Invitation: 12 Questions for Terryl Givens

Many of you have probably at least heard of Terryl Givens’s book, By the Hand of Mormon. You should also get to know his other works, Viper on the Hearth and Dragon Scales and Willow Leaves.

Professor Givens has agreed to answer twelve questions from us, so we are soliciting your suggestions. What would you like to ask him?

18 comments for “Invitation: 12 Questions for Terryl Givens

  1. How did you manage to get published by Oxford? What do you think their view towards Mormon scholarship is?

    What did you think of the response to your work by non-Mormons? (Here thinking of the Christianity Today review)

  2. This is the first of I’ve heard of the author and his books but I’m very interested in reading “By the Hand of Mormon” as soon I a get the opportunity. Welcome to T&S and the ‘Nacle!

  3. What has been the official (or semi-official) reception by the Church, FARMS, etc? I used the book as a ward mission leader in the Seattle area to answer some investigators’ questions, but got the unfortunate feeling from others in that stake that we are supposed to rely on the Spirit rather than rational or empirical evidences when talking about the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.

  4. In order for the Book of Mormon to become an essential text in any religious studies department we must move beyond the “it’s true”/”it isn’t true” polemic. Any ideas how this might happen?

  5. Any particular reaction from those in your college dept.? Do they think it’s great, or a little bit weird, or do they not have much of a reaction to it one way or another?

    You’ve done a lot of touring and speaking in support of the book. Any war stories from your travels that you would care to share with us?

  6. John, I think in general many people are uncomfortable when people appeal to external sources. I tend to get a tad nervous myself, mainly because so many people have difficulty separating speculation from fact. Further, I still remember the “teach the scriptures via Elder McConkie’s books” tendency back in the 80’s. (I enjoy Elder McConkie’s books – but there is a lot of speculation there)

  7. Here are a few questions:

    Mosser and Owens rightfully called evangelicals out in 1997 for losing the scholarly battle with the Mormons. What is your take on that “battle” now in 2005? (Is it still a complete trouncing or are some scholars of other faiths putting up a respectable defense against the research, findings, and conclusions of the LDS scholars?)

    Do you think the essays in The New Mormon Challenge actually do pose a challenge or was that relatively easy stuff for the boys at FARMS to deal with?

    Are scholars from other faiths actually becoming willing to look seriously at the Book of Mormon or do they prefer to dismiss completely? Is dismissing it still their best defense? Does engaging in discussions somehow legitimize the Book of Mormon in everyone’s eyes?

  8. I would just like to say that the section on the “Sacred vs. the Profane” in Chapter 5 of Vipers on the Hearth is perhaps my favorite piece for really explaining the difference between Latter-day Christianity and Creedal Christianity. It can provide a real “aha” moment for contemplative students (from either side) who want to place their finger soundly on our fundamantal distinction. Thank you! I just don’t think it fits well within the context of that book — the result being that something that should be waved around is kinda hidden. Have you got any thoughts to build in a future work on the kinda approach that piece takes?

  9. Given your participation in the recent conference at Claremont Graduate School, what do you see as the future of Mormon Studies programs?

  10. The importance you attach to the plates’ objective physical reality is established in your book’s memorable opening paragraphs and beyond, with references to “the pure physicality of the plates” (p. 4), the “artifactual reality” of this “tangible medium” in a “realm…of empiricism and objectivity” (p. 12), the “tactile reality of supernaturally conveyed artifacts” (p. 22), and an extended discussion of the eight witnesses’ experiences, who “matter-of-factly…handled them, turned over the leaves, and examined the engravings” in an ordinary human instance of “empirical observation” and “tactile experience” (p. 40).

    You discuss a single instance of “alleged equivocation” by Martin Harris, who was reported to have “never claimed to have seen them with his natural eyes, only with spiritual vision” (p. 41-42). But Martin was one of the three witnesses—whose experience, as opposed to that of the eight, was presented in clear supernatural terms—and your conclusion is that “Dream-visions may be in the mind of the beholder, but gold plates are not subject to such facile psychologizing” (p. 42).

    There does seem to be good evidence that several people, believers and otherwise, hefted some heavy object wrapped in a frock or cloth (p. 25-26), and taken in isolation the language of the eight witnesses’ statement seems straightforward; but on the other hand, is there not a context of visionary worldview that should inform possible understandings of the eight witnesses’ _detailed_ statement (as opposed to more generic hefting something heavy wrapped in cloth, which could have been a prop)? Should we recognize that there may be more than a single “alleged equivocation” by only one witness (Martin) that ought to be considered? What are we to make of indications from sources both hostile and friendly—collected for example in chapter 6 of Grant Palmer’s book—that each of the eight witnesses were involved in other experiences that, while obviously visionary in character, feature elaborate interactions involving multiple senses (e.g. walking into large chambers in Cumorah filled with artifacts)? Or of the report of an LDS interviewer of David Whitmer that he “was somewhat spiritual in his explanations. He was not as materialistic in his descriptions as I wished” (quoted on p. 197 of Palmer’s book)? Given all this, are materialistic characterizations like those quoted above from your book truly valid, or might they represent an unjustified imputation of concreteness to their experience that derives from the expectations of our modern scientific outlook? Particularly in discourse with non-believers examining all sides, should we allow that the eight witnesses’ visionary worldview allowed them to perceive a detailed multi-sense experience as “real” even without an atmosphere of ordinary, detached “empirical observation” and “tactile experience”? Does this possibility deserve more consideration than dismissal as “facile psychologizing”?

  11. Could you please comment on your forthcoming book on the cultural history of the Mormon people? I’d be interesting in hearing how you plan to approach this subject and what sources you plan to use.

    You write on your web page:

    “Whether Mormonism has had a moment comparable to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “American Scholarâ€? speech, signaling a new era of cultural authenticity and autonomy, is doubtful. But certainly the Mormon culture has exhibited a vigorous artistic and intellectual life that have until now been overshadowed by a more sensational saga of polygamy and persecution, golden plates and seer stones.”

    If there are no moments comparable to Emerson’s speech, do you see mini-Emerson moments in Mormon history?

  12. Prof. Givens,

    1. “By the Hand of Mormon” got a good amount of notice in the popular press (Harper’s, NYT, etc.). Did it receive any attention in academic journals? If not, what might the reasons be? If so, what was the response?

    2. You’ve mentioned, quoting Richard Bushman, that BHM contains “something to offend everyone.” Yet FARMS seems delighted with the book. Noel Reynolds called it, if memory serves, “a gift to our community.” Is it fair to say you refrained from making critical statements about FARMS?

    3. A portion of BHM summarizes the reception history of the Book of Mormon. What would characterize as the most original (and/or significant) new ground that was broken in that book? The discussion of revelation perhaps? The fact that it was published by OUP?

    4. Do you plan to return to the Book of Mormon or other Mormon scriptures in future publishing projects?

    5. Do you have any advice for young LDS scholars wanting to work on Mormonism?

    6. Could you please describe what your forthcoming cultural history of Mormonism will focus on.

    7. What in your estimation are the most common misunderstandings or misrepresentations of Mormonism among academics?

    8. If you had an unlimited research budget (and research staff to match) to work on Mormon Studies projects, what are the 10 projects you would initiate?

    Thanks very much.

  13. I’ll elaborate a little on Clark’s question: What was the review process like, for By the Hand of Mormon? How does a publisher like Oxford measure quality scholarship on Mormonism? If you were a publisher at a reputable place like Oxford, who would you ask to review manuscripts for you, on topics to do with Mormonism?

    Would you say that your book was deemed publishable by Oxford because so much of it was more or less historical, dealing with the reception and use of the book? Would you agree that history is the most reputable area of Mormon Studies? What needs to happen before other areas of Mormon Studies can become equally respectable? (such as Mormon theology or sociology of Mormonism)

  14. Will the papers presented at the “God, Humanity, and Revelation: Perspectives from Mormon Philosophy and History” conference at Yale Divinity School be published?

  15. Professor Givens, BHMhas been a real inspiration to my thinking about the Book of Mormon and Mormonism, though my thinking has gone in a different philosophical direction than yours (you read the review I wrote of BHM a couple of years back; I’ve elaborated upon that review since, as indicated here). My question, in brief, would be about “dialogic revelation.” You indicate that the stories of the BoM portray a world in which revelation is a constant, or at least constantly available: that God, far from being restricted to operating on the “feelings,” is a regularly intervening reality, potentially present in the most mundane of conversations and decisions should we, the discussants, approach God in faith. Your argument is that this example of revelatory dialogue became the model for Mormonism through the BoM: Joseph asked, and was answered; Moroni promises us all that if we ask, we will be answered also. Yet you also note that the seeking of explicit revelation in the everyday has declined in Mormonism of late. Is it possible that in taking the “artifactuality” of the BoM to heart we have, unknowingly, contributed to that decline by making the interruptive quality of the revelations we seek and expect limited to an extent text? That is, we have our revelatory dialogues, but have those revelatory dialogues become for the most part, in essence, quiet private conversations with a book? I wonder if the renewed emphasis on the BoM beginning in the church in the 1980s has not only focused Mormon self-understanding on the witness of Christ in the BoM, but also perhaps unintentionally thrown into sharp relief the limits (or better, the parameters) of a Christian revelation tied up in an epistemological relationship with a book.

  16. What are your thoughts on the tone or voice an LDS scholar should employ when writing about his religion professionally? I noted your explanation that you find constant usage of terms such as allegedly, claimed, according to Joseph, etc. tedious, therefore leave those kinds of words out of your text. Are there any other rules you adopt for scholarly writing on LDS topics? Do you consider your works at all apologetic, if albeit more toned-down than the classic “How did Joseph know?” model? What would you say is the relationship between your works (esp. BHM and VONTH) and FARMS-typified LDS apology?

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