Questions for Terryl Givens

John Dehlin Mormon 33 Comments

I have a very unique opportunity to interview someone who (in my mind, anyway) is one of the most important minds in 21st century Mormonism: Terryl Givens.  He’s written several books on Mormonism — all published through Oxford Press, including:

Please help me compile a list of worthy questions for this interview.  Thanks in advance.


Comments 33

  1.  “I came to the conclusion, in large part through my study of the Book of Mormon, that for faith to operate, and for faith to have moral significance in our lives, then it has to at some level be a choice. It can’t be urged upon us by an irresistible, overwhelming body of evidence, or what merit is there in the espousing of faith?”  
    Taking this quote from Terryl Givens from the PBS interview about the nature of faith as a choice I would be interested to know 2 things. Firstly, how does he view spiritual experience as a method of finding truth, and how does he respond to contradictory spiritual experiences (the miraculous and the smaller more personal experiences)  across Mormonism and across the world in other religions.  The second question I’m finding harder to frame;)…When the way you see the world, your life experiences, your interactions with the collective human experience in the world…when that doesn’t add up or fall in line with what you’re trying to have faith in and when the world seems to fall in line and be at peace in your mind when the understanding comes that the Church is not “True” and there is no absolute “Truth”, what do you do then?  How would Brother Givens respond to a personal question such as this from someone who might be asking him for counsel?

  2. My question is certainly related to (redundant with?) Ashley’s.  Eliade talks about the major role of hierophany (manifestation of the Sacred) in human experience.  Frequently in his coverage of the Mormon story, its major theophanies and minor hierophanies, Givens takes a third-party stance, as though he were a reporter on the scene.  Is Brother Givens willing to share his own hierophany/ies?  What has moved him to stay committed?

  3. A theological question: Not too long ago Brother Givens spoke at BYU about the notion of a “fortunate fall”.  Reconciling the “fortunate fall” captured in
    2 Nephi 2 with the Brother of Jared’s words in Ether 3:2 “because of the fall
    our natures have become evil continually” appears to present a challenge.  The case does not seem as clear-cut.  (The “natural man is an enemy to God” idea from
    the book of Mosiah may be the nuanced bridge that allows for a natural man but,
    through the “enticings of the Spirit” during times of probation, we can get out of
    the trouble we find ourselves in.)  I also recall that he dwelt on the
    subject of human nature and potential during your BYU forum a couple of years ago.  The “lightning from heaven” theme struck me at the time, but as I have considered other passages from the Book of Mormon (like the one above), the case for a positive affirmation of man’s character does not seem as clear-cut.  How does such a passage influence Brother Givens’ thesis concerning the Book of Mormon portrayal of the fortunate fall? 

  4. Has there ever been a major
    personal belief or assumption that you adhered to, but then later
    relinquished upon discovering contradicting evidence? If so, can you
    share with us what it was?

  5. John Dehlin,

    I love how how you are getting these incredible guests from the believing side, it’s really refreshing.  First Dan Peterson and now Terryl Givens!  I’ve heard you say in the past that it’s really hard getting anyone from the apologist community to come on Mormon Stories? What is different now that they are willing to come on the podcast?

  6. How is a choice to fashion a faith around belief in the greatest being imaginable (say, Jesus Christ) more moral than behaving basically the same way, but without said faith.

  7. How do you participate at church?  What has your experience been?  Do you see a place for “faithful atheists” in Mormonism?  How do you cope with a leadership that does not really know how to deal with people who are not submissive children (except by spanking or exiling the outspoken and silencing the rest of us)?  Where do you find further light and knowledge (while the brethren babble on about porn, masturbation, and homosexuality, none of which they seem to understand very well)?  Can you respect the brethren without being their lapdog?  Do you personally agree with every decision every prophet, seer, and revelator has made?

  8. I watched the PBS documentary and I am very impressed by brother Givens knowledge of the history of the Mormon faith. This is the reason why I would like to know of him what he thinks about the early believes of Joseph about the nature of God (Lectures on Faith section 5 Godhead explanation, 1830 edition Book of Mormon view of God) in comparison with what later became cannonized in D&C130:22 (1842).

  9. I know Dr. Givens loves paradox. Would love to hear him comment on the following quote by Richard Bushman:

    “You must remember that within the walls of Mormonism all sorts of reasonable, functioning, educated people believe the Book of Mormon. That of course helps a Mormon remain sane. It is also why many Mormons like myself have a post-modern turn to their minds. We, more than most others, recognize how socially constructed truth is. It really is what people agree to believe–or what methods of ascertaining truth they concur in.”

    Does Dr. Givens share this “post-modern turn” to his mind?

  10. The LDS church advertises how its all about family togetherness.  However in my case my non-LDS family including my parents could not go to my wedding and was consequently not much involved in their grandchildren’s lives.  And now, 26 years later I’m getting divorced partially because I no longer believe in the LDS church and my spouse is more committed to the church than to me.  It seems the LDS religion is more about destroying family and marriage relationships if the family unit is not 100% united LDS.  How can religion be of God, yet seem to be so self-centered and hateful?  LDS theology applied to real life is anything BUT about love and Christ’s teachings.

  11. What is the functionality of paradox?

    Is believing in the functionality and perhaps even divine nature of paradox a part of your personal faith?

    Do you see paradox as 1) inevitable social constructs 2) transcendent of human nature and part of a broader, holistic and universal truth 3) both 4) other?

    What is the difference between a paradox and a dialectic in your mind?

    Would you apply the concept of applied dialectics to living and growing in the gospel? If so, in what ways?

  12. This quote is getting some play, and I have a question related to it:”I came to the conclusion, in large part through my study of the Book of Mormon, that for faith to operate, and for faith to have moral significance in our lives, then it has to at some level be a choice. It can’t be urged upon us by an irresistible, overwhelming body of evidence, or what merit is there in the espousing of faith?”
    Why should faith have to have “moral significance”? Why must it be “good” to believe some things and “bad” to believe others, especially in the absence of evidence? Are we really supposed to believe in a God who is unhappy with us when we believe things that have evidentiary support and reject things that do not? What can we say about the character of such a God?

  13. I’d be curious to his take on Mormon Stories.  Is he a fan?  What does he think about this new medium?  Would he want his kids listening to it?  Does he think Mormon Stories and other blogs is having an impact on shaping Mormon thought?  Same question about apologetics. 

  14. There’s been an increase of Mormons receiving PhDs in religion and American religious history in the pat ten years, almost all with their testimonies intact. And according to a vocal apostate, Bob McCue, intelligent people aren’t more likely to leave the LDS Church. Yet many are leaving the Church today for mainly intellectual reasons.

    1. Can you explain this paradox? 2. Would more Richard Bushmans and Terryl Givenses be helpful in preventing more intellctual apostasy?

  15. Question:  In the garden of eden the metaphor of sweet and bitter fruit is portrayed.  2 Ne 2:15
    15 And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.
    Which fruit is bitter  Knowledge of good and evil  orth the tree of eternal life.  “…delicious to the taste and very desireable…”

  16. Like many people who visit mormonstories.org, I’ve never heard of Terryl Givens. I’ll probably never read his books because they’re over my head. BUT i’m very interested to hear his perspective on the Book of Mormon. Here’s what I’m hoping to hear during the interview:

    1. An in depth summary of his book, By the Hand of Mormon. What makes this book so ground breaking?

    2. From a literary perspective, what impresses you most about the book of mormon? Historical perspective? Etc.

    3. From a literary perspective, are therejust areas in the book of mormon that just doesn’t make sense, seem contradictory or inauthentic?

    3. What would you say to the faithful unbeliever who has read the Book of Mormon many times, but still doubts its authenticity? Acting on Moroni’s challenge doesnt privide a clear yes or no awnser. For this person, rereading the Book of Mormon becomes spiritually destructive because doing so fosters feelings of betrayal and dishonesty. Is it possible to separate the message of the book and it’s authenticity?

    4. To the unbeliever, the book of abraham is a mistranslation of a version of the book of the dead. To me, this and other inconsistancies call into question Joseph Smith’s credibility. Why would God put so much trust in someone who lacks credibility? What make you believe Joseph Smith’s account of the first vision and book of mormon?

    1. Excellent questions Scott. I read Givens’ “By The Hand Of Mormon” before Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling was published and it actually made me question the BoM more. I think the main reason it was “groundbreaking” (if indeed it was) is because he was one of the very first faithful Mormons to write critically about the book, and in a balanced way. He wasn’t afraid to discuss the real issues, and laid it all out very nicely with chapters dedicated to faithful interpretations as well as chapters dedicated to the main criticisms. What I found most impressive was that he appeared not to take sides, or at the least he didn’t simply brush off the criticisms as nonsense. I credited them as valid. It was quite a breath of fresh air.

      1. Richard, why did By the Hand of Mormon make you question the book of mormon more? Was it from any new information? Or did you find the argument against its authenticity more persuasive? How has this affected your attitude and comfort level in the church?

        1. It made me question in both ways you mention: New information and the arguments against were more persuasive.

          For me it was the start of a downward (or upwards in my view) spiral which eventually lead to me leaving the church. The other books I read which helped me “out” were Bushman’s book on Smith, then Brodie’s, and then Quinn’s books followed by books on the authenticity of the Bible by Friedman and Ehrman. Finally, I read books by Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris which resonated with me a lot more than anything Mormonism ever had to offer in the intellectual department.

  17. I enjoy the intellectual banter on the more in-depth topics, but lately I have been struck by the absurdity of the real basic issues at play in the true v. not true debate.   Here are my thoughts… Would a loving and all-knowing God establish His only true church on earth and then place numerous barriers/issues (blacks, polygamy, B of M, B of A, exclusion of gays and a nearly infinite number of other wacky sh*%t) so that inevitably less than 1% of his children can enjoy the fullness of the Gospel and the earthly and eternal blessings therein?  To me, it just makes absolutely no sense at all and every time I think about it becomes increasingly absurd and clear to me.  Another example of the absurdity of it all is that our missionary men are told that somehow their faith correlates with their baptism rate.  Again, would a loving God place the salvation of His children in the faith and adherence to missionary rules by 19yr olds?  Doesn’t the faith/baptism equation somehow interfere with free agency? 

  18. This might be more of a question for Daniel Peterson than Terryl Givens (though I think Givens could give an excellent answer as well) – but I would like to see a list of what either or both scholars considers to be the very best books about the Book of Mormon.  I don’t know if it would be a Top Ten list or a Top Twenty or more.  But I’d like to see such a thing as a blog post or as a bibliography – perhaps with some comments about why each book is noteworthy.

  19. As a missionary I served in his ward.  He is well-respected and appreciated in his current ward, although I’m not sure if he’s still Gospel Doctrine teacher.  He’s a busy guy honestly so local leaders have for the most part been good respecting his way of contributing.  The stake president and bishop are great guys and not the headhunting type.  

    Although as a staunch TBM I may have annoyed him a bit ;), as a NOM I have developed a greater respect and appreciation for his work.  

    Questions to ask-

    1. Have you had any experiences being censored by the Church?
    2. Do you perceive a shift in the recent years of the Church?3. Thoughts on “I’m a Mormon” campaign
    4. Do you foresee any changes in the Church?  Those are kind of put on the spot questions but he’d have some great input on those.  

  20. This may sound obscure but it is related to a personal research project:  Does Brother Givens see any relationship between doctrines of the pre-existence and the 18th-19th Century debates around preformationism?  Could the preformationism/generation debates (where does life come from, debated at the onset of the industrial revolution) have impacted Mormon theology?  Does our new knowledge of the human genome in any way inform our doctrines of where we come from?  Thanks!!  

  21. I suggest addressing the same 10 concerns that you prepared for richard bushman.  of course, bushman only covered half of them so it could be interesting to address the other half or address them all, if there is time. 

  22. In your interview on the PBS documentary, THE MORMONS, you mentioned that it is very difficult for intellectuals to admit that they believe in literal gold plates and a literal angel. You also mentioned the the story of the gold plates and the angel Moroni is the scandal of Mormonism in the fact that you could not divorce this story from Mormonism and still have the religion in tact. As a scholar who has committed on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, how do you feel that you are able to balance healthy levels of skepticism with healthy levels of belief?

  23. CONTEXT
    Retention of members has always been problematic for the Church, remeber the Kirtland days. From, past disasters the church has developed a policy to merely share the faith promkoting and not “spread disease germs”. Missionaries were taught not to share past transgressions etc.
    Nowadays with more and more scholars writing frankly about church history, and ever increasing internet access to previously unavailable sources, the image of the church cannot be upheld anymore as faith promoting on the old fashioned sense.
    In the sense of D&C 121:37 “when we undertake to cover our sins … behold the heavens withdraw themselves: the Spirit of the Lord is grieved” it seems the church has a lot to gain from confessing their mistakes, negroes and priesthood prop 8 etc.
    After all do we discard Moses as a prophet, because he smote the rock? Do we denounce Peter as an apostle because he denied Christ? No, we learn from their weaknesses and appreceate them as fellow fallable humans that werer called to an extremely difficult task.
    The present portrayal of prophets and apostles being infallable when in office and only fallable when in person does not do the church any favours, since it is not credible anymore. [ie teh church is perfect, but the people aren’t.
    Not only do recent converts leave the curch, but also educated life long earnest members.

    QUESTION
    Do you feel the church would stand stronger or weaker if it would let go of the image of prophets and apostles being infallable when in office?
    Which “past transgression”, when shared as such in stead of maintaining its correctness, would be of the greatest benifit to the church and why.

     

  24. I’m so excited about this interview.  I read “People of Paradox” recently and Brother Givens really laid out well the tension between obedience to leaders and acting on personal revelation for me.  I’m moving into a new ward and would like Brother Given’s advice on how to contribute in a meaningful way while maintaining nuanced beliefs.  I don’t really feel like it’s my responsibility to show all my cards on certain issues, yet I no longer feel comfortable in certain callings.  As a RM sister I’m kind of a target for teaching, and I don’t want to have to explain myself to people who don’t know me if I reject a calling.  I guess I haven’t really asked a good question yet.  Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens seems to be held in high regards by all sorts of Mormons, and I’m pretty sure their testimonies are as complex as mine.  What advice could you give an average member regarding contributing to a ward while staying true to all of your beliefs, even those not held by true believing Mormons?

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