Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: People of Paradox a History of Mormon Culture by Terryl Givens

I read By the Hand of Mormon a couple of years ago and was completely drawn into it. Givens brings both a rigorous academic approach and refreshing insight to the field of Mormon studies. Not to mention the fact that he is a really good writer. People of Paradox is the perfect example of this. Givens is the Jared Diamond of Mormonism, a true polymath. He skillfully weaves the disciplines of history, philosophy, literary criticism, and theology into a seamless and compelling investigation of Mormon culture.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this book is Givens’ characterization of Mormonism as consisting of a series of paradoxes instead of a set of fixed doctrines. This characterization is an effective way to deal with Mormonism’s non-creedal nature.

In the first part of the book Givens describes four paradoxes that he sees as essential to the Mormon experience. He then uses these four paradoxes to frame and explore the various developments in Mormon culture over the last 180 years. I thought that he would have to gerrymander the developments in Mormon culture to make them fit within these paradoxes. Instead the discussion feels natural and the relationships between the paradoxes and these events ends up being compellingly logical.

I was most interested in his history of Mormon intellectual pursuits but found all of his histories (music and dance, literature, architecture and city planning, theater, and visual arts) to be fascinating.

I could go on and on about this book but finals are approaching so I’ll get back to work.

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