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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Terryl Givens: The Mormon C.S. Lewis

Having just finished Teryl and Fiona Givens' masterful The God Who Weeps last night, I'm still digesting the impact the slim but powerfully wrought volume is having on my thought, inner life, and worldview. In conjunction with other work I have read from Teryl Givens, including By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, If Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought, and Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (co-written with Matthew J. Grow), Givens has carved his way near the top of my miniature pantheon of literary/scholarly heroes. It may be some time before the full effect of his work in my life is made manifest, but already I know that no theological writing (outside the works of Joseph Smith himself and the scriptures) has more deeply and movingly stirred and intrigued me since I started reading the magnificent theological works of  C.S. Lewis in my early high school days.

C.S. Lewis credited George MacDonald for "baptizing" his  imagination when he was younger, after he read MacDonald's stirring (and it is stirring!) Metamorphoses. C.S. Lewis did a similar thing to me after I stumbled across a book of his poetry when I was about 15, which launched me into an unquenchable interest into his other work such as Till We Have Faces, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and his soaring essay "The Weight of Glory," among many other volumes of his work (of course, I had already discovered the magic of The Chronicles of Narnia as a child).  My corollary of Givens' with C.S. Lewis is no accident, of course, because Givens obviously has his own debt, admiration, and appreciation towards Lewis (he and Fiona Givens quote him four times in The God Who Weeps). But the similarities ran deeper than citations. The same breadth of informed reading and scholarship that was evident in Lewis; the same mastery over language; the same reasoned and seasoned approach; the same familiarity with doubt and struggle, which made his eventual position of faith so powerful; the same yearning and understanding of that almost mystical longing for something that is difficult to pinpoint or voice, and seems to come from another realm; the same romantic spirit; and the same strength of argument and depth of thought that Lewis had, can also be found in all the works of Teryl Givens that I have so far encountered.

Nearly the same enlightening and moving feelings and thoughts that Lewis had caused to come upon me when I started reading his work as a teenager have been nearly replicated as I have read Givens' books and have listened/read to the various interviews he and his wife have given (and I will say more about Fiona Givens later... she is a force in her own right. I have been very impressed by her own contributions, and look forward to hear more from her, whether independently or in conjunction with her husband again). Especially as I dove into the humane theology the Givens' expounded on in The God Who Weeps, it was thrilling to see talented minds equal to Lewis take Mormonism away from the culture wars, political specifics, and pharisee-like cultural quirks, and really bring it back to the core of its religious thought. The Givens' show how Mormonism leaps over the hedges and unnecessary complications that have grown up around traditional Christianity with its later creeds and non-essential additions and, with an elegance that is nothing short of uncanny, address the elemental conflicts between doubt and faith.

It's a gift that Lewis had, and which many Mormon apologists have since striven for, but in this volume it was accomplished in a way I have never seen before from a Mormon scholar, despite the brilliant minds we've had in the Church. In terms of explicating our theology in a way that is beautiful, compelling, literate and persuasive, I have never read its equal. Hugh Nibley, brilliant as he was, did not have this sort of grace. Truman Madsen, as insightful as he was, did have this sort of depth and breadth. As talented, sophisticated, and intelligent as any Robert Millet, Neal A. Maxwell, or Daniel C. Peterson has been, we have not had a theologian of this caliber in the Church, short of Joseph Smith, that I can think of. What Mere Christianity and the works of C.S. Lewis was to the broader fabric of Christianity, The God Who Weeps is to the specific context of Mormonism.

It's a masterful work that draws on a wide gamut of philosophers, poets, reformers, and theologians throughout the Western literary, philosophical, and theological traditions and shows how they lead to very Mormon conclusions of pre-existence; a relatable, and compassionate God; a Heavenly Mother (or Wisdom as She is called in the Psalms); a heroic Eve and Adam who brought us to the possibility of an ascension, not a fall; the apotheosis of humankind's journey to being joint-heirs with Christ; and the fabric of an eternal family, reaching far before this life. It's a work that takes head on the assumptions of Freud, Hume, and Darwin. It stares stark secularism in the eye, never blinking, never flinching, and without talking down, without insult, without dismissing the very real pangs of doubt and skepticism, shows a compassionate and powerful view of the Universe that even many Mormons may have not realized could have been borne out of their faith tradition.

C.S. Lewis had a powerful ally in the wife of his later years, Joy Davidman. A former Communist-atheist-Jew who later joined Christianity, Davidman was a published writer and award winning poet in her own right. She was so moved by Lewis' work that she packed her two sons and visited England intent on meeting Lewis. The love story that resulted was famously adapted into the wonderful play/film Shadowlands (which takes a few of its own historical liberties, but is a marvelous work regardless). She was an intellectual and powerful soul who could stand up to Lewis and challenge him to face his own blind spots, but who also had a deep, beautiful connection with him. I get that sense from Fiona and how she relates with Terryl. Including her in The God Who Weeps was a wise, wise move, and we are all the beneficiaries from getting the two for one in the process. I truly hope we see just as much from her in the future.

As I have written before in my essay "It is the Myth that Gives Life: C.S. Lewis and the True Myth" , C.S. Lewis spoke much of a kind of longing, a longing that he experienced in his life that helped lead him back from his staunch atheism and into a brilliant faith in Christianity:
“While he strained to grasp it, there came to him from beyond the wood a sweetness and pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father's house, and his mother, and the fear of the Landlord, and the burden of the rules. All the furniture of his mind was taken away. A moment later he found that he was sobbing, and the sun had gone in: and what it was that had happened to him he could not quite remember, nor whether it had happened in this wood, or in the other wood when he was a child. It seemed to him that a mist which hung at the far end of the wood had parted for a moment, and through the rift he had seen a calm sea, and in the sea an island, where the smooth turf sloped down unbroken to the bays, and out of the thickets peeped the pale, small-breasted Oreads, wise like gods, unconscious of themselves like beasts, and tall enchanters, bearded to their feet, sat in green chairs among the forests.
But even while he pictured these things he knew with one part of his mind, that they were not like the things he had seen—nay, that what had befallen him was not seeing at all. But he was too young to heed the distinction: and too empty, now that the unbounded sweetness passed away, not to seize greedily whatever it had left behind. He had no inclination yet to go into the wood: and presently he went home, with a sad excitement upon him, repeating to himself a thousand times, "I know now what I want." The first time that he said it, he was aware that it was not entirely true: but before he went to bed he was believing it (The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 8).
I am very familiar with this ache, this longing-- it is something that made me connect very deeply with C.S. Lewis' work. And, once again, I heard those distant strains and feel that longing breeze in Terryl Givens' work, and now also in the work of Fiona Givens along with him, and I felt my faith, my mind, my heart ascend into another sphere. Once again, my imagination was baptized. Call it romantic, if you will, for I am a Romantic, just as I would call the Givens' Romantics (they quote the Romantic poets quite liberally)... and I think it's safe to say that C.S. Lewis was a Romantic. And, if you do yourself the favor and read their work, Terryl and Fiona Givens may just convince you God is a Romantic, too. That we have a Father and a Mother and a Savior who is our brother who do not violate the terms of compassion, or empathy, or reason. They may convince you that a god can weep and that a god can love and that a god knows your name and has written that name upon their hearts.


  1. Did you really just put "irregardless" into one of your sentences? You might want to address that as it sticks out like a sore thumb in what is an exceptional review of this book. When I was reading the Given's book, I kept thinking of one particularly beautiful line by Djuna Barnes: "to always know there is yet an eternity to blush in," which I believe states the emphatic resonance that this book will instill in all who have the pleasure of reading it.

    1. I had to look up what was wrong with "irregardless"... one of the effects from changing to an English major to a theatre major when I was an undergrad, I guess. ;)

      But I'm glad that we have a mutual admiration for the Givenses. I think they're pretty special.