As the co-author with her husband of the highly popular book, “The God Who Weeps,” Fiona Givens has thought deeply about the character of God and her responsibility to search out that true character in the scriptures. In this interview, she shares her personal reflections on how she searches for God’s true character, how her Catholic background has aided in her understanding of Christ’s importance, and how she passes that sacred knowledge to her children.
How do you define theology? When we say the word to members of the Church, it can mean either one of two things: either something that has come down from Joseph Smith or other prophets completely codified; or, there’s the other strain in Mormon thought which is that we have an open canon and we should think broadly about what our theology is. So what is it to you?
I define it as a sustained reflection on the divine. In Mormon terms, that would be having your heart constantly drawn out to the Lord, looking for the divine everywhere, finding footprints, imprints… Believing that everything truly testifies of Christ. I think it’s our responsibility as individual members of the Church, particularly women, to reflect upon the divine.
I think my background is important here. I was raised Catholic and I love that faith tradition. But the reason I became Mormon is that I felt that my faith tradition completely obscured Christ. He was concealed by a myriad of saints and particularly by His mother who had replaced Him as the mediator with God. He had essentially lost His position as our Intercessor with the Father and I felt that Mormonism put Christ front and center. Keeping Christ in this position, however, is always a battle; I’ve been a member of this Church long enough to know that keeping Christ central in any faith tradition is going to be difficult. I think the tendency towards idolatry is universal and it is tempting to displace God with other figures we find more accessible, easier to relate to, or heroes of our own fashioning. But it behooves us to keep Him central to our worship because He is the way back to our Father in Heaven.
I really love the admonition that we have to search the scriptures because I do agree with Joseph that many of the plain and precious things have been taken out, but I also agree with Edward Beecher [brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe] that many things have been put in there that are actually malevolent. Searching the scriptures is where I focus my energies; I am trying to do what Joseph asked us to do which is to find God’s correct character and attributes, because, as he said, it is only in knowing the character and attributes of God that we can exercise faith unto salvation. That’s huge for me. The canon is where we go to learn of God. Joseph is implying, that because incorrect characteristics and attributes have been placed there, we need to “search” through the scriptures to find those attributes that are actually God’s. Theology, in this sense, is, therefore, rigorous, requiring great personal investment but the rewards are marvelous, paradigm shifting moments of clarity and splendor.
I particularly love Revelation 12. You have this beautiful image of a woman with the stars and the moon… a gorgeous vision of this woman. She’s pregnant, she delivers her child… the child is caught up into heaven and then she is left to confront the dragon. We know the dragon is Lucifer because the scripture informs us that he took a third of the host of heaven with him. So you have this woman, who has just been delivered of her child, and she’s confronting Satan on her own. There is no way that she can withstand the assault. Verse 6 is the pivotal scripture and on that particular day when I read it, my whole universe was illuminated by joy and my Weltanschauung was forever altered. It was pretty much like James 1:5 was for Joseph; it took my breath away: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” We read that she flees into the wilderness – what we call the apostasy – where she is fed of God. The church is not destroyed, it does not utterly disappear. It retreats underground, where the Spirit nourishes it. That was so overwhelming to me: how does God nourish a church in the apostasy? How does He nourish a church that no longer has priesthood keys and ordinances? Well, He sends her the greatest philosophers, poets, writers, composers and thinkers of all time. God doesn’t create ex nihilo; one can’t restore something that isn’t already there; the building blocks for the Restoration were always there. I mean, that’s just awesome.
For me, that was the beginning of a serious theological study of Joseph’s magnanimous mind. Joseph once said: “If the Presbyterians have truth, embrace that. If the Methodists, have truth embrace that too. Get all the good in the world if you want to come out a pure Mormon”. Truth and beauty were never taken from the world and Joseph saw the Restoration as exactly this: “the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (D&C 5:14). Isn’t that revolutionary? It completely changes our view of what the apostasy was. It was a garden in which goodness, beauty and truth were nourished until they were ready to come forth to be reunited with Priesthood keys and ordinances now restored.
That’s part of my understanding of theology: to go truth-hunting. We can find truth everywhere. We will also find it mixed in with a lot of untruth. I think it’s important for us to realize that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was on the same tree and not in different orchards. We will find truth oftentimes in very dark places. I think it was Brigham Young who said we should be prepared to go to hell to find truth if necessary. It is a wonderful, expansive injunction given us by Joseph and Brigham–go out and bring truth home—to our church—to our lives.
When you say you studied Revelation and searched for things both left out and malevolently put in, what sort of tools did you use?
There is a beautiful scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants which encourages us to seek wisdom out of “the best books.” My education has not only brought into my life a number of best books but it has also taught me to apply the tool of close, textual reading with which to examine them. This is the same tool I use when searching the scriptures. I have found, through years of intense study, truths in these great books that have resonated with me as has truth in the scriptures. In fact, I find the same truths articulated in the best books but often more eloquently and profoundly. My scripture study on its own would be a barren enterprise were it not for the spiritually insightful and gifted writers who have come into my life and whose thoughts, ideas and expressions I treasure.
For example, had it not been for Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” and his emphasis on a kind, merciful, benevolent and tender God, I may not have found the vulnerable God depicted in Moses 7. I believe that this God has suffered great injustice at the hands of the writers of the Old Testament, who have successfully portrayed Him as angry—genocidal even. But I believe with all my heart and mind that Julian of Norwich speaks truth when she says that she saw God and: “I saw verily that oure Lorde was nevyr wroth [angry] nor nevyr shall. For he is God, he is good, he is truth, he is love, he is pees [peace], and hys might, hys wisdom, hys charyte [charity]…sufferythg hym nott to be wroth [does not allow him to be angry]” (The Showings of Julian of Norwich, edited by Denise N. Baker, 64, parentheticals mine). If one looks hard enough, one can find Hugo’s and Julian’s God in the Old Testament. Beneath the blood and smoke of Canaan runs the leitmotif that God’s hand is stretched out still. He set His heart upon us and He stays true to the covenant He made to love us always and to guide our stumbling steps, by His love that passeth all understanding, back to Him.
When you were discovering these truths through your close reading and the help of the spirit, how did you distinguish between something that is not necessarily available to be elaborated on, and those things that you can be free to expostulate upon? For instance, there are discussions today about identifying core doctrine and distinguishing it from things that we’ve just built cultural barriers around. How do you in your own life negotiate those points between core doctrine and identifying the fences that have been built up around that core doctrine?
As Mormons, we sometimes consider ourselves to be part of a tribe. I don’t consider myself to be part of a tribe, perhaps because I didn’t grow up Mormon in the Western United States. And I value that. To me the label “tribe” is so confining and restricting—a small group of people to whom everyone else is “the other”–separate. The Gospel message, as I understand it, is universal in its application and appeal alike. While I have lived in the US for over 30 years, it is my early years growing up in East Africa, growing up Catholic and being educated in England that have informed the way I interact with Mormonism and the world in general. And my love of my heritage and my membership in the Gospel of Jesus Christ have given me an interesting perspective—you could call it a wall on which to sit–from which I can look into American Mormonism and its culture on one side and into the rest of the world on the other. Unfortunately, in my opinion,–perhaps as a result of this “tribal” perspective, Mormons have meshed things cultural with things doctrinal. So much so, that it is now difficult to extricate the doctrine, which is valuable from the cultural, which is not, at least not to anyone outside the culture (the tribe). However, I think it is essential that we separate the two because the core doctrine is universal but the culture is not. Culture, to my mind, makes the core doctrine difficult to access. Joseph gave us enough core doctrine to empower us to explore it. Each person, as he said, should be at liberty to access core doctrine and apply it to her life in whatever culture she lives and loves. But we need to recognize that the one is life-giving, the other is not.
I had some wonderful female mentors in the Church when I first joined, incredibly strong women, and I remember hearing them expound doctrine in stake and ward levels. I was impressed by that. There was one woman in particular at a conference I went to who spoke exclusively of Christ. And, perhaps it was the exception to the rule which is why it stood out to me so much, but I decided that I wanted to be that sort of a woman. I wanted to engage in scripture as she had, since it was obvious she had some real scriptural gravitas when it came to an understanding of Christ. The content was something she had gleaned herself; she had pursued this course on her own. I was impressed by that. I remember thinking: This woman has engaged with the scriptures with rigor. I want to do that.
I’ve also experienced women who have attempted to love me but found it very difficult because there were cultural things about the Church about which I balked. For instance, I’m not a huge Scouting fan. If my boys wanted to do Scouts, good for them. I supported them and provided them with the materials. But when I passed a sister in the grocery store and she informed me that she was on her last merit badge – meaning that she was self-identifying with her last son’s own Scouting efforts — I was stunned. No, I was not going to do the merit badge thing myself! I remember specifically there was a time when my boys were very little and there was a Cub Scout meeting or something, but they were out in the garden playing ball with their father. And I had a decision to make: Do I break them up, put them in the car and take them to their Cub Scout meeting, or do I leave them in the garden playing ball with their father? Which is most important for my boys? I decided that playing ball with their father was more important.
I think that determined my position from there on out. Scouting is not a doctrinal issue but I have been reprimanded by fellow sisters (not priesthood holders, interestingly enough) because I didn’t require my sons to attend. The root of many of my decisions regarding our involvement with Church programs has been this: if anything interfered with family time, it was assessed and if not considered beneficial, it was dropped. I’ve heard sisters stand up in church and say that they promote a church-service orientation in their homes. But then I’ve also heard Brethren counsel the reverse–that the programs are here to support us. In my experience, the two opposing views have been confused—at least at the ward level. I know that I felt vilified, perhaps that’s too strong a word… but I was set apart as someone whose activity and level of righteousness was judged because of my emphasis on the importance of family time.
I think quite honestly that is a decision every parent—indeed, all of us—need to make: what is doctrinal? What is essentially salvific? And there are many activities in which we are engaged as church members that are not. We need to be allowed to choose for ourselves. These sisters who felt it incumbent upon them to lead me back to their particular path would probably be surprised by how intrusive and painful I found their shepherding.
What can women do today to take a greater lead in our theological explorations? How have you consumed and digested so much literature while raising six children? Presumably you were reading while you had children at home. What can we as women do today to do a better job of that ourselves?
One of the most important things we did as a family and one of the reasons I dropped so many church activities was reading together. For me, that familial dinner followed by reading to my children every night was crucial. It was sacrosanct. I allowed nothing to get in the way of it—well, until they were older and the necessary ferrying began. I introduced my children to phenomenal literature. We read all of C. S. Lewis’ books, we read Beatrix Potter, Tolkien, the Lloyd Alexander books… all out loud. Starting when they were very, very little. We finished the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy just before my eldest son left on his mission. In fact, I was so busy at the time, that my husband, Terryl took over and my last vision of Nathaniel before he left us was of Terryl reading the final chapters to him over bowls of their favorite ice cream. And of course we read all of the Harry Potter books. We read them in English and in American! My children would follow along in the American version to point out the variances.
J.K. Rowling, to my mind, is a prophetess. I just think that woman is brilliant. If you think of the secular age in which so many children are being raised, the ideas of self-sacrifice, of love, of loyalty, of kindness… those are not being taught our children. I think she just gathered them all up and steeped her books in these virtues. The refrain in our house that preceded the hour or two of the reading was: “Mummy, is it Harry Potter time yet?”
So they were steeped in literature. I do not remember being read to as a child but I loved to read and read voraciously. That being said, it was very difficult for me to digest anything of real substance myself when my children were young. I was too exhausted. My brain ceased to function once they were tucked in bed. Perhaps that’s why it was so important for me to read to the children. It was the only way I could digest anything myself. But I thought it worked out very well indeed. There were some books I probably would not have read, like the Brian Jacques “Redwall” series and I may very well have missed out on the “Harry Potter” experience had I not my children in mind.
A wise woman once reiterated this truth to me: that there are times and seasons and, as women, we should throw ourselves into them with gusto because they don’t last long. No, really, we think that our small-children-time with the constant cleaning and attention and never being able to wear something pretty is never going to end. It does. In the blink of an eye. Now that my children are grown, I find I have much more time to devote to literary exploration. I just finished a thorough study of Julian of Norwich’s Showings and am currently reading Edward Beecher’s Concord of the Ages and Margaret Barker’s two-volume treatise, entitled The Mother of the Lord. I have also finished an in-depth study of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the majesty of which I was unable to fully appreciate as a teenager. My motto is: “If it’s difficult to read, it’s probably worth reading.”
That being said I also believe that women must jump on the boat of becoming theologians. We must understand our scriptures. We must understand the sweet doctrines of the Gospel. It is our responsibility to teach ourselves and to teach our children. I felt very strongly that the instruction of my children was my responsibility. As a mother of six precious children, it was given to me to secure the environment of our home. And I felt this as a Divine mandate: I was given this universe that was my home, to create a safe place – a haven – for my children—to protect them from evil—to expose them to the good, the true and the beautiful. That’s why literature played such a huge part. I also screened very carefully what television programs and films we watched as a family. That’s not to say I was orthodox by any means. We viewed what I considered to be beneficial and/or enjoyable for the family. Again, I felt strongly, that securing the family’s well-being was my responsibility, my right, my duty.
Our Sunday after-church discussions were very important because Terryl and I could ascertain what the children were being taught in Primary and youth classes and gently correct if needed. It was particularly important for me, as a mother, to be really aware of the scriptures and have a familiar feel and knowledge of them so when my children said, “My teacher taught me this,” I could support it or correct it. My husband’s knowledge of the scriptural record is phenomenal but I, too, felt the weight of that responsibility to teach and to redirect. Both Terryl and felt it our sacred duty as parents to ensure that our children were learning correct doctrine. That is not to say that I think our knowledge is impervious to error. We do the best with what we have and the limiting paradigms in which we swim.
An example is the Word of Wisdom. It seems like an innocuous thing. But when my daughter said to me, “Our friend is a bad person because he’s smoking,” I realized that I had to correct her false notion. We had a quick discussion about how smoking is not a thing that makes people bad. It is injurious to one’s health, yes, but our friend is not a bad person for smoking. On the other hand, if we smoked we would be violating a covenant that we’ve made to keep the Word of Wisdom, and we would be responsible for that violation. It was my sacred responsibility to make sure my children were learning correct doctrine in every setting.
It sounds like you feel motherhood is a rich opportunity for LDS women to explore and expand theology.
Yes and no. Motherhood offers a rich opportunity but then do all the other stages of a woman’s life—teenagehood, singlehood, widowhood and all the other “hoods” in between. It still behooves all women in the Church to be theologians. At one point or another we find ourselves in teaching callings. In fact, most of the callings we will be requested to engage involve instruction on one level or another—Primary, Sunday school, Young Women, Relief Society. We find ourselves in educational roles in and outside of the home, in and outside the Church. Education takes on myriad forms. We educate in the way we interact with our superiors at work, with our colleagues, with those lower down the work-place rung. For all these reasons—as well as for our own, personal edification, we need to be invested in exploring our doctrine and our scriptures.
As I mentioned before I have also been uplifted and edified by the non-canonical books I have read and continue to discover. Margaret Barker has encouraged my search of the Feminine Divine through her own work on the subject. Talk about a treasure hunt! The discussion of Wisdom in Proverbs is very provocative, for example. Wisdom is personified as a “she” and then we have this magical shift where the “she” becomes “I”. And she speaks: “I was in the beginning…” And it’s so reminiscent of the language in John 1. Then, there’s the whole reevaluation of the role of Eve. In our faith tradition she is depicted as the great heroine of the human family. It was her courage and initiative that moved humanity forward in their progress to return to the Father. In our faith tradition her initiative is celebrated and she is venerated as the Mother of humanity. She is not easily co-opted into a nefarious scheme. She weighs the advantages and disadvantages of eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and she chooses. On her choosing God makes this pronouncement: “they have become as one of us.” With her elevation to the role of heroine and champion of the human race, all women are likewise elevated. It is wonderfully liberating and empowering. This alone would make me proud to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But there is so much besides!
What does it mean to you to have a female eternal identity?
I feel empowered by my female eternal identity. This is influenced heavily by our belief in a Heavenly Mother. That resonates with me. Really, can one have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Son without a Heavenly Mother?
I have always had a very good sense of self anyway; it may have had to do with the fact that I was educated in an all-female environment. I came out of that whole educative experience with a very strong sense of the strength of my identity as a woman. I also come from a historical and religious tradition of strong women leaders from Queen Boudicea to Mother Teresa. So, coming into the LDS faith tradition and then meeting Heavenly Mother was confirmation of everything I already felt. I would actually say that my background engendered in me a feeling of superiority rather than equality. I think this is why Eve resonates so strongly with me as does Adam’s portrayal of her in Milton’s Paradise Lost. For us school girls, young men proved to be invaluable dance partners and, if they added something intelligible to the conversation, that was always a plus.
Which is probably why I’ve never fallen for the myth of infallible leaders either. I think it’s a very dangerous undertaking for us to airbrush our prophets and Priesthood leaders. Brigham Young himself said, “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” That’s extraordinary. I start to worry when I see us putting others’ faces up on our walls in lieu of the Lord.
It’s interesting to me that you have all this confidence as a woman and you love the feminine divine, and yet it was the over-importance of Mary in the Catholic faith that alerted you to that faith’s shortcomings. The religion that did put a woman in the forefront was actually suspect exactly because of that. It shows me that putting Christ in the forefront is actually a gender-neutral solution to focusing on those things that are most important.
Absolutely. As a school girl, my historical and literary interests were, to a great extent, centered on the First World War. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon have been two of the most influential poets in my life with their stark depictions of war. When “the flower” of Europe was being mowed down to whom were these young men crying in their death agony? It wasn’t their fathers. It was their mothers. We have, with the feminine, this idea of self-sacrifice and mercy and love and all of those beautiful attributes which Christ himself epitomizes. He is the one to whom both men and women can go for solace and understanding. However, I also think it is very interesting that He is mostly surrounded by women and that it to a woman He first appears when He is resurrected. I find Christ’s focus on women particularly empowering. The road to Golgotha, the gospels note, are lined primarily by women. It is that vulnerability in Christ to which we are particularly attuned as women. We, more than men, perhaps, understand what it is like to be vulnerable. And while men also can appreciate His vulnerability—Edward Beecher and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are excellent examples—it is women who recognize the Divine vulnerability for the salvific power that it is. I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ powerfully moving portrayal of Nancy in Oliver Twist. Christ’s entire life is an act of vulnerability, from His birth to His death, and for me as a woman that resonates very strongly.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I feel that women in the scriptures are there to prove that the Lord doesn’t work in any set pattern. And because they defy pattern-making, they are the evidence that the Lord reaches out to those you least expect.
As soon as we limit ourselves to a specific kind of revelatory reception, we fail to see God in our lives. I think the women of the scriptures prove that God breaks patterns! It’s as though He’s saying: Don’t fall into a pattern because you will lose sight of me. If everything testifies of Christ, we need to be able to see His Presence reflected in myriad ways. Whenever we become too comfortable in our paradigms, that is the time for a shift. The Lord wants us to look for Him in the chaos and disorder that is often our life experience. It is then the revelation comes and we experience that we are loved by Someone whose vulnerable beauty draws us to Him with an infinite and loving power. It is then we see God’s gentle face all around us, “lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his…” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
At A Glance
Location: Richmond, VA
Marital status: Married to Terryl Givens
Children: Six: 32,30, 28, 26, 24, 20
Occupation: Independent scholar, co-author of “The God Who Weeps”
Schools Attended: University of Richmond—BA in German and French, MA in European
Favorite Hymn: “God Is Love” arranged for women
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.