Friday, October 26, 2007

Terryl Givens' "People of Paradox"

Terryl L. Givens is Professor of Literature and Religion and James A. Bostwick Chair of English, University of Richmond. His books on Mormonism and American religious culture include The Latter-Day Saint Experience in America, By the Hand of Mormon, and Viper on the Hearth.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, and reported the following:
Paradox is rife in any number of philosophical systems, faith traditions, and cultural practices. It could be that paradox is just a euphemism for the inconsistency so often at the heart of human ways of ordering experience. Paradox could be a sign of immaturity, an indication that our ways of articulating our values and preferences have not yet found a synthesis free of fault lines. Or one could see paradox as the sign of a voracious Faustian appetite, a response to Hegel’s tragic universe in which, confronted with competing Goods, we insist on having it both ways, and manage, perhaps, to do just that.

Levi-Strauss believed that all cultures are riven with fundamental contradictions at their heart, and myth becomes a way to overcome such contradictions. I have chosen to expand his approach, and look at a range of cultural expression in Mormon history, to find in art, music, literature, architecture, and the life of the mind, forums for the imaginative exploration and creative resolution of such contradictions. I call them paradoxes to reflect Mormon belief that, ultimately, the contradictions are more in appearance than reality.

Page 99 of People of Paradox provides a sampling of some of those manifestations of apparently irreconcilable difference in Mormon attitudes toward the life of the mind in particular. The practice of polygamy struck most observers as prima facie evidence of Mormon patriarchal dominance and devaluation of women. But Utah in the late 19th century sent more female students to medical college than any state in the Union. (Women comprised 50% of the class of Deseret at a time when the national average was 15%). Joseph Smith exhibited one of the boldest speculative imaginations of his age. But his successor Brigham Young wanted education more geared to producing turnips than thinkers. Mormon editorialists railed against “book-learning,” even as Utah children attended schools to get just that at a higher rate than children in New York, Pennsylvania, or the birthplace of public education, Massachusetts.

Journalist James Gordon Bennett’s jibe that Mormonism produced “saints and crockery ware” with equal enthusiasm actually hit the nail right on the head. Joseph Smith’s collapse of sacred distance created a theology in which commerce and consecration were fully compatible. Young’s remark that the transformation of the earth into a celestial sphere would be accomplished by angels well instructed in chemistry was but one further evidence that in Mormon conceptions of the universe, the supernal and the mundane blended into one another in sublime synthesis.
Learn more about People of Paradox at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue