Mormon Week

Terryl L. Givens, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Lawrence Foster, Women, Family and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons.

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This weeks readings were both interesting and a little disappointing. We knew going in that there needed to be some reading against the text — secondary literature on women in Mormonism is relatively non-existent and that which is focuses largely on the polygamy issue.

After reading the introduction to Givens’ book, the general scarcity of women in his analysis makes sense – it is a structural consequence of his definitional choices. His analysis focuses on the more systematic and often more male-driven aspects of culture — the thought systems, the creation of fine art, etc — areas where there is female influence, but that is generally speaking dominantly male. As a result, areas of popular culture, like crafts and vernacular arts, household decorations, art that offers a glimpse of one aspect of women’s culture, is left outside of the analysis. Also, his choice to focus primarily on art created for religious purposes makes it more difficult for him to find the types of creative tensions he is looking for.

In addition, it is not clear to me that the tensions and paradoxes described by Givens’ are particular to the Latter-Day Saints. While they are resolved in particular and often inventive ways, the five tensions he describes can just as easily describe many if not every other branch of Christian thought and practice.

Foster’s approach in his analysis is closer to what I hope to do in mine, in that he attempts to understand these movement on their own terms. He, however, is focused on the social aspects of the imagination at play in these communities much more than the religious aspects, although these are very mutually informing. Style and repetition concerns aside, it is a very useful book for starting to look at these communities in terms of their own internal logic and goals.

One major weakness in both of these works is the general silence on questions of race and class. This is particularly noticeable in Foster, in that a discussion of the construction of gender without these problematic. Givens looks less at gender, but his ability to deal with questions of race and class is also hampered by his choice to identify culture in ways that make those questions less apparent.

Coming out of these readings, there are a couple of themes that I am seeing repeated across the works that might provide interesting starting points for my own analysis. First, is the anxiety over interpretation and salvation that seems to be growing with the emphasis on individual authority over interpretation and the necessity of sure knowledge/experience of salvation. Second, and related, is the collapse of sacred distance. This one is a bit more complicated than Givens’ goes into – while he uses this to denote the breakdown between the categories of sacred and secular in Mormonism, with men becoming gods and God becoming like men, I am more interested in the reaching for connection with the divine, the efforts to bridge the distance between sacred and secular and to increase the experience of the sacred. Third, and again related, is the search for a sure experience, for something known and undoubtable. This type of search has parallels in the philosophical works of the day and while searching for assurance is well documented in studies of Puritan New England, there appears to be a particular crisis of knowledge being reacted against. And fourth is the primitivist impulse, the desire to go back to some unpolluted point and to recreate the world based upon that pure model.