A transcript of the interview is available below.
Terryl Givens, PhD, is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, a private liberal arts college. Baptized initially in the Presbyterian faith by his minister grandfather, Terryl and his family became LDS when Terryl was eight or nine; however, the family of nine became less active. Born in upstate New York and raised largely in the Southwestern U.S.A., when Terryl was sixteen the family relocated to Virginia from another state, having no immediate prospects for employment, friends or a home. Initially they lived in a tent. In Virginia the family was reactivated and Terryl experienced a personal spiritual reawakening. Although he set his sights on a wrestling scholarship at Yale, Terryl was always “bookish,” as he describes it. Following a successful church mission in Brazil he graduated from BYU, where he courted and married Fiona. After graduate work at Cornell he completed his graduate studies at UNC, Chapel Hill, by which time the Givens had five children. Dr. Givens’ scholastic work included a semester abroad in Vienna. Fiona has a graduate degree in history. Terryl has served as a bishop. Although he did not initially fancy himself an author, Dr. Givens has authored a dozen books, including some that have been co-authored with Fiona. He has a special interest in Mormon studies, history and culture. His podcasts are accessible through terrylgivens.com.
- 11:37 Unlikely journey to becoming an author…His father’s collection of 19th century anti-LDS literature…Impact of learning the Book of Mormon was the most widely produced book, other than Bible.
- 15:15 Books are no longer the primary vehicle for disseminating information…Desire to celebrate intellectual and theological richness of Mormonism…People struggling with their faith.
- 18:00 There is not one, “typical” Mormon testimony…Finding one’s own path in “coming to Christ.”
- 19:25 Called as bishop in Richmond the week of 9/11…Occupying a position with enormous ability to make a difference in people’s lives…Using the power of the mantle as an influence for good…Ministering to members and promoting member interaction.
- 23:00 Dealing with faith crises…The gift of empathy…Feeling the weight of their burdens and the texture of their cross…Bishops need to “feel,” not simply fix…Avoiding tendency to view others’ experiences through one’s personal lens regarding matters of faith and other personal struggles.
- 29:25 President M. Russell Ballard’s powerful statement to leaders: ‘bearing testimony is not the answer to every question’ from people experiencing doubt…Dealing with legitimate perplexities and apparent incongruities…Asking, “What’s at stake in that question?”…Some faith questions are based on false assumptions…Helping people navigate distractions by refocusing on what matters most.
- 35:10 As a leader, having courage to refer someone to a person with more expertise…Demonstrate validation…Be careful about trying to shut off sources of intellectual inquiry…Transparency.
- 38:15 “Criminalizing” doubt…Elder Hugh B. Brown’s comment about “apprenticeship in doubt” on path of discipleship…Can faith and uncertainty can co-exist?… “Help thou my unbelief.” Knowing vs believing…On being authentic as to what we know or feel…The culture of “certainty.”
- 44:52 Scriptural examples of individuals having faith without absolute knowledge…Scriptures appeal to both mind and heart…Saying “I don’t know” and learning together.
- 47:56 Asking “real” questions in adult Sunday school classes…Does everyone truly agree…Importance of truly spiritual gospel doctrine class teachers…Dealing with boredom in SS class.
- 52:00 Is there resistance to addressing questions head-on? In the long run, how will church members be fortified? Being “shut down” in the U.K.
- 55:00 Holy envy…The role of art and literature as sacred vehicles. President Kimball: “When God didn’t have prophets he spoke through poets.” Finding comfort in non-Mormon Christendom.
- 57:20 Essence of discipleship is recognition that we all have hurts. There is no one whose life can’t be made better by a shared concern. Nearly everyone carries some type of burden.
Leading Saints (LS): Today I am in Orem Utah sitting down with Terryl Givens. How are you Terryl?
TERRYL: Pretty good. Happy to be here.
LS: Now, many people are familiar with you that you’ve seen your name on various books in Deseret Books and other locations. But for those that don’t recognize your voice what background do we need to know on you.
TERRYL: [00.03.00] Well I’m a professor of religion literature at the University of Richmond. My main interest academically is the intersection of literature and religious sentiment or religious expression. That many years ago I got side tracked more specifically into the area of Mormon studies, Mormon theology, Mormon culture, and history and so that’s where I’ve done most my publishing and speaking.
LS: And did you always want to be a professor?
TERRYL: Pretty much. I always wanted to live [00.03.30] the life of the mind. I guess you put it fairly pretentious language maybe. Why go to a 9 to 5 job and do something, I don’t know business oriented, when you could spend your life exploring books and literature and great ideas. So yeah.
LS: And you’ve been successful at creating that life.
TERRYL: I have I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in finding a place in that world.
LS: And The University of Richmond is that place. How long have you been there? And is where you will probably en your career? [00.04.00]
TERRYL: Yeah. You know it’s hard to get a good job in the humanities these days and it was back in the 80s. So usually you have to take what you can get, crumbs that fall from the table. But I was fortunate that the very first job I got to graduate school was University of Richmond. It’s a really fine small private liberal arts college with an emphasis on teaching, and they allow me and always have a great deal of freedom to pursue my academic interests wherever they take me. So I’ve been very happy to be there ever since my graduate school days.
LS: Yeah. And how would you describe [00.04.30] early on in your life just the development of your of your faith? Pretty traditional LDS experience?
TERRYL: Not really. I was born and raised initially in the Presbyterian faith. My grandfather baptized me. He was a minister. Family soon fell into a kind of agnosticism and discovered the latter day saints faith when I was about eight or nine years old. So I was baptized at that time but they soon lapsed into inactivity [00.05.00] and we moved to central Virginia when I was in my teen years and it was a Lehi in the wilderness kind of experience. My father just felt moved upon, or the desire to uproot himself from the southwest and relocate to a place where we had neither friends, or relatives, nor employment, and so I can truly say as Nephi I did. I lived in a tent. We camped out when I was 16 years old that [00.05.30] was my home. We set up stakes in the campground, lived in a tent with six brothers and sisters while my father looked for work and thought it would be a good idea to look up the local Latter Day Saints church so we did.
LS: So this is during the time of the inactivity.
TERRYL:That’s right. That’s right. And so that was how and where we rediscovered the church so to speak, and I just had a kind of spiritual awakening of my own at that time I’m 16 years old and began to pursue [00.06.00] quite enthusiastically and energetically a better understanding of Latter Day Saint faith and doctrine. And that changed the course of my life.
LS: So even during those teen years would you consider yourself more of an intellectual than your peers?
TERRYL: Yeah I think so. I was kind of bookish, but I think I was kind of well-rounded. I mean, I was on a wrestling team and involved in you, know the life of the school and friendships. But yeah I knew that I wanted to do something that was going to be more [00.06.30] academically oriented.
LS: Then came time for you to sort of mission that a an easy decision for you?
TERRYL: That was an easy decision. Yeah. There is no uncertainty whatsoever in my mind. In fact, my plans had been going into Virginia that I wanted to go to Yale on a wrestling scholarship. And it was that experience of suddenly finding myself immersed in the world of the spirit and the Mormon faith that suddenly all of my [00.07.00]plans centered on you know BYU. Where else would you go to get ready for a mission? I didn’t even apply anywhere else. You know I’ve second guessed that decision many times wondering if I should have explored more other kinds of opportunities. But anyhow I went to BYU had a good experience went to Brazil on a mission and had a wonderful two year mission.
LS: And when you got they called a Brazil was being with the intellectual mind you had was was there a certain location or hoping to go?
TERRYL: Yeah yeah I was disappointed. I had you know I thought [00.07.30] Europe would be a more interesting and culturally rich experience. But I wouldn’t trade that sure the Latin American venture for anything.
LS: And so you come back for a mission finished undergrad at BYU?
TERRYL: I finished at BYU, and had a number of false stops and starts. My father by this pointahed set himself up as a as a book dealer and being bookish loving literature. I was really drawn to that life and he offered me time and again a partnership in the book business. [00.08.00] So I started graduate school at BYU but then dropped out to run the bookstore with my father. That got frustrating and boring, so I went to Cornell started a program there and intellectual history grew fairly disillusioned with the intellectual climate especially in the Ivy League in the 1980’s. So I dropped out of school again went back to the book business, and then a third time, largely with my wife’s urging, decided I really needed that academic life. And so I went in this time [00.08.30] to Chapel Hill and finished my graduate work there in comparative literature.
LS: So, I know sometimes you’re known as Terryl Givens and other times you’re known as the husband of Siona Givens right.
TERRYL: Happy happy to be known that way as well.
LS: She’s such a dynamic speaker and author herself. How did these two minds come together?
TERRYL: Yeah yeah I sometimes refer to myself in introductions as Mr. Thatcher or Prince Phillip.
LS: Is that her madien name?
TERRYL: No no. Margaret Thatcher you’re dating yourself
LS: [00.09.00] I was very young in the 80s
TERRYL: Just the husband of a preeminent woman. We met the very first day of class in 1979 in the fall semester, in a comparative literature introduction. And we began dating immediately and we were engaged within weeks.
LS: Wow. Typical BYU story.
TERRYL: Typical BYU pattern there. And then I left for a study abroad in Vienna for six months and returned and married her shortly thereafter.
LS: [00.09.30] I’m sure in those some of those first few dates you realize she had a special mind.
TERRYL: I suppose that was it. That was what really attracted I think us to each other it was our first dates were really, virtually all of our courtship, were just long walks along rivers in woods and mountains talking about literature and music and art and shared shared love.
LS: That’s great. So she encourages it. Continue with your with your studies she did?
TERRYL: She did. And she always knew that nothing [00.10.00] less than an academic life was going to satisfy me.
LS: And it pushed you towards that Ph.D.
TERRYL: She did. She was my first and final reader of all my work and my dissertation.
LS: Then you start your professional career and teaching it at the University of Richmond?
TERRYL: I started that at Richmond, while we continued to grow our family. We actually were expecting our fifth child before I even landed that first job. So it was it was a tough tough life. I don’t see many young people doing [00.10.30] it that way anymore. But back then you know the council from Elder McConkie and President Kimbell was, you get married you have your children and your education and career and somehow. And so we did. It was an arduous, taxing, and sometimes really traumatizing few years. Growing up and really impoverished and challenging circumstances. Fiona was determined that she wanted to have a family and raise that family from the very beginning. And so she did, and she did a magnificent job as [00.11.00] a mother raising our children, and then she returned to school herself, and finished her undergraduate work, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and went on and got a graduate degree in history, and has been pursuing her own intellectual aspirations ever since.
LS: Great. Fantastic. And obviously you’re known for various books, projects, organizations, but it seems like most professors kind of have the author bug in them. Is that the case [00.11.30] for you ? Or did you think you would you’d be the author of several books?
TERRYL: No I never did. In fact, you know you go through these angst ridden months as you’re nearing Ph.D. completion. You wonder, what am I going to do if I don’t get a job? Fifty percent of people didn’t at that time and then you land the job and you lay awake at night lie awake at night rather wondering you know what am I going to write about in order to get tenure. And you know I always felt that I loved literature but I really didn’t want to [00.12.00] spend my life writing academic journal articles on 15th century pastoral poetry. You know? I was searching for some way to employ my training and abilities in a meaningful direction and it came upon me entirely by accident and unforeseen. My father collected anti-mormon literature. He was himself a committed devout Mormon, but he thought it was an interesting kind of genre. [00.12.30] You know, Zane Grey anti-mormon novels, and Harper’s Magazine articles from the 1860s and 70s caricaturing Mormonism and he kept handing this to me and saying he or write something about this stuff. And I finally had collected enough from him that I detected really intriguing patterns in the representation of Mormons in the 19th century and realized that virtually nobody had really explored Mormonism through that lens [00.13.00]. There had been a lot of really good historical work done, but nothing that looked at Mormonism through the lens of literature. And so my first book that resulted from that was “The Viper on the Hearth” and that was a study about what made Americans anxious about Mormons in the 19th century? And that’s I think best revealed the way they depicted Mormons in fiction. And I thought maybe that was a one time foray into Mormonism because I was supposed to be teaching romanticism and British literature but I opened one [00.13.30] day, a few years thereafter. A church news and the article caught my attention was LDS Church publishes the 100 millionth copy of The Book of Mormon. And that caught my attention and I wondered how does that compare to other bestsellers in American history. So there wasn’t an internet at that point so I had to do some real foot work to track down American bestsellers and I very soon discovered that was it! That was the best selling most widely distributed book in American [00.14.00] history after the Bible, but the most widely distributed book ever produced by an American. And so that very day I fired off an email to my editor at Oxford who had done my first book, made known to her that fact and then said, “my research suggests that there has never been an academic study of the Book of Mormon”, and she wrote back that very same day and said “You write it will publish it”. And so I think it was at that point with the second book that I really knew that Mormon Studies was going to be [00.14.30] my future.
LS: And that’s branched off to several several works.
TERRYL: Yeah yeah. And since then I’ve done a dozen or so books on Mormonism
LS: Nice. Well there are several interviews with you, you know talking about your various books which you’ll get into a little bit, but I want to make sure before we go any further talk about your in the podcasting world along with me.
TERRYL: I am as of recent months here.
LS: And it’s through an organization called Faith Matters.
TERRYL: Faith Matters Foundation, right.
LS: And the podcast is, “Conversations Terryl Givens” [00.15.00] is that correct?
TERRYL: That’s right. That’s right.
LS: And so what was the impetus for this? What encouraged you towards this direction?
TERRYL: Well I’ve been very slow and reluctant to acknowledge that books are no longer the primary vehicle through which ideas are disseminated in our society. And it had been urged upon me by various well-meaning entities and friends that I needed to move from book publishing into podcasting if I really wanted my ideas to have wider currency but I wasn’t really interested in [00.15.30] promulgating my own ideas through that medium. But I had been engaged, i have been for the last four years or so, in a wide ranging conversation with people struggling at the edges of faith. And there have been a number of podcasts that publicize and promulgated reasons to leave the faith. Challenges to faith and to our tradition. And the recognition was dawning on others and on myself as well that maybe a [00.16.00] podcast could be well employed to promulgate faith to strengthen faith in in ways similar to what you yourself are doing. But I think what makes my series a little different at least in intention is that rather than directly addressing issues of current concern, rather than reacting to the question, ‘Are they really horses in ancient America?’ or, “Why did Joseph have multiple accounts the first vision?”, I thought you know we really could do more to just celebrate [00.16.30] what I see as a completely unappreciated intellectual and theological richness to the Mormon tradition. And so the idea is that we’re not responding we’re not reacting to anything, we’re just trying to more widely disseminate and make better known the riches of our own cultural and theological tradition and do this in such a way that people especially of the younger generation, but really of all ages, can listen to these interviews and the response can be, wow, there are [00.17.00] some really interesting people, some deep thinkers, some exciting ideas that are spawned out of the resources of Mormon scripture and theology and literature. And so that’s the intent.
LS: And you’ve done a handful of interviews that are published now and have some recorded and many in the future there. What’s your approach to some of these interviews? How would you explain that?
TERRYL: Well the first series we called the ways of discipleship. And so we’ve interviewed people ranging from Darius Gray to Elder Jensen [00.17.30] the church historian emeritus, to Roslyn Welch and Sam Brown and our intention there has been to demonstrate that there isn’t one typical Mormon or one typical testimony. And the idea is to suggest that everybody has to find their own spiritual path and their own road to discipleship and it can be manifest in many ways that testimonies don’t all acquire the same form or shape. There are many ways of [00.18.00] coming to Christ, many ways of celebrating and engaging the gospel and we’re trying to show some of that diversity and richness.
LS: Now I’d definitely encourage all listening to type that into your search function on your podcast app and it’s definitely well worth a listen intently. They have videos that go along with it.
TERRYL: The video casts that you can download as podcasts or video casts, but I prefer the face to face encounter I want to see the body language I want to see the facial expressions of the person I’m engaging. So that was my preferred medium.
LS: For sure I found. If there’s [00.18.30] any chance of me being in person with the person I’m interviewing it’s makes a whole lot of difference. There’s a lot of value from that. I want to take a different course. You’ve you’ve had up serve as a bishop?
LS: What do you remember from that moment? Tell us the story of when you were called. What do you remember from that?
TERRYL: I was called in a way that wasn’t a great boost to my self-confidence. The stake president let me know that I wasn’t on anybody’s list and they had prayed and prayed but couldn’t get confirmation of the one they thought should be the bishop. And so finally as a last resort threw [00.19.00] my name into the hat. So effectively what he was saying to me was you were the last person on my list. But I guess you’re the Lord wants me. It reminded me of President Kimball’s call when he yeah he describes encountering an old towns person and Thatcher Arizona and he said well Spencer I know the Lord calls you and he was all puffed up with expectation of a real compliment, and then the guy continued saying because the Lord is the only one that would have thought of you. So I was [00.19.30] called the week of 9/11. So it was a pretty traumatic circumstances surrounding that moment. Amdm this is in Richmond Virginia. So yeah right down the street, a couple hours of the Pentagon incident. So, I remember going to a good friend of mine who had been a bishop and I said, “if you could give me just one bit of advice about being a bishop what would it be?”, And he said, “You need to recognize that you will occupy a position [00.20.00] such that you have unprecedented ability to make a difference in people’s lives”, and he said, “the slightest look or gesture from a bishop can mean the whole difference between having a great Sabbath experience and not”. And so I think what he was trying to say was just be aware of the power of the mantle that you wear, and use that as an influence for good in ways large and small. And and I experienced that I [00.20.30] think immediately that people look to you, not because of who you are but because of the office you occupy. A friendly word an encouraging gesture from a bishop means more than comparable words a gesture from just about anybody else in the congregation. So I think of it as a holy responsibility and tried to act in that way.
LS: So when you heard that advice how did that impact your your service going forward?
TERRYL: Well, we tried to initiate a number of practices that [00.21.00] would result in frequent significant interaction and contact with everybody in the ward. So for example one practice that we engaged in was during the closing hymn in sacrament service the two of us who weren’t conducting would go to the rear of the chapel and stand at each exit so that not a single individual was able to escape the chapel without personally encountering the bishop or one of his counselors. We made a goal to be in the home of every single member in the ward within [00.21.30] the first year. And so we devoted one night a week, every week of the year, to going out and just visiting members of the ward and interacting with them and their families. I asked the executive secretary to make appointments with every single young person in the ward at the time of his or her birthday. So I would take them out for ice cream and personally engage them. So it was really about the personal interaction that we tried to make the focal point of my time as bishop.
LS: You know if there’s any question [00.22.00] that ranks in the top three that I get from the Leading Saints audience is around this concept of faith crises and being able to minister to the one who is really grappling with their beliefs, whom they thought were so certain before. And in that moment I think many bishops want to just transform into Terryl Givens in their office and be able to be so articulate and walk them through some of these things. And one thing I love that is so fascinating about the calling as Bishop and really any leadership [00.22.30] calling, some of these callings are so much responsilibity there, it’s a great equalizer that regardless of your background, you’re going to feel not as adequate to step up to there. So what were some of those moments where you just felt inadequate? Do any come to mind?
TERRYL: Yeah not in the realm of faith crisis but in the realm of emotional crisis in mental health issues, marital issues. I was very frustrated at times feeling you know I’m not trained for this. I don’t [00.23.00] know how to deal with depression. I don’t know how to deal with marital friction. And so my sense is that the church has done a better job in the years since I was called and released, which is right more than almost two decades ago now. But I can remember feeling just overwhelmed by my inadequacy in incapacity to function in some of those ways that a bishop is often called upon to act.
LS: You know obviously describe yourself as bookish [00.23.30] you’re a lifelong learner. What something that that calling taught you that you couldn’t have learned from a book or any other method?
TERRYL: Well. What it taught me and fortunately what I’ve been able to learn to some extent from my wife is that I think the single most ingredient in service, and this does extend to faith crisis ministry, is the gift of empathy the power of empathy. And you know we always want to answer questions from our perspective. And I [00.24.00] think the real secret of ministering to others is putting yourselves in that position of feeling their pain. My wife has really made a priority in her own life of discipleship and in her public ministry the words of the baptismal covenant as we find them in Messiah. And she really teaches powerfully in this regard, that the three key ingredients there are that we bear one another’s burdens, we mourn with those who mourn so that we can comfort those who stand in need of comfort. [00.24.30] She points out that what it is really describing there is a process of empathy that we have to get inside their skin. We have to feel the weight of their burden. We have to feel the texture of their cross. We have to weep with them in this act of empathy and only then are we in a position to comfort from within rather than from without the experience.
LS: That’s so powerful because I know of myself being in that in the past being in that position of bishop that someone comes in with a problem and naturally we want to fix it. [00.25.00] All right now, do we need to write a check? What do you need? But just to take that moment to just let that burden weigh on both of us.
TERRYL: And that’s exactly right. And you know my mother never once interfered in my marriage. She’s not an interfering type. But she did come to me one time she said, “you know I’ve got a book here that I think might change things for you”. And it wasn’t there wasn’t an LDS book it was this book that was really popular back in the 80’s/90’s. I think it was called “Men are from Mars, Women Are From Venus”. But what I learned [00.25.30] from that and I think one of the main messages of that book was, men you gotta stop trying to fix everything. When people come to you complaining about her are a pain. They’re not asking you to fix it. They’re asking you to feel with them there. And so you know today it’s not popular it’s not kosher any longer right to make gender distinctions of that nature. But I think there is a great deal of truth to that that women tend to be intuitively more empathic. Men want to be the Superman on the scene fixing everything. And nowhere can [00.26.00] that be more catastrophic than as a bishop who thinks that that’s what he’s been asked to do rather than to use in many cases be a good listener.
LS: Is there any specific advice you give to be more empathetic or is that that’s something that each bishop or leader has to discover on their own?
TERRYL: You know I was at a ward party one time where we had a game that we used as a kind of mixer. And you started with five bobby pins on your lapel and then you had to engage everybody in the room. And every time [00.26.30] you used the word “I” you had to give up one of your bobby pins and it was an eye opening life changing experience for me because I learned that most of us can’t go three minutes without using the word “I” a dozen times. You always want to bring everything back to me/to my answer. “Yeah I know. Yeah I had an experience like that!” And that’s not listening. That’s what they call thread jacking. You’re thread jacking the conversation. [00.27.00] And so I think I think the best way to avoid that tendency to fix and impose yourself is to just to just shut up and listen, and stop trying to relate it to your frame of reference and your experience.
LS: Many times I’ve articulated the the different purposes of the rooms of a typical LDS Chapel and obviously the purpose of the chapel is so obvious you know that the sacred sacrament that’s administered there. But I always drew attention to the sacredness of that Bishop’s office that anybody is invited to [00.27.30] come in and you can say whatever you want. I tell people you can swear at me if you want. You can scream and yell and talk about how life is unfair. But rather than classifying it as the fix room the tool shed, it is more of a place you can come we close the door and there’s no rules you can articulate anything you want and I’m going to be there at your right hand and feel that with you. And I think that’s a powerful message is that the message of empathy.
TERRYL: And I think this segues really nicely into the other topic [00.28.00] he raised a few minutes ago about faith crisis or faith challenges. I know that I have felt a radical shift in the mood of a conversation when I validate somebodies doubts and fears and uncertainties in ways that they didn’t anticipate. And I think this is the direction in which Elder Ballard is trying to shift church leadership. And I think he’s done it very emphatically and explicitly in his address last year to the CES. Maybe it’s been two [00.28.30] years now. And in subsequent addresses where my favorite line from Elder Ballards talk is this he said, ” Leaders a testimony is not an answer to a question”. So what he’s saying is again he’s saying listen, listen to the question and don’t interject yourself with your own faith position. And I think people just want to be validated in what in many cases are absolutely legitimate perplexities and uncertainties about [00.29.00] our own faith tradition, our history the way we’ve been telling our story, apparent contradictions and incongruity with historical record or with a scientific or validate rather than solve them.
LS: I mean validation is definitely on the road to empathy. There’s nothing more empathetic than saying, “you know what you’re feeling is completely normal”, or like, “I understand what what you’re articulating here”, and you know and so the sort of plays [00.29.30] and hand with empathy is that step of validation.
TERRYL: Yeah. Yeah. And then I think at least in my experience more fruitful and productive often than trying to answer the question as to interrogate the question itself. I remember my earliest experience that I can remember in which I was asked to engage a person in a moment of faith crisis. She was a missionary. She was about to leave about to finish her mission. And she’d made the decision she was going to leave the church and the mission president gave her permission to come [00.30.00] over to my home and speak with me because I guess he knew my writings he thought I might be a person with relevant background to help. And we talked and went back and forth for quite a while. But the moment of radical change occurred when it finally dawned on me to ask this question she was disturbed by something. That’s it. Yeah nice, I don’t know what it was, let’s say it was did Joseph Smith really, you know marry somebody without telling Emma? Or did he really marry a 14 year old girl? And I remember [00.30.30] I turned to her and I said, I asked, the question why does that matter to you? What’s at stake in that question? And I remember she just stopped and she thought for a minute and then she said I’m not sure. And it’s like she realized that yeah there’s something inherently disturbing or concerning about her question but is that relevant to the question of whether Temple Ordinances are valid? Whether we really lived in a pre-existence world? Or whether the priesthood [00.31.00] power is real and efficacious? And she suddenly realized that there might be a disconnect between her preoccupation with this question and the real grounds of her faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. And so I think that that’s where most often we need to go in these kinds of conversations as well is this question meaningful? Is it really relevant? Is it full of false assumptions that either contextualize it or condition it? So [00.31.30] we need to do a better job I think of the way in which we try to reframe and guide questions we ask. Joseph Smith got somewhere because he was asking the right questions in his visit to the sacred grove and subsequently and that’s what Joseph, learned he learned the art of asking the right question. It is going to be productive. I remember another experience with a lovely wonderful man and his family in Europe and he too was considering leaving the church. We went back and forth for two days. I was with him and it finally came to me [00.32.00] to ask the last question I asked before we separated was. I said “ Do you believe that at this moment in your life you have all the resources necessary to conduct yourself and your family back to the presence of heavenly father? Do you believe you have the priesthood power and keys the temple ordinances the scriptural resources the correct principles and teachings to do that?” And he said “yes I do.” And I said “What’s the problem? Why does the rest of this matter? [00.32.30] How can anything compare with that, insignificance?” and I left him with that thought. Last I talked with him he was he was solidly rooted in the church.
LS: You know that and I think there’s a nuance in that question of yours. You are asking that from a point of view like it doesn’t matter so why does it matter? You are asking a truly, helping them discover why are you even asking this question? You know and if it is true does it matter?
TERRYL: Are you allowing yourself to be distracted by what Jesus [00.33.00] referred to as the lesser matters, the less weighty matters.
LS: And so you know talking in the context of individuals in the midst of a faith crisis is sort of the popular term. I don’t know if it is the most appropriate term but showing that validation. And I think the showing them that validation and helping guide them through questions right, rather than just the fix it mentality that’s sort of the place to start with these these situations. I know that many bishops out there are leaders when they’re [00.33.30] faced with this. They kind of feel like it’s there, again back to the fix it mentality, but it’s their job to make sure that this doesn’t get worse and so it turns into this discouragement of certain resources, don’t read those books. You know those are anti mormon or don’t do that. How do we sincerely have faith in their own journey of faith without trying to influence or shoehorn them into a certain way of thinking?
TERRYL: I think I think one way is is we need to have more frank acknowledgement of our own limitations. I think again going [00.34.00] back to Elder Ballard he’s repeated this theme in recent months. He said to leaders of the church he has said “I myself when I don’t know the answer to question, I go to somebody who does to a scholar or a historian who’s better versed in this questions” so I think there’s nothing wrong with a bishop or anyone else saying you know, I really don’t know why there are four different accounts of the first vision. Let’s find somebody who does know and acknowledge that it’s a good question and just direct towards a reputable line of inquiry and good sources. So, it’s not so [00.34.30] much that you know you know one Seventy said at a general conference a few years ago “If are reading things on the Internet that disturbed you, then stop reading the internet.” I think that’s bad advice, that’s wrong. In fact I had a call afterwards from Laurie Goodstein the New York Times religion reporter and she said “Can you explain to me the contradictions I’m hearing from the tabernacle. She said I’m hearing some of the apostles who are saying “Doubts are understandable, come to us even in the midst of your doubts and these are these are natural experiences [00.35.00] to go through.” And I’m hearing others say no shut shut those sources off don’t listen to them. And so the message isn’t always uniform but there is a growing I think chorus of voices coming from the leadership that are saying “No we don’t want to shut down intellectual inquiry. The Internet is not the enemy. Historians aren’t evil demons. There are legitimate complications and contradictions that we need to work through.” And so I think a frank acknowledgement of that that yeah, we haven’t always got our history right yeah, that we have [00.35.30] been inaccurate in the way that we have told our story. But boy aren’t we doing a better job now? Look at the Gospel Doctrine web pages, look at the Joseph Smith papers project. Look at the new four volume history of the church that’s about to be released. We clearly have entered into a phase of maturity and honesty and transparency and so you know, let’s give ourselves a little bit of credit that we have repented and redressed some of the errors in the ways that we have narrated or our history in the past.
LS: You know it’s interesting and I don’t know if this is more the culture of the church or not but we [00.36.00] tend to celebrate somebody doubting their belief and coming into our church but we condemn somebody doubting their faith and leaving the church, right. When both are a sincere desire for what they want to call truth.
TERRYL: Yeah and there’s been a lot of controversy more than I would like to have seen engendered even within the church about the value or meaning of that word doubt. Right, yet some church writers who were I think trying to re-criminalize doubt and suggest that doubt means faithlessness, and doubt is contrary to this. You [00.36.30] know Hugh B. Brown one of the greatest leaders of the modern dispensation said “We all have to serve serve an apprenticeship in doubt on the way to discipleship” and you know as to whether doubt and faith can coexist will of course they can coexist. The savior himself encounters a man who says to him I believe help tho my unbelief. What’s that? If not the coexistence of faith and uncertainty. So you know, I want to emphasize because I think [00.37.00] I’m misquoted sometimes and I think I’m mischaracterized at times as celebrating doubt. Well, I celebrate doubt as a phase on the path to something better and richer. I don’t for a moment think that we want to inculcate an attitude of doubt that that’s a condition that we want to attain to and hold onto. But it’s like it could be likened to a sprained ankle, right? It’s a pain that alerts us to certain dangers that lie ahead if we don’t deal with it. [00.37.30] And so I want to see doubt is a catalyst to further inquiry and examination and search so that we attain to a level of understanding that is healthy. Now I want to make one other point here too, and that is that some people are never going to leave that condition of doubt and sometimes they’re going to need to learn to just deal with that. One of the more dramatic experiences that taught me something about this was, I was in Australia at a Joseph Smith commemorative conference and a woman [00.38.00] approached me during a break and she was visibly shaken visibly disturbed in my recollection she grabbed me by the lapels and pushed me into the corner. I don’t think she really did that. But the intensity.
LS: Yeah, it felt that way.
TERRYL: It felt that way, and she said I’ve served as a relief society president, I am a temple Mormon, I’m a committed lifelong saint, she said “But I’ve read things that suddenly leave me wondering and doubtful” and then the question came. She looked into my eyes and she said “I need to hear from you. Do you know. [00.38.30] Do you know these things are true.” And I said to her “I don’t. I believe these things are true”, and it’s been my experience that people who are more inclined to a life of intellectual engagement, scholarship academics intellectuals tend not to have the gift of knowledge of spiritual things. D&C tells us that to some is given to know and to others is given to believe. [00.39.00] I think I’m one of those who doesn’t have that gift of knowledge but I’m content to believe and to affirm as an act of faith. And at that moment she relaxed and she realized oh I’m not deficient I’m not in-adequate. I’m not guilty of some sin because I’m not able to say I know and it’s okay to be a disciple who just believes. I think for many of us that’s the position we’re called to occupy is one of faithful [00.39.30] trust, rather than certain knowledge.
LS: I love and I don’t know if you are familiar with the book the sin of certainty? I recently read that a few months ago. He is not an LDS author. I think he’s Presbyterian pastor of some type but as I read that there’s so much to learn about the Mormon experience and the Mormon culture because every month we have a meeting where it is culturally approved and normal stand up and use I know and then fill in the blank. I know, I know, I know, right. [00.40.00] And sometimes when we get away from that it’s almost as if the goal is not sanctification the goal is not ordnances the goal is not trusting in God, the goal is to be able to stand up and say I know right. And in my experience at that part of our culture can sometimes limit us in our religious experience. What are your thoughts on that?
TERRYL: We’ve created a culture of certainty and that has terribly pernicious effects on many many saints who feel marginalized and ostracized because [00.40.30] they can’t use those words. I personally don’t believe in that in-certainty is a sin. I think that one of the unique exceptional characteristics of the restoration is the promise of certainty that can be attained by many, right. Joseph Smith felt actual resurrected hands on his head. Elevin people hefted gold plates right, that restoration is rooted in this section 93 right that most beautiful of [00.41.00] all promises right it shall come to pass that all those who forsake their sins and come unto me. Right. Can literally see me and know that I am the witness of the second comforter. So Latter day Saints theology is full of promises of the possibility of certainty. But again going back to that promise and Doctrine and Covenants where it enumerates the spiritual gifts. That’s not everybody’s gift. So the sin is to claim certainty when we don’t feel it. Or to pressure others to express certainty when they don’t feel it. So we need [00.41.30] to have the kind of church in which some people can stand up like Elder McConkie and say I know. And when we hear that testimony the spirit witnesses to us yet that person really does know, and then the person who follows them has to be able to stand up and say, I believe these things and there’s just as much room in the congregation for her.
LS: Yeah it’s powerful and you know going back to that experience you told about the Relief Society President who wants to know if you know right. And I think a [00.42.00] lot of leaders in the church feel like, well you know they hear Elder McConkie that the famous conference time before his death word gives such a powerful I know testimony, we feel like I’m sort of the local Elder McConkie and so I have to be able to say I know. I’m the bishop I have to be at some level of certainty and so they may force it a little or they feel shame when they feel like I just, I believe. You know I’m not faltering in my beliefs of the of the gospel, but when I stand in front the congregation I have to use these words. [00.42.30] What encouragement you give to somebody thinking that?
TERRYL: I would say if you look to the Scriptures the two most powerful testimonies that I have encountered in scripture are not the Elder McConkie variety. Variety the sister that follows Elder McConkie in my example. You’ve got Nephi he’s asked by the angel are you do understanding this? Are you getting this. And he says “I know the Lord loveth his children but I don’t understand the meaning of all things” or the man in the temple in the New Testament who is pressed by the Jewish leaders right to help [00.43.00] them indict Christ. And he expresses a beautiful testimony when he says I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is I was blind and now I see. And I think those are given to us in part at least as examples of the principle that you testify of what you know and you don’t testify of what you don’t. And I can think a few things that would be more inspirational to a large constituency in every ward and for bishops to feel that in their weakness and vulnerability. [00.43.30] It’s a true reflection of their spiritual status. They can stand up and say I don’t know, I’m serving as bishop because I love the Lord. I’m willing to put my faith and trust on the altar. But, I’ve had no experience that gives me that certain conviction toward which I still yearn and hope one day to achieve it,
LS: Because that really shows that the bishop is he’s on his own path.It’s not that he’s arrived. And I love that the way you articulate that because not only does it give leaders permission to say I know and that [00.44.00] it’s OK to say I know and there’s some people that you know have that witness but it’s also OK from even earlier examples you give to say in the bishop’s office as the bishop, I don’t know. But let’s see what we can discover together. Let’s see what we can find right. Rather than defaulting to Elder Ballard has it discourages from just saying well I’m just, I’m going to drop back with my testimony and fire and that spirit world will change their mind, right before me. Right. But we have to let the things unfold naturally.
TERRYL: Yeah. Latter-Day Saints scriptures. [00.44.30] I love the fact that they that they always appeal to the heart and the mind right, by the heart and the mind I’ll tell you and your heart and in your mind. So the Lord is saying, no I gave you a brain to use. Faith doesn’t occur in the absence of reason that has to find consistency with the mind. Sometimes one or the other is going to dominate.
LS: What, shifting a little bit from the context of the Bishop to just a general Sunday School lesson. You know, I live in Woods Cross Utah, fantastic Ward. Really enjoy it. The very traditional Utah ward [00.45.00] obviously very conservative. There’s nothing set in Sunday school. I don’t necessarily disagree with but sometimes I just sit there and wrestle inside myself that I wish there could be a deeper discussion but there’s no other outside perspectives or opinions and so then I wonder I wonder if there’s anybody in here that does have a different opinion or or feels a bit alienated because it seems like the whole room is agreeing on this point. How can leaders go about changing the culture of a classroom? So that again, not that we bring in you know anti mormon literature and say well [00.45.30] what do you think about this. You know but just so there’s more open dialogue because I think that leads a deeper faith experience and further on the path of the road to sink in.
TERRYL: I’ll answer that a couple of ways. First of all I’ll ask you a question. As a bishop who do you think, to what position is the bishop supposed to appoint the most talented spiritually powerful individual in the ward? What would you say?
LS: That the bishop is supposed to be that person?
TERRYL: No, after the bishop or even [00.46.00] in view of the Bishop what calling should that person have in the ward?
LS: Right, now this is a great question. Which I’ve talked about on leading LDS before but I would say in my opinion this is, I remember early on in the church in the 50s and 60s the Sunday school superintendent as I used to call it was this calling they held up. That like ah you’re the Sunday school superintendent. Which is now a Sunday school president, in my mind if you can get the Sunday school president right, then it solves a lot of problems in that Sunday experience.
TERRYL: I would say it and I think typically you’d say well the Elders Quorum president, or your [00.46.30] counselor, or the Relief Society President if it’s a woman. And I say no, it’s the Sunday school teacher, the Gospel Doctrine teacher. Because here’s here’s the point. No other person is a constant in the weekly Sabbath experience of the majority of adults. Relief Society President may or may not be, Elders Quorum President may or may not be. But if you go to Sunday school that is the staple that’s that’s the constant. And so I don’t think any calling in the ward is more important than the Sunday school teacher. [00.47.00] And I think that’s where we’re falling down because we think of some school teaching. Oh well you know she needs to grow or he needs to experience it. And it’s no, you’ve got to call the most talented individual and then the second thing is that you’ve got to inculcate in the Sunday School Teacher. I think the fact we’ve got to ask genuine questions and that’s what’s wrong with Sunday School teacher. You know a lot of people leave the church over polygamy, a lot leave over the priesthood ban, or LGBT issues. But you know it’s entirely possible that the majority people leaving are falling into inactivity or leaving because boredom. [00.47.30] It’s bordem because the Sunday School has become a ritual. Yeah. “What is tithing?”, somebody raised their hand “Ten percent of earnings.” “That’s right.” “Why do we pay tithing?” “Well because we’re blessed.” “Yeah right.”
LS: So superficial
TERRYL: Right, ask real questions. It isn’t that hard. Some bishops are also, you know a traveled around the world talking to people giving firesides. And we found a number of Stake Presidents and Bishops alike who have taken the initiative to address this problem more innovative ways. [00.48.00] They have created other kinds of Sunday school classes where they systematically work their way through the Gospel topics for example and they rotate in and out so that everybody has an opportunity to do something that’s a little bit outside the kind of rote routine of normal summer school classes. But we’re in crisis, we’re in crisis with our Sunday school classes. No question.
LS: And I think the first step to that of bishops listening, or that you know look at your first counselors he’s the most able body or the Relief Society President and put [00.48.30] them as a teacher. And it can really transform some things. Well this has been fantastic. Any points or perspectives we’re missing on this topic that need to be said before we the in The crisis in crises of faith of, of that faith experience.
TERRYL: Maybe, one other observation I’d make and that is I still see a lot of resistance among the laity, as well as among some local leadership to the idea of addressing these questions head on. [00.49.00] And I can remember one really dramatic encounter in England where we were shut down in the middle of a workshop, and the area authority and CES supervisor just shut us down he was like I don’t like this and I don’t like these questions I don’t think this is productive. And you don’t have my blessing to continue this meeting. So yeah it was pretty rude. Well so we continued we had a whole series of fireside schedule throughout the country and at the very end I think we [00.49.30] were in Newark, huge fire side. Hundreds and hundreds of people there and we had heard this brother was going to come and preside but he was late. He got stuck in traffic. He shows up at the very very end. And after we had finished he stood up to conclude the meeting and he bore his testimony that the restoration began because people, Joseph Smith asked good questions. We thought well this is a little bit different, then after the meeting he took us aside and he apologized. And he said I shut that meeting down because [00.50.00] I was uncomfortable with the questions. He said and I realized afterwards that that we can’t avoid these questions they arise. They come to us and the best thing to do is to take the bull by the horns and and faithfully work our way through them. And he said so. I want you to know you have my blessing to continue what we’re doing. And so I think that when you inoculate a population, people die. Right. Even today if you inoculate for smallpox and one out of, I don’t know, a thousand [00.50.30] one out of ten thousand is going to die. And so it is true that some people, for example, I was at a fireside with Richard Bushman in which a man said in a, in a rather snide way, he said I want to thank Brother Bushmin for writing his book Rough Stone Rolling because it helped me leave the church. Well you know he died from the inoculation. Yeah but the vast majority are strengthened and made more resilient. So I would just hope that as local leaders and others we could see that yeah there’s going to be some people [00.51.00] who were hurt wounded souls that are that happened along the way but that the overall strength of the church is going to be greatly enhanced, we’re all going to be fortified if we learn to ask questions with faithfulness and courage.
LS: Fantastic, as we wrap up here a few more questions. One of my favorite questions you asked during your interviews on conversations with Terryl Givens podcast is you ask about their Holy Envy of a different faith tradition that [00.51.30] practice sir or something and in that context. That that you really envy about that experience what’s the Holy Envy that comes to mind for you?
TERRYL: I think I have Holy Envy of those faith traditions in which art and literature are seen as sacred vehicles. And, I know that one reason why I so loved President Kimball was because of words he spoke in my hearing once when he said when God didn’t have prophets he spoke to poets [00.52.00] and musicians and so, I envy the Catholic Church because of the place that great art great music and great literature have in that tradition and in Fiona’s and in my own life our spiritual life would be so much more impoverished than it is if we didn’t feel the freedom and the necessity to gather as Joseph encouraged us, the great precious truths and insights from wherever they come whatever tradition they come. So that’s that’s my wish is that as [00.52.30] Latter-Day Saints we can be less afraid less prejudiced against what we see as an apostate non mormon Christendom and open ourselves up to the riches of other traditions and make them a part of our own.
LS: Love that, before I ask my final question. What if people want to learn more about you about the podcast, about the books you’ve written, Where would you send them?
TERRYL: Well I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m going to be resistant to the end I’ll be the last man standing. But I, the university does ask us to have web [00.53.00] pages so I do have a Web page and through that Web page you can link to many of my podcasts articles and books and that’s Terrylgivens.com.
LS: And I feel ashamed, I haven’t even mentioned some of these recent titles of your books. You know “A Guy Who Weeps” your recent one,
TERRYL: “The Christ Who Heals” with Fionna Givens
LS: And obviously you can find those at any Deseret Book and they’re good page turners and maybe turn back a few pages to think about things and reread it and so forth. So well [00.53.30] the final question the, traditional question I ask is, as you look back on your experience as a leader in the church, as a bishop, what did that experience of leadership teach you about being a disciple or follower of Jesus Christ?
TERRYL: The most transformative moments in my years as Bishop was one day I was sitting on the stand, thinking about some of the hurting families and individuals in the congregation and I began to go through the congregation face by face by face and asking [00.54.00] myself the question who’s in a good place who is solid and strong and cruising along? And I realized there wasn’t one single individual in that congregation who wasn’t carrying a cross. And I think one of the Apostles has said recently when you encounter a stranger assume that they’re carrying a burden and more than half the time you’ll be right. And so I think that the real essence of discipleship is that recognition that we are all wounded, that we are all hurting, and that there [00.54.30] isn’t anybody whose life you can’t make better by a shared concern for what they’re going through at this moment in their lives. That’s what I learned.