Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_

Fiona A Givens
Fiona Givens

         I have been super impressed with both Fiona and Terryl Givens, authors of the masterful (it’s not hyperbole, it’s that good!) theological work The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. In both their writing, and in the interviews I have heard/read them give, I have been inspired. Terryl Givens has rightfully received a lot of attention in the past for his previous books, but with this round of interviews for The God Who Weeps that I have read and listened to, I have also been super impressed with Fiona’s articulate voice, engaging ideas, and her powerful spirituality and identity. So I approached her about doing an independent interview, to which she graciously conceded. I was thrilled that she put the thought and care to engage in a long and fruitful interview. Lots of amazing stuff! Perhaps my favorite interview I have ever conducted, due to the time, thought, informed intelligence, and spirituality Fiona infused her answers with. So here it is:  

         MS:  First, in a nut shell, tell our readers a little about yourself. About your conversion to Mormonism, your professional and literary background/ interests, your relationship with Terryl, your family, and anything else you would really like our readers to know about the intriguing Fiona Givens.

FG: I converted to the Church in Germany where I was working as an au pair during my gap year between graduating from New Hall School, where I had been head girl, and university.  The preceding summer I had spent in earnest prayer, trying to divine God’s will for me and my future, as to that point, I had taken very little interest in it myself.  The answers were totally unexpected and unanticipated.  Shortly after arriving in Germany, I met a lovely lady with whom I became fast friends.  I was happy that she liked to talk about God, as He was uppermost in my mind.  Eventually she took me to her “church”–a gathering of people in a room on the second floor of a building.  What I felt when I entered that sparsely attended meeting was something I had never felt before–a spiritual warmth that was inviting.  And I was happy for the opportunity to learn more.  That being said,  I had no intention of leaving Catholicism, secure in its position as the longest standing Christian faith tradition.  

However, the spiritual experiences that ensued in my conversations with the missionaries were nothing short of Pentecostal and I was eager to share my transformation with my family, who responded very much like Gregor Samsa’s family in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The two years following my baptism were very painful.  I had left in the detritus of my baptism not only a rich and vibrant faith tradition but my family, whom I had shaken to the core, wrenching their ability not only to comprehend me but to communicate with me.  I had brought a rogue elephant into our family room.  It is still there. The wounds are still palpable.  However, due in large measure to the kindness and love of Priesthood leaders, my wobbly legs were strengthened and, amazingly, I did not use them to flee a still alien religion, an alien culture and alien language.

Through a set of miraculous circumstances I was granted a multiple entry visa to pursue a degree at Brigham Young.  I met Terryl the first day of our Comparative Literature 301 class with Larry Peer.  Terryl was seated on the back row.  I was seated on the front.  He was self-effacing.  I was not.  We were married a year later.  He pursued a PhD in comparative literature and I pursued the raising of our children while taking a class a semester, when possible, to keep the little grey cells functioning amidst the barrage of babyspeak.   Continue reading “Nothing Can Separate Us From the Love of God: An Interview with Fiona Givens, co-author of _The God Who Weeps_”

Resolutions and Mormon Literature Memes

OFWhitney-PurePowerfulFor some time I have looked for ways to promote Mormon literature — ways to put the idea of Mormon literature in front of the public. The best, or most resonant, of Mormon literature needs to become part of our culture in a way that makes at least some works familiar to most members. Getting there involves the long process of educating the culture. Many different ways of promoting literature will need to be used. We need Mormon literary figures on t-shirts and shopping bags. We need fantastic book covers of well-known works to be highly recognizable. We need scenes or snippets of those well-known works to be seen all over. In short, we need Mormon Literature Memes.

Continue reading “Resolutions and Mormon Literature Memes”

“It is the Myth That Gives Life”: C.S. Lewis and True Myth

Art by Liz Pulido for Zion Theatre Company
Art by Liz Pulido for Zion Theatre Company

Note: I have posted this elsewhere in the past, but this is a very important concept to me. So, honestly, I want to put it in as many places as I have power to. This is the text from a presentation I made at the Springville Library on June 21, 2012, as part of their “So You Want to Read!” series. Obviously, I was asked to speak on C.S.

Lewis.

Many people do not know that C.S. Lewis–the unapologetic Christian apologist, the author of spiritual classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces, and Mere Christianity –was once an avowed atheist. It was during this early period of skeptical secularism that he went through an intimate, beautiful, and spiritual transformation that led him away from his secular atheism to the road that made him become perhaps the most celebrated Christian author and thinker of the 20th century.

It was during this period of change when C.S. Lewis–who preferred the enigmatic nick name “Jack,” which I will often be calling him by, so don’t get confused–took a night time walk in the woods with two of his friends: J.R.R. Tolkien, future author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; as well as Hugo Dyson, a capable Shakespearean professor and scholar. These three would later make up the core of what would become the celebrated literary group The Inklings, but that illustrious group was still a ways off. This night they were just friends engaged in a life altering conversation that would assist Jack on the last leg of his journey away from his secular past and into his spiritual future.

But Jack wasn’t going down (or up) without a fight. Even though Jack had recently had some powerful spiritual experiences that were leading him back to a belief in God, yet he still resisted the “myth” aspect of Christianity. “Christianity may have many things going for it,” he argued to his friends, “Originality is not one of them.”

C.S. Lewis”¦ or, again, Jack as he preferred”¦ saw Christianity as no different to the other “dying god myths.” The Egyptian god Osiris, the Norse god Balder, the Greek Titan Prometheus”¦ they, too were stories of a god’s death and resurrection, and Christianity was the Johnny come lately to that kind of narrative. Jesus Christ was no different than these more ancient, imaginary gods. That was Jack’s position at the time, one which would change over the course of the evening’s walk in the woods, feeling the nighttime breeze whisper to him another answer. Continue reading ““It is the Myth That Gives Life”: C.S. Lewis and True Myth”

An Online Mormon Literature Course?

itunesu_iconWhen I was given an iPhone for Christmas last year, I began exploring the apps and other materials that are available for the iPhone and came across iTunes U–Apple’s open courseware platform, which currently hosts thousands of “courses,” all available for free. [Unfortunately, since Apple’s courses are generally just video or audio files of lectures, they aren’t fullfledged courses.] Apple isn’t the only platform. Perhaps better known is MIT’s Open Courseware project, which includes 2,100 courses (full-fledged courses this time), also all for free. There are many others also.

But I didn’t find any courses in one of my principal areas of interest: Mormonism.

Continue reading “An Online Mormon Literature Course?”

What mormon books to read this summer?

TeachA few days I came across a link to a blog post about what to read this summer: 101 Books To Read This Summer Instead of ’50 Shades of Grey.’ I thought it was a clever way of suggesting classic books to read and classifying those books. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do the same thing for Mormon books?

Continue reading “What mormon books to read this summer?”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two

As outlined in my last post , Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and concepts like Carl Jung’s archetypes and “collective unconscious” seem to tie well into J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson’s conversation with C.S. Lewis that helped convince him to become a Christian… that the similarity between world mythologies and Christianity is because they are being drawn from the same source, a pre-existent memory, a collective unconsciousness that is guiding mankind towards the “true myth” of Christianity.

The Christ story, however, is not the only “true myth.” I’ve seen Campbell’s pattern not only pop up in religious narratives such as the life of Christ and Buddha and Muhammad (some whose historicity is obviously debated depending on your religious views), but also in the lives of more established historical figures… try applying Campbell’s pattern to Joan of Arc for example, and other epic figures like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. You’ll find some striking consistency. One of the most perfect examples I’ve found, however, is the life of Joseph Smith. His life plays out like an epic myth, the kind of stuff which would be seem obviously constructed after the fact, if we hadn’t so many historical proofs to back up the basic outline of the story. Now, obviously, events like the First Vision are up for debate, if you’re not an orthodox Mormon, but other events like Liberty Jail (which I’ll figure conveniently in Campbell’s “Belly of the Whale” stage) are without question historical facts in the American religious narrative. So I find it interesting that this pattern can crop up is non-structured scenarios in history, which attests to the universality of the Hero’s Journey model and how it is not only a convenient way to plot a story, but also an immortal way to show the truth of how spirituality plays out.

Which brings us not only to the life of Joseph Smith, but the pattern he layed out about man’s existence, what Mormons like to call the Plan of Salvation. In the rest of my essay, I’ll go through Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and apply it first to Joseph Smith’s life and by then I think you’ll also see how the pattern applies to the Plan of Salvation and our individual journeys through mortality:

JOSEPH SMITH AND THE HERO’S JOURNEY

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: In Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the Hero is always first called to leave his past life of obscurity and day to day existence and chart into a world of wonder and danger, where the Hero is to obtain some great boon or accomplish some great goal, which generally will be to the benefit of his fellow man.

Joseph’s early life is a perfect fit to this sort of beginning. Joseph Smith, the young farm hand whose strong body is hired out for his labor, but has very little room for upward mobility in his life. From all outlooks, his best hope is to become a farmer like his father, if he can escape the crushing dillemmas and ill twists of fate that kept his parents from escaping the constant threat of crushing poverty. Like Luke Skywalker in the beginning of Star Wars, King Arthur as a lanky squire, or an obscure carpenter’s son from Galilee, Joseph Smith at first glance would be an unlikely figure to make any sort of impact on the world around him. Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part Two”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One

File:Hero 1000 faces book 2008.jpg For the past several years I have had a connection that has been floating around in my brain which I’ve been itching to iterate. In studying things as far flung as psychology, C.S. Lewis, Mormon theology and history, literary/mythical archetypes, world religions, and diverse world histories, these disparate parts have led me to form a pattern to the experiences of C.S. Lewis, the life of Joseph Smith, but also to the Mormon concept of the Plan of Salvation.

I have been teaching about Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” in my high school creative writing class and so it has set me back on this track of thinking which has been boring its way into my everyday unconscious for a long time now. For those unaware of what exactly “The Hero’s Journey” is, it chiefly comes from a book Joseph Campbell wrote called The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Written in 1949, it was a very important book that set forth the idea that there are patterns and archetypes found in all sorts of disparate mythology, fairy tales, religious narratives, and folk lore. That all these stories from unconnected and far flung cultures follow one basic story. It is also a trend that can be found in epic literature and film, which is uncannily and unconsciously present in everything from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And many writers now purposely craft their tales to follow this pattern, George Lucas’s Star Wars being one of the most famous examples.

Prometheus Unbound (83).jpg
BYU Experimental Theatre Company's production of _Prometheus Unbound_

I also purposely followed this pattern with my play Prometheus Unbound several years ago (and have addressed it less directly in other plays such as Swallow the Sun and my new work Manifest), much because the idea has fascinated me ever since I was taught it in my high school sophmore honors English class. Ms. Drummond mentioned Carl Jung’s revolutionary studies in the early and mid 20th century about archetypes (a simpler overview here) and the collective unconscious. In my terms, archetypes are repeating patterns that happen in mythology and other stories, in psychology, in dreams, and even (at least from what I’ve been able to observe) in many points in recorded, literal history (try applying this pattern to Joan of Arc, for example). Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One”

The Clear Voiced Individual: Melissa Leilani Larson and “Little Happy Secrets”: Reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, Part Four

Mel Larson 2
Photo by Alisia Packard

POWERHOUSE PLAYWRIGHT

Throw in 3/4 a cube of Jane Austen. Add in equal amounts of Joss Whedon. A pinch of Aaron Sorkin. Oh, and don’t forget two cups of Joseph Smith. Stir evenly. Layer that on top of Merchant Ivory films, historical biopics, and BBC period pieces. Maybe, if you’re in the mood, fold in a little romantic comedy, but only the good stuff. Then mix and let stand. After that, throw in a lot of witty banter, contemporary flair, unflinching bravery, impressive style, moving spirituality, and really strong intelligence.  Toss it in the oven until it’s “shiny.” Take it out, let it cool, top it off with some genuine originality, sparkling dialogue, realistic plots, heart rending vulnerability, and achingly honest characters. Then let it cool and (voila!) you have the plays of Melissa Leilani Larson.

Before I ever met the witty and wonderful Melissa Leilani Larson, I was introduced to her through her plays Wake Me When Its Over (now Standing Still Standing) and Angels Unaware (now Martyrs’ Crossing). The work itself created some powerful responses in me and I have very fond memories of attending those shows. Angels Unaware, especially, re-sparked my spiritual love affair with Joan of Arc (Jean d’Arc), which originally started with my first reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Both Shaw’s and Larson’s plays have led to independent inquiry and research on my part, which I hope leads to another Joan of Arc play (or two) someday from my end, although they will be very different than either Larson’s or Shaw’s… and definitely Shakespeare’s!… take on the Maid.

From the beginning Larson has engaged my mind, softened my heart, and spurred me into action. She has made me re-think certain worldviews, and review my own, not always pure intentions. She has made me see my fellow human beings more clearly and compassionately, as well as drawing me nearer to the heart of God. I don’t know how I can give higher praise to a writer, but Larson deserves every word of it. And in her most ground-breaking play (earth shattering, more like it!) Little Happy Secrets, all of Larson’s strengths are on display. Continue reading “The Clear Voiced Individual: Melissa Leilani Larson and “Little Happy Secrets”: Reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, Part Four”

James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three

Photo bt Vilo Elisabeth Westwood
Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

Unlike many, I do not believe a text can truly be divorced from its author. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but the more I find out about an author, the more I am fascinated and enlightened by the text. So it’s difficult for me to address a work, when I have met the author, not to bring my experiences with, or knowledge of, the author to the text. So, first, I’ll talk about the author James Goldberg, as well as his relation to New Play Project. Then I’ll address his beautiful, award-winning play, “Prodigal Son.”

JAMES GOLDBERG AND THE COMMUNAL NARRATIVE

Now I wouldn’t call James Goldberg my best friend, although we are friends, and I certainly would love to be even friendlier. Yet there seems to have even been awkward tension during a few moments. We’ve seriously disagreed a couple of occasions. And I could tell that I annoyed him on at least a dozen occurrences..

However, I do think the world of him. And I think he is one of the best and unique writers Mormonism has. We should value him and the wealth of multiculturalism he brings to his Mormon faith and writing.  It’s interesting, the more and more I find truth in other religions, the more and more I believe in Mormonism. Comparing religions and cultures highlights the Gospel tinged truths whispered into the ears of every culture. And I get the sense from James that he believes the same thing.

James Goldberg comes from Jewish and Sikh heritages, while also happening to be a card carrying Mormon. When you talk to him, he isn’t shy about his diverse background and proudly celebrates his cultural past and freely intermingles it with his cultural present, not really distinguishing them. Because he shouldn’t distinguish them. Because Mormonism embraces all truth.  That is, if we should trust Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be adequate spokesmen for Mormonism.

This idea of intermingling one’s diverse cultural and even religious identities is wonderfully evident in a good deal of Goldberg’s work, perhaps no where I have it seen so clearly so as in his fascinating and moving “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenburgh.” In Mormon Artist’s first Contest Issue Goldberg mentions in an interview about the story , something that struck me:

Because the stories I was writing were so short, I didn’t have time to explain all the culture in them: the Jewish holidays that were thematically connected, the immigrant groups in each story. I figured in the age of Google, smart people could look up the stuff they didn’t get and discover the extra layers in the story, like mining for gems. Understandably, many of my class members didn’t take the time to look stuff up. What surprised me, though, was that the same people who hadn’t invested their time in the story were telling me to simplify it, to explain it more in terms they could understand. Some said they felt like I wasn’t including them because I wasn’t writing in their culture and explaining anything that came from anywhere else. And I thought, these stories wouldn’t be as beautiful if I explained them. And the best readers would get less out of them.

I also thought, I have unique stories to tell because of my own life heritage. Why should I only tell stories you can already fully understand? Isn’t one purpose of fiction to expand the reader? Continue reading “James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three”

The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two

Out of the Mount

For the actual review of the majority of the short plays in Out of the Mount (a fuller treatment on Little Happy Secrets and “Prodigal Son” will follow) , I was considering doing little mini-reviews for each short play. However, as I got caught up reading the anthology, I noticed two distinct qualities that kept reoccurring that not only expressed the nature of the volume, but the nature of New Play Project itself. So it is with those two major elements in mind that I approach this volume of the work of the remarkable New Play Project, the young and the religious.

THE YOUNG

As one reads the plays in Out of the Mount, one quickly gets the sense of the demographic of authors that these plays have been written by: New Play Project consist of young, college-aged playwrights. With the exception of Eric Samuelsen and perhaps one or two others, the majority of these writers were under 30 when they wrote these plays…most likely under 25. Most of them were single, college aged students when these plays were written and first produced, the vast majority of them hailing from Brigham Young University (with an occassional UVU student). Now this is one of the volume’s greatest strengths and its greatest limitation. A limitation, because it naturally limits the breadth of  experience that informs these works. An immense strength, because the plays are infused with the kinetic energy, the passion, the exploring bravery, and the vibrant openness that comes with being young. It also helps that, though young, these writers are smart. And talented.

Continue reading “The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two”