Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Terryl Givens's People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture:

"I am a devout Latter-day Saint, and I am interested in Latter-day Saint culture.  It might seem intellectually redundant to both live in a culture and then make a special effort to learn of that culture, but just like a fish doesn't appreciate water, we often don't appreciate the environment and culture we are daily surrounded by and participate in.  I stumbled upon Terryl Givens's People of Paradox while reading a post on the official LDS Newsroom.  Its subtitle—A History of Mormon Culture—was enough of an impetus to buy the book and add it to my Thousander list.

As with any book that attempts to achieve a truly lofty goal, such as documenting the cultural history of an entire people, People of Paradox attempts to provide sufficient detail to the cultural history of the Mormon people without becoming superfluos in its details.  Apparently in an effort to focus the thrust and purpose of the book, Terryl Givens attempts to focus on the 'paradoxes' of Mormon culture and spends significant attention to the conflicts that arise therefrom.   Some of these conflicts include the Latter-day Saints' uncompromising belief in the moral agency (freedom to choose) of each human soul while at the same time being stubbornly to loyal Priesthood leadership as well as moral and cultural standards in opposition to unhindered artistic expression.  The book is at its strongest when it outlines LDS beliefs and their impacts on LDS culture.  The book wavers a little bit when the author seemed to become more of a movie/literarture/architecture/art critic instead of a historian.  The episodes are relatively short-lived, but they do hurt the book, in my opinion.

The most challenging, compelling, and irritating parts of the book are the ones that deal with the conflict between religious orthodoxy and Mormon intellectuality.  At times it was challenging to make perfect sense of the balance between LDS beliefs and secular knowledge.  At others times it was compelling because of the Mormon cultural and doctrinal expectation to embrace all truth, whatever its source and wherever it is found, and the impact that has on Latter-day Saints.  And at still other times it was irritating because it appears that many LDS intellectuals whine too much and the author gives them far too much credit.

Overall, I really enjoyed People of Paradox.  As a Latter-day Saint, I have a greater appreciation for the water that I swim.  At the very least, I know it exists, and I think coming to that knowledge alone justifies the reading of People of Paradox."

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