When I was young, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and enjoyed every volume. Then one day, at my neighborhood library, I discovered Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia, essentially an encyclopedia of Narnia, and I fell in love. The entries were arranged alphabetically, and there were more topics than I had ever imagined. It was well-ordered and — at least to my child’s mind — exhaustive. Encyclopedias hold that promise. Around the same time, I discovered Bruce R. McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine. With short, clear entries, Mormon Doctrine provided definitive answers to a wide range of gospel questions. Only later in life did I learn that Mormon doctrine is not so simple.
Enter Terryl L. Givens’s book, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity. In some ways, Wrestling the Angel (WTA) seems similar to Mormon Doctrine. Although not alphabetical, it has entries such as “The Godhead,” “Holy Ghost,” “The Fall,” and “Salvation.” But rather than a short, definitive declaration, Givens takes the opposite approach. For each topic, he first situates Mormon thought within a brief history of religious thought on the topic, and he then goes on to give a history of Mormon thinking on the topic. Consider the Holy Ghost. Givens begins with the early Christian church:
“Christian doctrine on the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, was relatively late in developing. One of the earliest Christian creeds, perhaps dating to the second century, is the Apostles’. It affirms belief in God the Father and in Jesus Christ the Lord. The Holy Ghost is acknowledged only incidentally, as the power by which Christ was conceived.”
After taking us through views of the Holy Ghost in the Old and New Testaments as well as the early Church, Givens guides us along a history of Mormon thought on the Holy Ghost.
“Mormon understanding of the Holy Ghost itself, apart from its gifts and manifestations, has evolved through varied stages of development. … The Pratts recognized early on that the Holy Ghost, construed as the only unembodied member of the godhead, offered a solution to the limitations of a corporeal God. They defined the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit, as an intelligent, cosmic ether, virtually limitless in extension.”
With each topic, Givens brings us up to the modern-day, with quotes from the likes of Gordon B. Hinckley and Jeffrey R. Holland. And while some of the topics are common topics for Sunday worship services (like the ones I’ve mentioned above), we also learn about guardian angels and fallen angels and much more.
To be clear, Givens makes no claims to a definitive statement of LDS theology: “This book is not a work of either systematic or historical theology per se.” Rather, “by situating Mormon thought in the context of historic Christian doctrines, I hope to illuminate what is continuous with the Christian tradition and what is radically distinct from it.” And then, onward through “the essential contours of Mormon thought as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present.” So if you want to believe that the doctrines taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t change, this book won’t help you. But if you are comfortable with the idea that gospel truths have been revealed “precept upon precept, line upon line …, here a little, there a little,” from long before the Restoration until today, then this book is for you. It also implicitly points us forward, as does the closing line of the ninth Article of Faith: “We believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”
A few tidbits
- For the first time, I found some precedent for the worldview in the musical Saturday’s Warrior. Consider this, from an article written under the direction of John Taylor, to the women of the Church: “Thou made a covenant…with two others, male and female spirits, that thou wouldst come and take a tabernacle through their linage, and become one of their offspring. You also chose a kindred spirit whom you loved in the spirit world … to be your … husband, and protection on earth.” In other words, “I’ve seen that smile somewhere before!“
- Here’s a line from Joseph Smith in the section on theosis (i.e., becoming divine): “I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, and administer[s] to the poor and divide[s] his substance, than the long, smooth-faced hypocrite.” Givens follows it up with this quote from non-Mormon Terry Eagleton: “Eternity lies not in a grain of sand but in a glass of water. The cosmos revolves on comforting the sick.”
- I listened to the unabridged audiobook; it was well narrated by B.J. Harrison, who happens to be a BYU graduate, so he avoids the mispronunciations sometimes found in audiobooks about LDS topics, as in John Turner’s wonderful but occasionally mispronounced Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet audiobook.