Givenses’ newest book challenges prevailing LDS paradigm of Atonement

The newest book by Fiona and Terryl Givens may be the most radical work ever published by LDS-owned Deseret Book.

I’m not using hyperbole. The book, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saves Us, persuasively presents a radical vision of Mormonism that clashes with the dominant culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today — and, not coincidentally, a vision that doesn’t have much in common with traditional Christianity beyond the labels. What the Givenses offer is an expansive vision of what it means for there to be a Christian restoration, a vision of Heavenly Parents who love their children (that’s us) so much that they will spend an eternity if that’s what it takes for us to find our way to them.

Their God is not one of fire and brimstone.

It’s a vision that denies not only original sin, but drastically modifies the prevailing LDS conception of an Atonement based on the penal substitution model, one that says that Jesus suffered and died as a price to be paid to a judgmental God for sin. The Givenses recast the definitions of “sin,” “salvation” and “justice,” among others, painting a picture of humanity that, rather than being in need of rescue from drowning in Adam’s sin, is in need of comfort and healing from the consequences of choices we freely make.

“Appeasing some abstract justice, or propitiating a sovereign God, is not the point,” they write [emphasis theirs]. Instead: “Joseph Smith’s expansive, ennobling innovation was to see our Heavenly Parents’ plan — from the beginning — as being about human elevation rather than remedy, advancement rather than repair, exaltation rather than reclamation.”

The Scriptural references to God’s eternal punishment (what most Christians refer to as hell) of sinful human beings are deliberately ambiguous, the Givenses write: “God’s underlying concern is on the educative transformation of the heart.” The Givenses teach an unapologetic, unvarnished type of universalism — ultimately, God’s highest kingdom is for everyone, and our Heavenly Parents will do everything they can, for as long as it takes, consistent with human free will to bring everyone into their presence. Ultimately, we will be united not just with our families, but also with our “whole web of kin and friends.” The God of the Givenses is one who never shuts the door.

It’s not a cheap grace the Givenses are preaching, however; we all have our choices to make, and doing the right can be difficult, even in our immortality. But ultimately it will be divine love that leads us, of our own free will, back to our Parents.

So why is that so much Mormon thought seem to have a much less optimistic view of humankind? For that, the Givenses place the blame in part on a slew of Christian thinkers — dating back to the first few centuries in the Christian Era and including fairly recent reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther — who helped shape today’s Christianity. Among other things, these thinkers viewed the Fall as a bad thing, denied the preexistence (the doctrine that human spirits existed and communed with God long before birth), felt compelled to describe God in strictly monotheistic terms, saw God as vengeful, and so on. Even within the Church, the Givenses write, some of these perspectives exist today and take people away from the truth.

I found The Christ Who Heals both challenging and inspiring. The book does suffer from some weaknesses, however: In more than one case, the Givenses seemed to be straying from context when suggesting that some earthly church Fathers held distinctive LDS views about Deity, for example. And I would have appreciated knowing how they would address some thorny issues, such as how to interpret the Old Testament, which, if understood as literally as most Mormons understand it, seems to picture a God far different from the one in this book.

And while the Givenses acknowledge that the Church itself, as a fallible institution, adds its own “hammer blows to our innocence,” they don’t have much advice to offer about how to respond to God’s unconditional and infinitive love other than to point out what has worked for them, which is full involvement in LDS life and rituals. But maybe that’s intentional. Just as they worship a God who isn’t afraid to let people make their own decisions, the authors seem to have no desire to condemn others who choose a different path than they have. In some circles, even in the Church, that can be subversive.

My rating: Five stars out of five.

Photo of Latter-day Saint temple in downtown Salt Lake City by John Philip Green/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.

 

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