Book Review: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

People of Paradox is unusual: Givens sets out four major paradoxes in Mormon thought and then shows how various aspects of Mormon culture (the life of the mind, architecture, visual art, dance, film, etc.), at various moments in history, negotiate those dilemmas. I can’t help but enjoy a book that seeks to wend its own way by eschewing traditional approaches to history. Yet the warp and weft don’t mesh perfectly.

But first, the paradoxes: this introductory section does an exemplary job of elucidating the major conflicts in Mormon thought. In fact, had Givens expanded on these themes and made them the sole focal point of the book, we would have an excellent overview of Mormon intellectual history and an articulation of the tensions in Mormon culture that would have been the standard guide for the perplexed for the next generation. His deft ability to elucidate these tensions—even simply to recognize them as tensions—has the potential even in its current form to be enormously helpful for those who are just jumping into Mormon thought and find the waters tumultuous. The first paradox Givens recognizes is the often fascinating negotiation between extreme authoritarianism and “radical freedom” in the Church. Second is the tension between the constant search for more truth and the certainty that is expected of church members. Coming third (in a chapter wittily titled “Everlasting Burnings and Cinder Blocks”) is the odd juxtaposition between the sacred and the banal. And, finally, Givens discusses the interaction between the ideas of election and exile. Again, this section of the book is highly recommended—especially to newbies in Mormon Studies and those struggling with their own faith—for its ability to identify and articulate these paradoxes in Mormon thought and life.

Before delving into Givens’ application of the paradoxes to Mormon culture, let me make three observations. First, dividing the cultural sections into two time periods (1830-1890 and 1890-present) struck me as an unfortunate disruption. I think it would have been far better to stick with one cultural manifestation and see it through; as it is written, I felt that I lost the strand of thought on, say, architecture, since five chapters intervened before I again reached that topic.

Secondly, Givens doesn’t spend much time either defining culture or justifying his choices of topics to cover under that umbrella. For the first decision, I am grateful: I can’t imagine anything more stultifying than dozens of pages on exactly what constitutes “culture.” But for the latter, I’m puzzled. He dismisses “material culture” early on and I think that this is unfortunate. In the first place, it means not considering the venue where women are most likely to have contributed to Mormon culture. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has shown, quilts and similar artifacts are important repositories of female culture. But my complaint here is more than the standard feminist rant: the case can easily be made that material culture, specifically handicrafts, have been one of the defining elements of Mormon identity from pioneer times clear through to the present. To disregard them seems to inappropriately limit the discussion. I don’t know that I could make the case that decoupage or vinyl-lettered plaques reveal or respond to the paradox of certainty and seeking, but that might suggest something about the paradox’s applicability to many Saints, particularly women. Handicrafts probably don’t evince Givens’ theory of paradoxes but, if so, this would have been all the more reason to consider them. Surely Givens was right when he noted in the preface that “a study claiming to address the sweeping subject of a religious culture is bound to offend almost everyone by dint of something left out, something overpraised, or something undervalued.”

Finally, I was befuddled by the way in which Givens embraced popular culture in some areas (such as an extended discussion of Saturday’s Warrior) while virtually ignoring it in others. I can completely understand why would not want to engage Especially for Mormons or The Work and The Glory series, but, at the same time, I’m not sure that one can accurately portray Mormon culture—especially operating under a definition of Mormon culture that includes Saturday’s Warrior–without exploring them. Consequently, a paradox of Mormon culture is raised by the book itself: the conflict between the elite and mass Mormon culture—elite condescension on the one hand, impressive sales on the other. And, paradoxically, some of the finest examples of Givens’ four tensions come not from ‘high art’ but from his analysis of recent LDS films such as God’s Army and New York Doll. It may well be that the paradoxes are more prevalent in Mormon popular culture than in high culture, but since Givens didn’t delve into popular literature or thought to any great extent, I’m not sure.

In the remainder of the book, Givens traces LDS history through the prism of a single aspect of culture, one chapter at a time. These sections are full of fascinating trivia (Did you know that the angel Moroni on the Salt Lake Temple was created by a non-Mormon sculptor?) and anything-but-trivial observations (“The use of church funds for artists to practice drawing nude models in fin-de-siecle Paris in preparation for adorning the sacred inner precincts of a Mormon temple is surely one of the great ironies of Mormon religious history”). They are well worth reading as brief histories of the various categories under discussion. But what they don’t do, in my opinion, is successfully illustrate that the four paradoxes are represented in all areas of Mormon culture. It may be that I expected to be hit over the head with “visual arts in the twentieth century clearly manifested the conflict between election and exile by . . .” while perhaps what Givens was doing was much more subtle. At the same time, I walked away from the book with the impression that the historical data from the various avenues of Mormon culture did not support the idea of four major paradoxes that permeated Mormon culture. To some extent, this was balanced by Givens’ trenchant insights (“Mormons insist on the need for a gospel restoration, but then feel the sting of being excluded from the fold of Christendom that they have just dismissed as irredeemably apostate”) and delightful writing. Another strength of the book is its positioning of Mormonism (particularly nineteenth century Mormonism) in the larger American context: a reader cannot truly appreciate the role of, say, dancing in LDS culture unless she knows with what vehemence the neighbors were preaching against it. Similarly, thinking about Mormon pageants in the context of passion plays is innovative and ultimately elucidating.

If I sound somewhat conflicted in my evaluation to this book, your perception is keen. There were moments when I sensed him stepping onto a soapbox as cultural critic, particularly in the chapter on modern architecture (after explaining that LDS chapels merge into basketball courts he concludes that this “conspire[s] to threaten the sacred experience”), instead of speaking as a historian, as he does throughout most of the book. I’m mostly disappointed by my sense that the four paradoxes were not, ultimately, shown to permeate every aspect of Mormon culture, as well as my sense that the presentation of “Mormon culture” overemphasized some areas and left out others. At the same time, I can’t dismiss the impressive addition of historical thinking and reflection that constitute this book. Paradox, indeed.

14 comments for “Book Review: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

  1. Excellent, Julie S.


    The first paradox Givens recognizes is the often fascinating negotiation between extreme authoritarianism and “radical freedom” in the Church. Second is the tension between the constant search for more truth and the certainty that is expected of church members. Coming third (in a chapter wittily titled “Everlasting Burnings and Cinder Blocks”) is the odd juxtaposition between the sacred and the banal. And, finally, Givens discusses the interaction between the ideas of election and exile.

    Of these, the last two paradoxes don’t look unique to Mormons. Looking at other faiths that have these same tensions could tell you whether it was the tensions that were driving the art or not.

  2. Thanks, Julie. Does he say anything about these or other paradoxes in the international perspective of the expanding Church?

  3. Thanks for the review, Julie. I particularly liked this line: “elite condescension on the one hand, impressive sales on the other.”

  4. “the case can easily be made that material culture, specifically handicrafts, have been one of the defining elements of Mormon identity from pioneer times clear through to the present.”

    I think this is an excellent point. My first experiences with Mormon culture were with material culture (as well as community performance). In fact, I think it’s quite possible that my later turn to Mormon literature was spurred in part by my later separation* from that (small town Southern Utah) culture. Of course, I was always interested in literature, but there was no apparent reason for me to turn to Mormon literature with as much passion as I did.

    “elite condescension on the one hand, impressive sales on the other”

    Of course, I’m not sure it’s quite so clear cut. Some people try to make it out that way, but I really wonder if they’re right.

    *That’s not a complaint Mom and Dad — I’m very, very glad we moved to California when we did.

  5. Like Julie, I got more from the earlier sections of the book, which introduced and explored the paradoxes, providing some good food for thought. I too thought the second half of the book was weaker as Givens moved into offering crititiques of specific works. He seemed to lose the forest for the trees. Still, I found the book an interesting and challenging read, containing much to ponder. In some ways it makes a nice complement to Bushman’s “On the Road with Joseph Smith” as an overview of some of the tensions we experience — both internal and external — in our spiritual and intellectual lives as members of the LDS Church.

  6. I’m reading this book right now. To be honest, I personally found Givens irritating in the PBS documentary, The Mormons, yet I heard some lauding his writing, so I wanted to see how he came across in print. To my suprise, I’m impressed. The early part of the book, exploring his basic perceived paradoxes, is the strongest thus far. I’m noting that at the end of chapters on early Mormonism, he seems to foreshadow negative changes, so it will be interesting to see how he discusses the modern LDS church.

    My only real complaint so far is that I’m finding a variety of small factual errors in Givens’ historical discussion. They’re not huge things, and most readers probably won’t even notice them. Really though, how can Givens write that the Twelve’s post-exodus epistle to the scattered saints may have been “the first printing west of the Mississippi,” when he’s already noted the earlier publication in Missouri of The Evening and Morning Star? I’ve come across several similar items, and while they aren’t of a nature to ruin Givens’ argument, they certainly distract me from the overall statement each time I come across one of them.

  7. I was going to post a review on this a couple of weeks ago but someone else at Mormon Mentality beat me to it. I had some of the same concerns as Julie did. The title of the book is People of Paradox. The subtitle is A History of Mormon Culture. The fact is, there are in fact two books here, one about the paradoxes and one about the history. I don’t think that they always meshed well. They should each have been expanded and kept as separate texts. I am not aware that there was ever a plan to make two books out of this by either Bro. Givens or OUP, but it would have been a good idea. Though not perfect, I think that the book was incredibly interesting and useful as another step forward for Mormon Studies.

  8. Just a note of clarification; the angel Moroni that stands atop the highest spire of the Salt Lake Temple was sculpted by Cyrus Dallin a native Utahn from the Springville area. He was an ‘ethnic Mormon’, to use a term currently in vogue. He went to the Eastern seaboard to complete his artistic studies and remained in the Boston area for the remainder of his life. During his era most of his clients would likely have been Episcopalians, which was the denomination he decided to join. This decision, if nothing else, was a wise ‘political’ move on his part. Proper Bostonians would never have commissioned a Mormon artist since the Faith was looked upon with utter contempt at that time by virtually all New Englanders. Among Dallin’s other commissions was for the statue of “Massasoit”, the native American who befriended the Pilgrims and taught them how to plant corn. (The seed was placed in a hole a few inches above a buried dead fish which acted a fertilizer. Good advice considering the poor soil of Massachusetts.) This monument is still in place in a park across the street from Plymouth Rock, if my memory serves me correctly. A copy of it can be seen on the front lawn of the Utah State Capitol building. Another prominent Dallin sculpture is in front of the main entrance to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This is of another native American mounted on horseback, wearing a warbonnet and with head and arms raised to the Heaven. It is called, “Appeal to the Great Spirit”. Dallin credited his exposure to the native Ute Indians for his understanding of anatomy and for the facial features of native Americans. Today you can see a respectible amount of Dallin’s work in the Springville Art Museum in Springville, Utah. Dallin returned to the state several times to visit his mother and other family members. I don’t believe that he ever bore any emnity for the Latter-day Saint people or the Church. Dallin loved Art and dedicated his life to it. I am sure that he knew that he could never make a living at in Utah since there were too few patrons with the means to maintain a flow of commissions to him. His future lay in the ‘Gentile world’ and he understood that. Had he been a more ‘valiant’ Latter-day Saint, he would have starved there just as readily as he would have in Utah. I don’t claim to know what was in Dallin’s heart regarding the Church and the Faith that nurtured him, but I can see one obvious reason for his decision. Although Dallin is buried in Massachusetts, (Lexington or Arlington, I believe), I still think of him as a Mormon (ethnic, if you like) artist. He was the first Mormon artist who gained national attention, but was followed by many others. Today’s Art patrons are, on the whole, far less prejudiced than in times past.

  9. One point of clarification to Velikye Kniaz’s helpful information: Dallin was never baptized, and he left Utah as a very young man. He did not leave Mormonism in the same sense as someone who leaves a faith he had fully accepted and been actively involved with. He is like Gutzon Borglum (sculptor of Mount Rushmore), the child of Mormon parents, but never quite Mormon himself.

  10. Ardis, I know from my past readings of T & S that you are a consistent source of unquestionably high veracity, but I always thought that Dallin left when he was about 18 years old. I hadn’t heard that the left Utah as a child under 8 years of age. Please clarify this for me if you would be so kind. My information came from Olpin’s book, “Artist’s of Utah”. Regrettably, it was also subject to the filters of my now middle aged mind. Do you know if the Church paid Dallin a full commission for the angel Moroni statue? I believe that they didn’t. This is just a hunch, however. It is also unusual that he gave so much of his work to the Springville Art Museum if his ties were so tenuous. here also I may very well be mis-informed. Perhaps the museum had to purchase their Dallin collection form his widow. I’ll have to check on that when I’m down there for the next Sping salon…if I can still remember to do so!

  11. Velikye, I don’t recall Dallin’s exact age when he left Utah and don’t have access to a library on this holiday to verify the date (or the other details you ask). but he was older than 8 — he was a very young man, not a very young child, and 18 could very well be exactly right. That’s really part of my point: even though he was a Utah native and the child of Mormon parents, he was not fully Mormon when he went East, not in the sense of having been raised as an LDS child with any understanding and appreciation of the gospel, not having been baptized, or ordained a deacon, or gone to church with any frequency if at all. He didn’t need to conceal his Mormonism to win Eastern patronage because he wasn’t a Mormon (except ethnically, as you suggest), and he didn’t fail to “remain valient” in the same way as, say, someone who had grown up fully immersed in Mormonism and then chosen to throw that off as an adult. It’s really his parents who left the church, or drifted away, while they were still living in Utah, because they didn’t raise their son in the church.

    You’ve got quite a bit of respect for Dallin as an artist; so do I. So did Mormons during his lifetime. The LDS woman in New York City who wrote weekly letters to the Deseret News in the early years of the 20th century about the activities of Mormons and Utahns in the east, especially those with any kind of artistic connection, proudly reported that Cyrus Dallin was exhibiting this or that new work, or had won this or that honor — one note from December 1911, for example, says “Utah made a big showing at the opening of the Academy of Design; Sculptor C.E. Dallin has three pieces accepted, young Avard Fairbanks, sculptor, two pieces, and M.M. Young, three.” She always spoke of him as a Utahn, though, not as a Mormon.

    I endorse everything else you’ve written, especially about the highly unlikely — probably impossible — chance of Dallin’s having been able to earn a living as an artist in Utah in the late 19th century. He couldn’t have gotten the training he needed, or the recognition, and certainly Mormon culture would have been different in at least one way had he stayed, because we wouldn’t have that iconic Moroni image without him!

  12. Thank you, Ardis! I always enjoy your comments and the additional enlightenment they carry. I find this website, on the whole, extremely enriching and I thoroughly enjoy having the doctrines, traditions, historical events and legends of our Faith and People fleshed out in fuller detail through the contributions of all of the Times & Seasons Saints. The cumulative knowledge and intelligence of the contributors to this site is awesome, in the traditional sense of the word. I wish you and all others in the Times & Seasons family a very Happy Thanksgiving!

  13. Very nice comments, Julie. I have only read the first three chapters, but I find the tone to be rather different from By the Hand of Mormon, which struck me as well-decorated apologetics, whereas People of Paradox has avoided that latent apologetic agenda. I’m waiting for a discussion to appear in the book that puts religious paradox in perspective: do other denominations lack these sort of paradoxes running through their doctrine and culture, or do they also have paradoxes? Is the point that Mormon religious culture unique in having paradoxes, or simply different in having an alternative set of paradoxes than other Christian denominations grapple with?

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