People of Paradox is unusual: Givens sets out four major paradoxes in Mormon thought and then shows how various aspects of Mormon culture (the life of the mind, architecture, visual art, dance, film, etc.), at various moments in history, negotiate those dilemmas. I canâ€™t help but enjoy a book that seeks to wend its own way by eschewing traditional approaches to history. Yet the warp and weft donâ€™t mesh perfectly.
But first, the paradoxes: this introductory section does an exemplary job of elucidating the major conflicts in Mormon thought. In fact, had Givens expanded on these themes and made them the sole focal point of the book, we would have an excellent overview of Mormon intellectual history and an articulation of the tensions in Mormon culture that would have been the standard guide for the perplexed for the next generation. His deft ability to elucidate these tensionsâ€”even simply to recognize them as tensionsâ€”has the potential even in its current form to be enormously helpful for those who are just jumping into Mormon thought and find the waters tumultuous. The first paradox Givens recognizes is the often fascinating negotiation between extreme authoritarianism and â€œradical freedomâ€ in the Church. Second is the tension between the constant search for more truth and the certainty that is expected of church members. Coming third (in a chapter wittily titled â€œEverlasting Burnings and Cinder Blocksâ€) is the odd juxtaposition between the sacred and the banal. And, finally, Givens discusses the interaction between the ideas of election and exile. Again, this section of the book is highly recommendedâ€”especially to newbies in Mormon Studies and those struggling with their own faithâ€”for its ability to identify and articulate these paradoxes in Mormon thought and life.
Before delving into Givensâ€™ application of the paradoxes to Mormon culture, let me make three observations. First, dividing the cultural sections into two time periods (1830-1890 and 1890-present) struck me as an unfortunate disruption. I think it would have been far better to stick with one cultural manifestation and see it through; as it is written, I felt that I lost the strand of thought on, say, architecture, since five chapters intervened before I again reached that topic.
Secondly, Givens doesnâ€™t spend much time either defining culture or justifying his choices of topics to cover under that umbrella. For the first decision, I am grateful: I canâ€™t imagine anything more stultifying than dozens of pages on exactly what constitutes â€œculture.â€ But for the latter, Iâ€™m puzzled. He dismisses â€œmaterial cultureâ€ early on and I think that this is unfortunate. In the first place, it means not considering the venue where women are most likely to have contributed to Mormon culture. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has shown, quilts and similar artifacts are important repositories of female culture. But my complaint here is more than the standard feminist rant: the case can easily be made that material culture, specifically handicrafts, have been one of the defining elements of Mormon identity from pioneer times clear through to the present. To disregard them seems to inappropriately limit the discussion. I donâ€™t know that I could make the case that decoupage or vinyl-lettered plaques reveal or respond to the paradox of certainty and seeking, but that might suggest something about the paradoxâ€™s applicability to many Saints, particularly women. Handicrafts probably donâ€™t evince Givensâ€™ theory of paradoxes but, if so, this would have been all the more reason to consider them. Surely Givens was right when he noted in the preface that â€œa study claiming to address the sweeping subject of a religious culture is bound to offend almost everyone by dint of something left out, something overpraised, or something undervalued.â€
Finally, I was befuddled by the way in which Givens embraced popular culture in some areas (such as an extended discussion of Saturdayâ€™s Warrior) while virtually ignoring it in others. I can completely understand why would not want to engage Especially for Mormons or The Work and The Glory series, but, at the same time, Iâ€™m not sure that one can accurately portray Mormon cultureâ€”especially operating under a definition of Mormon culture that includes Saturdayâ€™s Warrior–without exploring them. Consequently, a paradox of Mormon culture is raised by the book itself: the conflict between the elite and mass Mormon cultureâ€”elite condescension on the one hand, impressive sales on the other. And, paradoxically, some of the finest examples of Givensâ€™ four tensions come not from â€˜high artâ€™ but from his analysis of recent LDS films such as Godâ€™s Army and New York Doll. It may well be that the paradoxes are more prevalent in Mormon popular culture than in high culture, but since Givens didnâ€™t delve into popular literature or thought to any great extent, Iâ€™m not sure.
In the remainder of the book, Givens traces LDS history through the prism of a single aspect of culture, one chapter at a time. These sections are full of fascinating trivia (Did you know that the angel Moroni on the Salt Lake Temple was created by a non-Mormon sculptor?) and anything-but-trivial observations (â€œThe use of church funds for artists to practice drawing nude models in fin-de-siecle Paris in preparation for adorning the sacred inner precincts of a Mormon temple is surely one of the great ironies of Mormon religious historyâ€). They are well worth reading as brief histories of the various categories under discussion. But what they donâ€™t do, in my opinion, is successfully illustrate that the four paradoxes are represented in all areas of Mormon culture. It may be that I expected to be hit over the head with â€œvisual arts in the twentieth century clearly manifested the conflict between election and exile by . . .â€ while perhaps what Givens was doing was much more subtle. At the same time, I walked away from the book with the impression that the historical data from the various avenues of Mormon culture did not support the idea of four major paradoxes that permeated Mormon culture. To some extent, this was balanced by Givensâ€™ trenchant insights (â€œMormons insist on the need for a gospel restoration, but then feel the sting of being excluded from the fold of Christendom that they have just dismissed as irredeemably apostateâ€) and delightful writing. Another strength of the book is its positioning of Mormonism (particularly nineteenth century Mormonism) in the larger American context: a reader cannot truly appreciate the role of, say, dancing in LDS culture unless she knows with what vehemence the neighbors were preaching against it. Similarly, thinking about Mormon pageants in the context of passion plays is innovative and ultimately elucidating.
If I sound somewhat conflicted in my evaluation to this book, your perception is keen. There were moments when I sensed him stepping onto a soapbox as cultural critic, particularly in the chapter on modern architecture (after explaining that LDS chapels merge into basketball courts he concludes that this â€œconspire[s] to threaten the sacred experienceâ€), instead of speaking as a historian, as he does throughout most of the book. Iâ€™m mostly disappointed by my sense that the four paradoxes were not, ultimately, shown to permeate every aspect of Mormon culture, as well as my sense that the presentation of â€œMormon cultureâ€ overemphasized some areas and left out others. At the same time, I canâ€™t dismiss the impressive addition of historical thinking and reflection that constitute this book. Paradox, indeed.