People of Paradox, I

I continue to be impressed with the writings of Terryl Givens about Mormonism.  Givens writes as a faithful Latter-day Saint, but not as an apologist for the LDS cause as much as analyst of key issues in the Mormon experience.  Of course I don’t agree with Givens on everything, but his analysis is always through-provoking and incisive.

I’ve been reading his most recent book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. (Oxford University Press, 2007).  By “Mormon culture” Givens does not mean culture in the broader sense of all the knowledge, values, attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group.  The book is about LDS artistic culture.  It explores both the historical development and the current practice within Mormonism of literature, visual arts, music, architecture, theater and film, and the intellectual life.

To set the stage for his evaluation of “Mormon culture”, Givens first identifies four areas of paradox within Mormonism that affect the practice and development of the cultural arts.

The first is the tension between free agency and authoritarianism.  Givens identifies moral agency – the right of each individual to choose and act for oneself – as one of the indispensable foundations of Joseph Smith’s teachings.  The paradox, then, is that “the church Joseph founded is one of the most centralized, hierarchical, authoritarian churches in America.” (8)

Smith established ecclesiastical egalitarianism through the priesthood (at least for males).  But “a church full of prophets was a holy bedlam” (10) which led to “a revelation that established for all time the principle of the supreme spiritual authority of the church.” (11)

Givens concludes that:

“A segment of Mormon society will always be disposed to see unquestioning obedience to priesthood counsel as weakness and abdication of moral autonomy, while others will see independent-mindedness as a euphemism for the fetishizing of difference and pride.  And the tensions will doubtless be fiercest among those whose life work calls them to worship God through creative expression and intellectual pursuits.”  (19)

In my experience, one area where the principle of moral agency breaks down in Mormonism is when members want to test the truth claims of the LDS church or even to disaffiliate from the church.  At this point they are often treated with a level of attention that comes across as harassment or bullying, motivated by the sincere desire of loved ones or church authorities to dissuade them from leaving.  Friends and authorities are not willing to allow the person to make his or her own choices about truth, or to freely adopt the consequences of those choices.  Retention of people under the umbrella of LDS authority often then becomes more important than the exercise of moral agency.

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