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People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture Hardcover – August 29, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With his fourth book on Mormonism, Givens (By the Hand of Mormon; Viper on the Hearth) earns his place as one of the great LDS scholars of his time. Students of religion, history and culture will find this an authoritative analysis of four fascinating and powerful tensions at the core of Mormonism that feed into its cultural life: authority and radical freedom; searching and certainty; the sacred and the banal; and election versus exile. In the first section, Givens fluently translates the often-insular views of the LDS faith into the language of Western philosophy and puts Joseph Smith’s teachings into historical perspective alongside Hegel, Marx, Faust and others. The remainder of the book is divided into two time periods: the formative years of a beleaguered and isolated religion from 1830-1890, and the period since 1890 characterized by normalization and global growth. For each, Givens explores Mormonism’s wide-ranging cultural contributions in architecture, city planning, music, dance, theatre, film, literature, rational inquiry, and the visual arts. Sprinkled with photos and illustrations, with topics ranging from the "art missionaries" of Utah who studied in Paris at the turn of the century, to the Mormon dominance in science fiction, this scholarly tome actually lives up to its ambitious subtitle. He convincingly concludes that Joseph Smith has provided Mormonism "with sufficient paradoxes to generate vigorous artistic and intellectual expression for another 200 years."


"Terry L. Givens takes readers on a fascinating tour of the remarkable achievements of Mormon culture; its distinctive contributions to art, literature, music, theater, science, and to the life of the mind. Eventually, one realizes that this is not only a book about Mormon culture, but that it makes a substantial contribution to that culture." --Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Mormonism

"Terryl Givens provides an elegant introduction to some of the central tenets, practices, and psychic investments of the Mormon faith. Linking Mormon teachings about agency, authority, salvation, and revelation to broader impulses in Christian and American theology and aesthetics, Givens comprehensively explores both the distinctiveness of Mormon cultural production and its continuities with wider religious currents. He describes the contradictions and persistent problems that arise, as they do in all faiths, within the lived experience of Mormonism. An outstanding work of intellectual and cultural studies, People of Paradox represents a creative and singular contribution to the burgeoning scholarship on the Mormon tradition." --Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, author of Religion and Society in Frontier California

"Givens's proposal that Mormon belief be conceived as a series of paradoxes rather than a set of fixed principles is one of the most significant advances in Mormon thought in a generation. It puts Mormon culture in a brilliant new light. Moreover, by displacing the standard themes from their usual position at center stage and exploring Mormon cultural expression instead, he gives us a fresh, new history of the Latter-day Saints. This book is filled with treasures." --Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

"People of Paradox confirms Terryl Givens's status, if it was ever in question, as the leading mid-career scholar of Mormonism. People of Paradox will likely, for a generation or more, be the statement on Mormon culture with which scholars must wrestle. This well-researched cultural history succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do-synthetically identify and explain fundamental issues and trends within Mormon culture. It is even more exceptional as cultural criticism. No summary can adequately convey the elegance of Givens's prose or the subtlety and profundity of his insights. The book is a superb historical introduction and agenda-setting conceptualization of Mormon culture."--Western Historical Quarterly

"This is an impressive work of synthesis that engages a broad secondary literature in discussing each aspect of the Mormon intellectual and artistic heritage. While other scholars have produced excellent studies treating Mormon literature or music or visual arts, Givens is the first to offer a comprehensive survey of key aspects of Latter-day Saint cultural life across the full span of Mormon history. ...The breadth of its coverage, the insightfulness of many of its observations, and the effective use it makes of paradox to provide a richly textured portrait of Mormon intellectual and artistic life make it a solid contribution to the growing field of Mormon studies. It deserves to be widely read and discussed, and its superior literary style insures that enjoyment as well as insight will repay its readers." --American Historical Review

"Givens has accomplished something quite special with this masterful study of Mormon cultural expression: in deriving his discussion of Mormon culture from details of Mormon theology, he suggests a union of the practical and theoretical elements of religious life with a sincerity and seamlessness rarely achieved in academic study." --Choice


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (August 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195167112
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195167115
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.5 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #794,727 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Craig Matteson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I found this to be a very valuable book. Terryl Givens taught me aspects of LDS history that I did not know or simply hadn't dawned on me. As a small example, in talking about building the Nauvoo temple, he mentions the extremely small population that took on the building of the Kirtland Temple. "Instead of the 100 or so members who populated the Ohio town when that temple was announced in 1832, Nauvoo in 1841 was the center of a burgeoning Illinois Mormon population in excess of some 12,000." - pg 109. Every time I think about such a small band of people taking on the building of the Kirtland Temple I get dizzy. And when I consider the amazing growth of the church in only a few years amid all the difficulties they also endured I am still amazed even though I have known the story since my childhood.

However, this isn't another telling of the history of the church. Givens examines the culture of the church and the various strains within that culture that had their roots in the revelations received by Joseph Smith, the strains of culture brought in by the various groups of immigrant converts, the impact of the various migrations due to persecution, the temporary isolation in the West, and the growing pains of becoming a global church in modernity.

This is an ambitious book that accomplishes the author's aims amazingly well. Givens admits that he has left out material on popular culture and folk expressions that deserve treatment. He also recognizes that some of the Western cultural distinctions of high culture and serious art will have less meaning to an increasing membership outside that cultural heritage.

Givens presents his material in sixteen chapters divided into three parts. Part 1 establishes the "Foundations and Paradoxes in Mormon Cultural Origins".
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The thesis of the book is that the four primary paradoxes with which Latter-day Saints encounter the world have influenced the cultural and artistic history of the religion. I found it interesting from the historical aspect but purchased the book mainly to understand the paradoxes that Givens describes. (Don't worry - they are not deal breakers!) This book should be in the collection of everyone who has an interest in the development of art and culture in Mormonism.
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One of the most thought provoking books I have read and the only one that I know of that addresses culture which is such a big part of the Mormon experience. We spend a lot of time talking about History and Doctrine but we experience culture and so the topic deserves a lot of attention. I think this book goes a long way towards explaining how people can have such a different experience in the church. I read stories of people who feel stifled by their activity in the church and wonder if they are attending a different church than I. I have a sister who is inactive because she experienced one aspect of these paradoxes and not the other and so never experienced the balance. Because she stopped learning, her understanding has never matured beyond that of an 18 year old girl turned off to the "Iron Rod" aspect of obedience.

The book mentions paradoxes and I think that they do seem like paradoxes at first blush. However, once you dig in a little more, I think that there is more compatibility than the word paradox implies. A good example is the first chapter: the Iron Rod and the Liahona. An analogy that works for me is to compare life to a football game. The Iron Rod aspect defines what the boundaries of the field of play are and who is on offense and who is on defense along with rules about holding, pass interference. etc. The Liahona aspect is where you get to run any offensive play you want or any defensive alignment you feel is appropriate. Sometimes you are the coach and sometimes you are the player. When you are the coach, you have the responsibility to decide what actions the team should take and when you are the player you have the responsibility to execute your assignment to the best of your ability.
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I already read the author's "By the Hand of Mormon" and looked forward to reading this one. I feel that Givens was more focused in this book than he was in that (I gave that book a 4-star review), but his fantastic insights and scholarship show through in both books. There were aspects of Mormon culture than didn't interest me at all (such as architecture and short stories) and some that fascinated me (such as intellectual culture, music and movies), but that's all on a personal level- kudos to Givens for addressing all aspects of Mormon culture.

Here are some gems that I picked up from the book-
1. To the query about how a strict and somewhat rigid church can be so open to all forms of dancing- "If you can't beat them, supervise them, seems to be the Mormon response."
2. (From a study) "Mormons generally have high expectations for their youth and invest a lot in educating them... These investments pay off in producing Mormon teenagers who are, by sociological standards at least, more religiously serious and articulate than most other religious teenagers in the US."
3. Mormon theology, in contrast with Evangelicals, is much more open to science. That's why BYU can have many programs dedicated to evolution/dinosaurs. Dallin Oaks said, as BYU president, "The bones are there and cannot really be ignored by a major university that is almost literally sitting on top of them."
4. "One paradox of Mormon culture is its rootedness in a rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian church- and yet this church was established in the context of 2 fantastically individualistic phenomena that converged in antebellum America: Western Romanticism & Jacksonian democracy"
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