism has no need for the poetry of Milton or the philosophy of Augustine.
Givens is primarily concerned with how the paradoxes he finds in Mormon history and the development of Mormon thought have played out in the cultural realm, meaning both the anthropological and literary-artistic senses of that term.
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While the book's discussions of the piecemeal development of Mormon literature and art are fascinating -- I'm mildly curious about the novels of Levi Peterson and the films of Richard Dutcher, and there are several interesting Mormon poets -- his real heavy lifting comes in tackling the history of Mormon intellectual life. One of Givens' principal goals, I suspect, is to convince his readers that even when Mormonism was an all-white, Utah-based movement, it was always more diverse, complicated and internally divided than most outsiders realize.
This is clearly true. Although Mormons are closely associated with conservative Republican politics today, there's a long tradition of liberal, environmental and even feminist activism within the church. The late Arizona congressman Morris Udall and his brother, Stewart, a pioneering environmentalist who served as secretary of the interior under both John F.
Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, might be the most famous Mormon lefties, but they aren't alone. Utah was the second U.
Unlike most evangelical Protestants, Mormons embraced music, dance and theater as vital forms of community expression. The Salt Lake Theatre was completed before the great Mormon Temple was, and the traveling theaters known as "road shows" continued to roam rural Utah as late as the s.
The Mormon mania for social dances -- the "dancingest denomination in the country," once wrote Time magazine -- has bled into international ballroom competitions, where LDS-owned Brigham Young University has won numerous awards. From its modest parochial beginnings, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has risen to global prominence in classical and pop-classical music.
More substantively, Mormonism has always valued higher education, even in periods when evangelical Christians viewed it with suspicion. Utah residents have exceptionally high levels of educational achievement, and Givens claims that educated Mormons don't tend to fall away from faith to the degree other religious people do when they attend college. Furthermore, Mormons are not creationists, and the LDS church has never seen itself as hostile to modern science. Smith never proposed a literal reading of Genesis and specifically rejected the idea of creation ex nihilo, so the geological discovery that Earth is immensely old posed Mormons no difficulties.
Darwinian evolution was more problematic, given the semi-divine nature of humanity in Smith's teachings, but Mormons have cautiously agreed that evolution might apply to other species. As 19th-century explorers began to report discoveries of massive temples and cities hidden in the Mesoamerican jungle, Mormons seized upon the nascent science of archaeology, which promised to confirm the Book of Mormon's accounts of ancient American civilizations founded by itinerant Israelites. By its edition, the Book of Mormon came with extensive footnotes, correlating its place names with New World sites.
The church actually sponsored an expedition in to search along the Magdalena River in Colombia for the site of Zarahemla, great city of the Nephites in Smith's received scripture. Zarahemla was not found, and by the s those geographical footnotes were gone. Givens performs a delicate balancing act in approaching the question of Book of Mormon scholarship and church historian B. Roberts, whom he views as almost a tragic hero of Mormon intellectual life.
Roberts apparently never lost faith in the church and its teachings, but he was among the first Mormons to understand that neither archaeology nor any other science was likely to corroborate the far-flung, trans-historical narrative of the Book of Mormon. Givens cites Roberts' "willingness to rigorously and honestly investigate" Book of Mormon anachronisms such as the mention of horses, silk, steel and many other plants, animals and artifacts not found in pre-Columbian America , and to explore the possibility that it might have been plagiarized, as examples of the kind of intellectual independence too rarely found within the LDS church.
Later, he criticizes a group of BYU-affiliated scholars whose goal is to prove the Book of Mormon's authenticity, noting that they are evading secular academic standards and " assuming rather than bracketing the supernatural dimensions of Mormon origins. It seems clear that Givens is situating himself in this debate. If the question posed by his history is how far Mormons can engage with the gentile world while retaining their distinctiveness, his career would seem to be a case in point.
Givens is both an active Mormon and a credentialed academic he teaches literature and religion at the University of Richmond , and in "People of Paradox" he brackets the supernatural dimension rather than assuming it, as professional standards dictate. He never discusses his own religious faith in the book, and probably non-Mormons could read it without picking up the clear LDS signals. It took me a while to notice that Givens almost always refers to Joseph Smith by first name, which is close to a dead giveaway.
Even the fact that I feel the need to bring this up testifies to the still-awkward status of Mormons in American life. No one would be perturbed to discover that leading works on the history of Judaism were written by Jewish scholars like Hayim Ben-Sasson or Raymond Scheindlin; it would be surprising if they weren't. Why should Mormon history be different? Well, because Mormon history is different, that's why.
Judaism and Catholicism have long traditions of internal debate and intellectual engagement with the world, and within those faiths there is tremendous diversity of belief. Religious Jews and Catholics may believe various things that seem unlikely to outsiders, but they are not required to believe "in a set of scriptures of origin so implausible as to preclude serious engagement" by mainstream scholars, as Givens himself puts it. Mormonism may not stand or fall on a young-earth creation or on evolution, but it does stand or fall on the question of whether a year-old man in Palmyra, N.
Fortunately for the future of Mormonism, years is just long enough that the same mythical scrim that protects the empty tomb of Jesus from debunkers has begun to descend over Joseph Smith. One might say that the "sacred distance" between man and God that Smith collapsed has pretty well been restored; with the sole exception of the proclamation admitting blacks to the priesthood, no Mormon prophet has announced a direct revelation in many years.
There are a few reasons why this would never happen. First of all, keeping up a list of TV shows, movies, songs, books, and so on, everywhere and in every language, would be pretty much impossible. In addition, a list of approved media would distract us from the heart of the gospel, where our focus should be. So, what are principles, anyway? A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances.
For instance, For the Strength of Youth says this about entertainment and media:. Select only media that uplifts you.
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Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. There are lots of websites, apps, and other resources that can give you the relevant information about the content of movies, songs, books, or other media.
Does it invite the Spirit? Is it uplifting?