Books

The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections On the Quest for Faith

(with Fiona Givens). Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2014.

In writing about the nature of Faith, Augustine said that sometimes, our understanding cannot resolve a choice between alternatives, “because of an apparent equality of the motives for both sides. This is the state of one in doubt.” In such a circumstance, where knowledge is insufficient to impel us toward belief or non-belief, “our understanding is determined by the will, which chooses to assent to one side definitely and precisely because of something which is enough to move the will, though not enough to move the understanding.” Faith, in other words, is ultimately a choice. But the possibility of faith is influenced by the assumptions and paradigms that may constrain and shape one’s religious quest. As Daniel Dennett writes, “philosophy… is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.” Genuine questions, to use Gadamer’s expression, entail risk, put our prejudices into play, and expose us to unknown consequences. This book invites us to approach our spiritual journey, by embracing that risk, and by reconsidering the value of doubt as a catalyst rather than an obstacle to faith.

The God Who Weeps: How Mormons Make Sense of Life

(with Fiona Givens). Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012.

Whatever sense we make of this world, whatever value we place upon our lives and relationships, whatever meaning we ultimately give to our joys and agonies, must necessarily be a gesture of faith. Like the poet John Keats, we are all “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness.” In this personal account, the authors survey five fundamentals about the universe that our place in it inherent in the LDS faith tradition. Woven together into a coherent tapestry, they constitute a holistic narrative that challenges conventional Christian theologies, addressing the questions where we came from, why we are here, and what might await us in the “undiscovered country.” 1. God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain. 2. Humans lived as spirit beings in the presence of God before we were born into this mortal life. 3. Mortality is an ascent, not a fall, and we carry infinite potential into a world of sin and sorrow. 4. God has the desire and the power to unite and elevate the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven. 5. That Heaven will consist of those relationships that matter most to us in the here and now.

Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism

(with Matthew J. Grow). New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

After Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt is perhaps the most influential figure in shaping early Mormonism. That influence was felt across an astounding spectrum: Pratt excelled as a missionary, hymnist, satirist, autobiographer, historian, and theologian. Long well-known among Mormons due to his perennially published and highly readable autobiography, Pratt has never received the scholarly biography that has long been overdue. His autobiography is a highly selective, posthumous publication, neglects significant engagement with his intellectual and artistic contributions, and provides negligible cultural context. This biography hopes to redress those deficiencies, and assess the role of Pratt in both organizing and extending Joseph Smith’s foundational theology.

When Souls had Wings: The Idea of Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought

New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

The book traces the history of the idea of pre-existence, investigating the cultural work the paradigm has performed through the centuries. Givens describes how pre-existence has been invoked to explain “the better angels of our nature,” and to account for why we know what we should not know, whether in the form of a Greek slave’s grasp of mathematics, the moral sense common to humanity, or the human ability to recognize universals. The belief has explained human bonds that seem to have their own mysterious prehistory, salved the wounded sensibility of a host of thinkers who could not otherwise account for the unevenly distributed pain and suffering that are humanity’s common lot, and has been posited by philosophers and theologians alike to salvage the principle of human freedom and accountability.

The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction

New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Givens examines the Book of Mormon in terms of the claims that its narrators make for its historical genesis, its purpose as a sacred text, and its meaning for an audience which shifts over the course of the history it unfolds. The author traces five governing themes in particular–revelation, Christ, Zion, scripture, and family–and analyzes the Book’s central doctrines and teachings. Givens also provides samples of a cast of characters that number in the hundreds, and analyzes representative passages from a work that encompasses tragedy, poetry, sermons, visions, family histories and military chronicles. Finally, this introduction surveys the contested origins and production of a work held by millions to be scripture, and reviews the scholarly debates that address questions of the record’s historicity.

Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals After Two Centuries

(co-edited with Reid Neilson). New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

In this volume, fifteen scholars offer essays on how to interpret and understand Smith and his legacy. Including essays by both Mormons and non-Mormons, this wide-ranging collection is the premier survey of contemporary scholarly opinion on the extraordinary man who started one of the fastest growing religious traditions in the modern world.

People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Winner of the MHA Best Book Award.

This book is an exploration of the Mormon cultural identity that Joseph Smith and, to a lesser extent, Brigham Young founded. At the heart of their thinking were a number of dynamic tensions—or paradoxes—that give Mormon cultural expression much of its vitality. Arguing that culture can be viewed as the result of a people’s efforts to accommodate such irresolvable tensions, Givens looks at the Mormon “habit of mind,” and forms of artistic expression to trace consistent themes and ideas that constitute –or contribute to the formation–of a distinct cultural community.

The Latter-day Saint Experience in America

Westport: Greenwood, 2004.

An overview of Mormon history, doctrine, organization, worship, and culture. Part of a series of Religions in America, it is intended by the publisher to “serve as a quick reference for someone looking up facts or as an easily accessible resource for those needing a basic introduction to the religion(s), as practiced in the United States .

By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion

New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

A wide-ranging examination of this American Scripture’s shifting reputation among theologians, scholars, and Latter-day Saints. Chapters address the Book of Mormon’s claims to be a history of the pre-Columbian peopling of America, its function as a sacred sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic status, its interpretation as a mélange of 19th century influences, and its role as the engine behind the growth of what may become the next world religion.

Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy

New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Focusing on nineteenth-century representations of Mormonism in popular culture, this book examines that faith’s vexed relationship to mainstream religion, explores the nature of Mormon “heresy,” and asks how such a category can operate in a pluralistic society.