Scholars Terryl and Fiona Givens discuss life, love and their new book, 'The God Who Weeps'
They met at Brigham Young University’s Comparative Literature 301 class in the fall of 1979. He was a returned missionary who spoke Spanish and Portuguese. She was an LDS convert who spoke French and German. Their backgrounds varied, but they shared a mutual love of classic literature and the arts.
Terryl and Fiona Givens remember that meeting as the beginning of something special.
“We didn’t have a common language, not even English,” Fiona Givens said with a crisp British accent. “When I met Terryl, what really struck me was the expansiveness of his mind. We could share the things that I loved — literature, art, music. And so really, our courtship was just a long walk-and-talk. He was sexy all over, but his mind was particularly sexy.”
Six children and several decades later, the husband and wife from Richmond, Va., have come full circle in their relationship. The intellectual couple that cherished beautifully written works has now collaborated to co-author “The God Who Weeps,” a book intended to help readers understand how Mormons make sense of life.
The story behind the book is interesting, and so are the lives of the authors.
Religion has been an important part of Terryl Givens’ heritage for generations.
His family joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Arizona when he was a young boy. Shortly thereafter, the family was surprised to learn they had both LDS and non-LDS ancestors. One forebear was Warren Foote, a Mormon pioneer, colonizer and polygamist. Another ancestor was the Rev. George Lane, a Presbyterian minister who told Joseph Smith that his visions were of the devil.
Givens’ grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and his father was Methodist before becoming a Latter-day Saint.
“I feel fortunate in that I have a dual heritage,” Givens said. “I can consider myself a descendant of pioneer stock, or I can consider myself a 20th-century Mormon convert.”
Givens had “an experience of the divine through prayer” as a young teenager, but a full commitment to the gospel didn’t come until he was a little older. That occurred when his father decided to move the family from Arizona to Virginia. For a few months during a humid summer, the family of seven children and two parents lived in a tent while their father looked for employment.
“Like Lehi, my father felt moved upon to uproot the family and we lived in a tent. We thought maybe it would be a good idea to look up the church as we hadn’t been for many years,” Givens said. “It was really the loving embrace with which we were greeted there that drew us into the church with strong cords and (we’ve been) committed ever since.”
Givens served a mission in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and graduated from BYU with a degree in comparative literature. He did his graduate work in intellectual history at Cornell and comparative literature (Ph.D.) at the University of North Carolina, working with Greek, German, Spanish, Portuguese and English languages and literature.
He currently holds the James A. Bostwick chair of English and is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond.
Givens started writing books when his father, a book collector, challenged him to look at what he thought were the unusual depictions of Mormonism in 19th-century fiction. The literary dare led Givens to write his first book on Mormon studies, “The Viper on the Hearth,” in 1997.
“It occurred to me that Mormonism had been studied extensively through the lens of history, but never or very seldom through the lens of literary representations,” he recalled. “I soon realized that was a veritable gold mine to be excavated by focusing more on the texts and literary representations rather than the historical record. That is what brought me to where I am today.”
Givens has since written or co-authored several books on topics related to Mormonism.
“You are kind of wiped out by his productivity. He writes books so easily and so rapidly, it seems beyond human capacities,” said Richard L. Bushman, a friend, LDS scholar and history professor at Columbia University. “I think he is very well-informed in the canons of Western thought. He knows so many large thinkers and intersperses their insights into his description of Mormonism. His familiarity there leads him to see the depths of Mormonism.”
Robert L. Millet, a professor of religious education at BYU, said Givens is a “very significant and welcome voice in our time.”
James Faulconer, a BYU philosophy professor, said there are two things that stand out about Givens’ work.
“His ability to explain LDS history and ideas to non-LDS without using either LDS or academic jargon,” Faulconer said, “and his ability to see LDS ideas within the broader context of human cultural production.”
Grant Hardy, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, said there is no one he would rather argue with than Givens.
“He’s articulate and he’s sharp; very prolific,” Hardy said. “I don’t always think he gets everything right, but he gets things wrong in interesting and provocative ways, and that’s useful for scholarly dialogue.”
Givens doesn’t believe in separating spiritual commitments from his professional vocation, thanks to a statement by the Prophet Joseph Smith, which reads, “It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good.” The LDS professor was determined to integrate his faith and professional life.
“It behooves us both as scholars and disciples to find that which is praiseworthy and celebrate it,” Givens said. “Whether that’s in the spirit or in the mind, intellect or culture, that’s what I’ve sought to do as a professional and a disciple.”
One good thing Givens found was his wife, Fiona.
Fiona Givens was born in Nairobi, Kenya. She and her siblings were raised in the Catholic tradition. At the proper age, they were sent to boarding school in England, she said.
At age 19, Fiona was living in Germany when a personal crisis entered her life. Without going into detail, she said she prayed earnestly for direction during this dark time and ended up befriending a woman who was a Mormon.
“We talked about God a lot," Fiona Givens said. "I found her views about God expansive."
Her friend invited her to church and introduced her to the missionaries. With time, study and a series of deep discussions, Fiona had what she described as a “Pentecostal” experience, with “great outpourings of the Spirit.”
“I was immersed in the Spirit. I’ve never experienced anything (like it) since,” she said. “But the word most often repeated in the Book of Mormon is ‘remember.’ So when I reach dark periods of my life, crevices, I remember.”
One of the highlights of Fiona’s early life was meeting Mother Teresa, whom she greatly admired. Fiona and some friends were walking through a cathedral where Mother Teresa was visiting and happened by a chapel as the Catholic nun emerged. Fiona said the experience reminded her of meeting LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball.
“It was really the most extraordinary thing,” Fiona Givens said. “She was particularly little and frail. I wondered, 'How is it humanly possible for you to be doing what you are doing because looking at your physical frame, there is no strength there?' But her face was full of light. It radiated. That really impressed me. She was God-touched.”
Fiona Givens went on to earn a master's degree in European history and has worked extensively in the field of communications and translation. As the years passed, she has found hidden blessings in life’s challenges. Raising her children, especially her second son, taught her many valuable lessons.
Her son Jonathan "is the sort of person who sees a flame and puts his hand in it rather than testing tentatively like his older brothers,” Fiona Givens said. “But raising him taught me that God’s patience is infinite. His love is universal, consistent and unconditional. And he can create beauty out of tragedy and misfortune.”
Fiona Givens is the Sunday School gospel doctrine instructor in her LDS ward. She loves to engage the scriptures, and her testimony of the gospel has been strengthened through experiences that have challenged her faith.
“I feel testimonies are alive. They either grow or they die,” she said. “These faith crises are an opportunity for us to either incline ourselves towards God or not. But it makes us dig deep into our own souls for the authentic self.”
In 1893, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir won second place in the choral competition at the Chicago World’s Fair. At the same event, the LDS Church was forbidden from making a presentation to the world parliament of religion.
“The lesson that seemed to be learned as a result of that was as Mormons, we will sing and dance for you, but we won’t insist you take our theology seriously," Terryl Givens said.
“The God Who Weeps” is the Givens’ concerted effort to give readers something more substantial about Mormon theology.
Using quotes and ideas from great poets, writers and philosophers, the book explores five core principles of the Mormon faith regarding the nature of God, where man came from, why he is here and what awaits him after death. The five tenets include:
God is a personal entity, having a heart that beats in sympathy with human hearts, feeling our joy and sorrowing over our pain. .
We lived as spirit beings in the presence of God before we were born into this mortal life. .
Mortality is an ascent, not a fall, and we carry infinite potential into a world of sin and sorrow.
God has the desire and the power to unite and elevate the entire human family in a kingdom of heaven, and, except for the most stubbornly unwilling, that will be our destiny.
Heaven will consist of those relationships that matter most to us now.
Fiona Givens, an active collaborator in all her husband’s books, became a full partner on the project.
“I am always his first reader and harshest critic, unfortunately,” she said. “It was particularly gratifying to be able to work on this together because these are core Mormon beliefs that we feel resonate not only with Mormons but they have universal application.”
Researching and writing the book were a fulfilling experience, Terryl Givens said.
“What we learned, most importantly, is that all these voices from other times, cultures and traditions don’t corroborate our faith — they enrich our faith,” he said. “Part of our task has been to try to recuperate the contributions of those other holy men and women, whom God recognizes as inspired, saintly and godly, and as having something meaningful to contribute to our understanding of discipleship.”
Bushman described the book as “beautiful,” “eloquent” and “very persuasive.”
“I think it’s a path-breaking book in that it tries to use Latter-day Saint theology to find the meaning of life,” said Bushman, author of "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” “I think their fruitful partnership was very instrumental in bringing the whole thing about.”
The co-authors hope readers come away from their book with a greater understanding of the profound truths found inside and outside Mormonism.
“We have much to learn from those outside our faith and there are elements of our tradition that we don’t fully appreciate or understand as fully as we need to,” Terryl Givens said.
“It’s a linking of Mormon faith tradition with a global yearning for a humane God ...," Fiona Givens said.
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