Terryl L. Givens noticed that 19th-century authors kept using a particular stock villain: the Mormons.

"The Mormon villain became a kind of shorthand for everything America was opposed to in the 19th century," said Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Givens spoke with Joe Cannon, editor of the Deseret News, in an interview last Friday (now online at MormonTimes.com) and in an interview Monday on KNRS radio (570 AM in Salt Lake City).

The result of Givens' research was "The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy," a book published in 1996 by the prestigious Oxford University Press.

Other books followed.

"By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion" was published after Givens informed Oxford that the Book of Mormon had been published more than any single book ever produced by an American — yet there had never been a scholarly study about it published by a nonreligious press.

Givens' book looked at how the Book of Mormon has been used. He found it remarkable that it was used not for its doctrinal content, but primarily as tangible evidence that its translator, Joseph Smith, was a prophet. "This is kind of an unusual way to use a religious text," he said.

"People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture" continued Givens' trend of innovative books about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He explored paradoxes in LDS thought such as the dynamic tension between priesthood structure and the "radical autonomy" of free agency. Givens says such paradoxes create a rich culture and artistic expression.

Many people may recognize Givens from his prominent role in Helen Whitney's PBS documentary, "The Mormons." Givens gave high praise to Whitney's skills as a filmmaker, but he expressed disappointment with the excessive time devoted to polygamy — a choice he found odd in light of Whitney's stated purpose to dispel stereotypes about the LDS Church.

In Oxford University Press' "A Very Short Introduction" series of books, Givens wrote again about the Book of Mormon. He avoided the conventional plot summary, looking instead at the visions of the prophet Lehi as an expression of the book's themes: "revelation, Jesus Christ, scripture, family (and) creating Zion in the wilderness."

Givens' latest book is "When Souls Had Wings: Preexistence in Western Thought."

"There seems to be some kind of universal appeal to this idea — that the human soul existed before its birth," he said. Givens calls pre-existence the "greatest untold story in Western religious thought."

Mormon icon and early apostle Parley P. Pratt is the subject of his next book. It will be the first biography on Pratt in about 75 years, according to Givens. It also will be the most thorough, with many new sources available.

Givens says he is up to the task. "I don't think that it is possible for anybody to write objectively, inside or outside the faith," he said. "But someone can write honestly and fairly."

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Interview online now

Join Joe Cannon, editor of the Deseret News, as he interviews professor Terryl Givens in this exclusive online video at MormonTimes.com.