Monday, September 25, 2006

Book Review: The Latter-day Saint Experience in America

Book Review: The Latter-day Saint Experience in America
by Julie M. Smith=20
Perhaps you can forgive me for taking one look at the supersized price
tag on Terryl L. Givens' new book The Latter-day Saint Experience in
America and assuming that the intended audience was luckless
university students operating at the behest of their profligate

I approached the book with a simple question: Would this be a good
resource for a college class on American religion? The answer is a
resounding 'yes.' But I was amazed to find even more than that:
there's quite a bit here for Church members to chew on. It is worth
buying (even at $55).

Givens' first chapter covers the history of the Church. It is a model
of what Mormon history should be: no whitewashing, no feigned
objectivity, great details, consideration of the big picture. Although
this is basic Mormon history for nonmembers, there are enough little
gems in here to warrant the attention of the Saints, even the ones
already well-versed in our history. For example, we all know about
Governor Boggs' extermination order, but I think we've forgotten that
Boggs was responding to Sidney Rigdon, who promised that "it shall be
between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them,
till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have
to exterminate us." Kind of puts a whole new spin on it, doesn't it?
Similarly, I can't say that I remember hearing in Sunday School about
the Mormon raiders who "torch[ed] grazing land, scatter[ed] their
cattle, block[ed] routes, burn[ed] baggage trains, and otherwise
imped[ed] the progress" of the federal army as they marched toward
Utah territory. Givens also shines at providing context: it doesn't
mean much to note that there were 5,000 men in the Nauvoo Legion
unless you also know that the standing federal army was under 10,000
at this time. But Givens is at his best in the analysis of history:

"Physical plates with real heft confirmed by a dozen witnesses,
seerstones and oracular spectacles, temples of stone rather than
flesh, a Zion that could be located on a map, and a gathering that
entailed wagons and later handcarts rather than a figurative unity of
belief=E2=80=93in these and other ways Mormonism collapsed the historical,
psychological, and ontological distance that became integral to so
much of the Christian tradition. As such, Mormonism invited
accusations of both banality and blasphemy."

The second chapter explores doctrine. He has several gem-like
one-liners, including this important idea lost on Saints and
evangelicals alike: "Theology, simply stated from the Mormon
perspective, is what happens when revelation is absent." And:
"Mormonism is better understood as enacting its central doctrines
rather than systematically articulating them." And, again, while he
does an eminently competent job of sketching out the basics, he also
gives the lifer something to think about: in the context of human
incarnation, he notes, "it is not clear what advantages a physical
body offers over a spiritual body." There are also great ideas in his
discussion of the LDS take on the Fall. He includes data not commonly
available (Did you know that only about one third of eligible young
men serve missions, or that the PEF took in about 100M in its first
two years?).

The chapter entitled "Temple, Church, and Family" provides important
nuts, bolts, and organizational details for the study of Mormonism.
But there are enough wink-and-a-nods to make the chapter sufferable,
nay, even enjoyable, for longterm members. Without comment, he writes,
"A basketball gym (called a "cultural hall") is typically adjacent . .
etc.," notes that Sunday meetings would tax "anyone's post-Puritan
capacity for endurance," and refers to the "marathon" of sermons
comprising General Conference. We really are a peculiar people.

His chapter on controversial issues covers all of the usual suspects:
abortion, birth control, homosexuality, etc. Perhaps the best praise
that I can give here is to note that I think a very conservative and a
very liberal Mormon could read this chapter without feeling betrayed.
One odd omission: in an otherwise able discussion of the Church's
position on homosexuality, there's no mention of same-sex marriage
legislation and the Church's efforts to thwart it. But, overall, he
does a stellar job of covering the basics while engaging the jaded pew
warmer (not an easy task). Even I hadn't ever considered the Church's
teachings on a Mother in Heaven as "the most radically feminist
gesture in Christian theology." I was a little uneasy with his section
on environmentalism, because while he makes an excellent case that the
scriptures and modern prophets have called us to responsible
stewardship of the Earth's resources, he doesn't mention that
environmentalism is completely off the radar of talks, books, and
lessons. (It shouldn't be, but it is.)

I'll guiltily admit that I found myself scoffing a little in
anticipation of the chapter subtitled "Intellectual and Cultural Life
of the Latter-day Saints," but Givens does a fine job with theological
underpinnings and everything else from MoTab to road shows. I suppose
it isn't as bad as we think . . .

I do think the final chapter was something of a misstep: the
discussion of splinter groups would perhaps have fit better in the
history chapter, since the major groups have 19th century origins.
Appendices include brief biographies of the prophets and other
notables and, once again, are useful for the nonmember but still
interesting for the rest of us. I never knew that then-Elder Hunter
broke three ribs tripping against a podium or that Parley P. Pratt was

I had assumed the dust jacket's claim (with a typographical
error=E2=80=93eek!) that the book would examine all aspects of how Mormons
"live, work, and worship" would be grossly optomistic, but Givens
really does cover all bases: historical, doctrinal, cultural, and
organizational. His only lacuna is CES: seminary gets a few sentences
in the text, institute barely a sentence in the appendix. It isn't
just Givens, however, who underestimates the effect that CES has on
community building, retention of young people, and (perhaps a
double-edged sword) the shaping of doctrine and pedagogy throughout
the rest of the Church. But given what he set out to do, Givens has
done it remarkable well. This is the best introduction to the Church
(I didn't cringe once), and there's plenty here to keep the lifelong
member engaged. I'm pleased to have something to recommend to
nonmembers, new members, and everyone else.

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