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People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture
Terryl L. Givens
Oxford University Press, 2007
432 pp., $35.95
During a radio interview in Iowa with conservative talk-show host Jan Mickelson, once-and-likely-future Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a seemingly commonsensical claim when probed about his lifelong faith, Mormonism: "I understand my faith better than you do." When Mickelson hesitated in his response, Romney burst out, "You don't believe that, do you?" As has been the case for many marginalized groups, a big part of Mormonism's continuing "image problem" is that since the movement's inception in 1830, non-Mormons—indeed, often anti-Mormons—have often exercised greater authority than Mormons themselves in publicly defining the "true" nature of Mormonism. However, even the most sympathetic outsider is bound to miss crucial complexities that arise within the lived experience of any tradition, including Mormonism. The Romney-Mickelson exchange was instructive in this regard. Taking Romney to task for his inconsistency on the abortion question, Mickelson repeatedly quoted an official pronouncement of the church that names excommunication as a penalty for those involved in abortion. In rebuttal Romney referred to church leaders and members he personally knows who support a pro-choice position. Mickelson, the outsider, based his charge of hypocrisy on the dogmatic formulations of ecclesiology, and Romney, the insider, refuted him by appealing to the nuances of culture.
It is to this tricky terrain of Mormon culture that Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and himself a Mormon insider, turns in People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. Givens adopts for Mormonism a strategy similar to the one Grant Wacker deployed in his sympathetic study of Pentecostalism, Heaven below. He attempts to rescue a religious tradition that has so often been reduced to a two-dimensional caricature by lingering over the rich tensions within that tradition. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which lays ...