Reviewed by Kyle R. Beshears
Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought by Terryl L. Givens is the first of two volumes that explore the historical development and contemporary status of Mormon belief and practice. Despite the author’s preface that Wrestling is “not a work of either systematic or historical theology per se (ix),” it is hard to deny that the book is organized in an almost encyclopedic fashion with each subject loosely attached to those around it.
Where Givens departs from a traditional systematic approach, however, is the way he tells the story of Mormonism. He views the faith not as a systematized set of beliefs but as a grand “cosmic narrative” that, from an evangelical perspective, ventures beyond the traditional metanarrative of scripture. Givens tells the story of Mormonism as a sequence of scenes in a drama set against the backdrop of the entire cosmos.
As such, the author organizes his play in two main acts: the first, “Frameworks,” is designed to place the reader within the historical context of Mormonism. The second, “Cosmic Narratives,” is the essence of Wrestling, where Givens explores the core of Mormon theology. This is no easy task since early Mormonism was “highly fluid and generally hard to pin down” (7). Indeed, any student of Mormon theology attempting to systematize the faith will quickly find himself or herself conversing with a frustratingly informal interlocutor who delights in evading historical categories, widely accepted definitions, and cogent doctrinal statements.
This is because the river of Mormon theology is fed by the myriad tributaries of Mormon scripture, prophetic writings, apostolic sermons, and voices of many Latter-day Saint (LDS) authors who have gone before. I believe the wrestling aspect of Wrestling is found here: recreating the footsteps of a young and raw religious movement that is often sold in the pristine packaging of the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Mormonism is, as Givens aptly describes it, “a still evolving and sometimes inconsistent amalgam” (22). Thus, the author sets out on the Mormon studies equivalent of an expedition.
Before even cracking the cover, readers must understand that Givens does not–in fact, cannot–speak authoritatively for the LDS Church. He is not theologizing from an appointed office or chair of an institution supported by the Church. Givens has penned this work not from the halls of BYU nor the echoing chambers of the Salt Lake Temple; rather, it comes directly from his own research in his own words from his own desk at the University of Richmond, where he holds the James A. Bostwick Chair of English and is Professor of Literature and Religion.
Therefore, the reader may set aside any suspicion that Givens is writing for the LDS Church and not about it, or that Givens is writing ex officio. He writes from an LDS perspective, but Wrestling is certainly no hagiographic biography of his faith. It is obvious where his beliefs lie and, as I will critique, his support for Mormon theology occasionally leads him to spend less time surveying and more time apologetically substantiating certain Mormon beliefs important to him that have been challenged or misunderstood from the outside. Yet, he admirably refuses to shy away from controversy, which is especially seen in his willingness to engage the precarious topics of polygamy and the priesthood ban of African Americans in a book whose subject may have otherwise excused their absence (21).
Givens introduces the reader to Mormon thought with a historical prelude. He grounds the “cosmic narrative” of Mormonism in the story of one man, Joseph Smith, who claimed to have experienced a theophany in 1820 where two divine personages, the Father and the Son, absolved him of sin and pronounced the apostasy of the entire Christian church (3). From here, Givens outlines the “essential contours of Mormon thought as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present,” while offering his perspective on where ‘mainstream Mormonism’ stands on certain issues (x).
Conveniently, Givens does so according to the metanarrative; his sections explore the “cosmic narrative” in creation (Cosmology, The Divine), fall (The Fall), redemption (Salvation), and consummation (Theosis). Each chapter carefully moves the reader through the history of Mormon thought in order to comprehensively survey the religion, articulating lesser-known heterodox doctrinal statements along the way. For example, where historic Christianity ends its story in glorified reunion of creation with Creator, Mormonism continues towards exaltation via theosis. Creation becomes ontologically like Creator (46) as humans are “inherently more godlike [and God] more anthropomorphic” (264). Givens does not shy away from this controversial idea (exaltation); rather, he hits it head on, sometimes opining in support of the doctrine as well. Yet, it is in these rare moments of deviation from historical theology to apologetic theology where I find the book less helpful.
Givens occasionally shifts from describing theological points to arguing them. In the chapter Theosis, he deviates from merely describing exaltation to justifying the doctrine. He explains that because humans are “eternally pre-existing” beings who, in a system of radical materialism, are literally the offspring of God, then it only follows that humans are literal partakers in his nature (256). After all, Givens explains, Romans describes humanity as “children of God” who are “joint heirs with Christ” (260). This point, however, overlooks the preceding argument that explains humanity’s state prior to becoming God’s children. We have not always been God’s children but have become so through adoption in Christ (Rom. 8:29).
Givens dismisses adoption as the foundation of Paul’s familial description of salvation. There were points like this in the book where I felt Givens shifted gears from surveyor to apologist-theologian when a specific doctrine was more interesting or important to him. This is when his LDS identity is most luminous. Accordingly, as a non-LDS student of Mormon studies, I found Givens to be refreshingly lucid in a genre that is typically opaque. And while I enjoyed him as a surveyor of historical and contemporary Mormon theology, I enjoyed him less as an apologist-theologian of the same.
In all, Wrestling is a must-read for those interested in Mormon studies and those with a desire to experience the caliber of contemporary Mormon scholarship. Givens does what few LDS scholars have done before him: collect, consolidate, and communicate the sweeping breadth of Mormon theology in a manner that avails itself to both laymen and academics, LDS and non-LDS, alike. The result is an invaluable resource for students of Mormon studies and missiology.
Its publisher, Oxford University Press, testifies to the growing stature and audience of Mormon studies. This book represents an excellent unofficial treatment of Mormonism from an LDS perspective that advances one’s understanding of this often misunderstood new religious movement, introducing novices to Mormonism while simultaneously challenging Mormon studies veterans. Givens does the world a great service by formalizing a very informal theology through remarkable literary artistry. Whether you are interested in tuning into current Mormon studies or looking for a helpful missiological resource, Wrestling will serve you well.
Kyle R. Beshears is a graduate student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
Wrestling The Angel: The Foundations Of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity