Feeding the Flock

The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis

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Terryl L. Givens
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2017.
     424 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199794935.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Terryl L. Givens’s Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis, represents a continuation of his earlier work, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought – Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford University Press, 2014)and is the next step in his project to map Mormonism in academic analysis. Whereas his earlier volume “articulat[ed] in human terms the key ideas pertaining to the nature of [Mormonism’s] God, the human, and their relationship,” Feeding the Flock “is about the church, or what religious scholars call ecclesiology” (ix). According to the author’s description, this is not a book of sociology nor a book of theology, but rather, it provides the historical context for each dimension of Latter-day Saint ecclesiology while also providing meaning for each element. 

Givens’s work takes the reader through Latter-day Saint notions of covenant and uses the idea of covenants—agreements between the believer and God—as a foundation for understanding Mormon ritual, church hierarchy, and spiritual gifts. Each chapter follows a similar pattern; Givens introduces the idea to be discussed and then contextualizes that idea within the wider parameters of Christian history. 

For instance, in his entry on “‘The’ Sacrament” (known as “Communion” in traditional Christian circles), Givens begins by noting that “The Lord's Last Supper has been a constant feature of Christian life and worship from the earliest days of the Christian Tradition” (197). He references how the early Catholic Church understood the practice, and then goes on to quote Ulrich Zwingli, who broke with the Catholic understanding of Communion, seeing the bread as only representing the body of Christ, as well as John Calvin, who agreed. Givens then interjects the Mormon understanding of the ritual. This approach is perhaps more significant than the actual content. Givens’s objective here is not just to outline Mormonism, but to put Mormonism in conversation—and on equal footing with—the broader Christian world. In taking this approach, Givens is implicitly making Mormonism a theological force worth respecting and conversing with. 

The books’s claims regarding Latter-day Saint ritual are consistent with what the scholar would expect. There is, however, one section I found disagreeable. In his (very short) entry on Chastity, Givens claims that “the paramount importance of chastity, or sexual continence, in Mormonism’s moral code is apparent in the designation of sexual sin as near murder in the hierarchy of evil” (311). The argument, while shocking to outsiders, will ring familiar to the Mormon reader. While this statement is popular in Mormon Sunday Schools, it nevertheless represents, in my view, a grave misreading of a verse of scripture from The Book of Mormon.

The verse in question comes from the thirty-ninth chapter of the Book of Mormon’s Book of Alma. In it, Alma is rebuking his son for transgressions committed while he was performing missionary service, “And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel. Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted. Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?”

Many Latter-day Saints assume “these things” refer to his going “after the harlot Isabel” and (presumably) fornicating. However, a closer reading of the passage transgresses this view. In the passage, Alma is far more grieved by his son’s forsaking of the ministry and that forms the basis of his condemnation. It is that thing that seems to be “grievous unto” him. With this understanding, the connection to murder becomes clearer, as forsaking the ministry can result in the “spiritual death” of his sheep. Speaking as a member of the community, it is imperative that Latter-day Saints view that scripture more carefully if we are ever to move past the sexual guilt and shame we have too often inflicted on our youth.

Taking all into consideration, this work is a lovely and valuable read. Indeed, it is for this reason I was so disappointed a scholar as justly respected as Givens failed to give that passage a closer reading.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is a graduate student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Terryl L. Givens did graduate work at Cornell University in intellectual history and at UNC Chapel Hill, where he received his PhD in comparative literature. He holds the Jabez A. Bostwick Chair of English and is Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, where he teaches courses in nineteenth-century studies and the Bible's influence on Western literature. His writing has been praised by the New York Times as "provocative reading," and his numerous books include When Souls Had Wings, a history of the idea of premortal life in Western thought, as well as The God Who Weeps (with Fiona Givens) and Wrestling the Angel.

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