I got to meet the Givens at the Northstar conference this past year, where they discussed a lot of the concepts in this book, so I kind of got a sneak peak at a the book. The Givens are master teachers of the gospel. They beautifully weave together doctrines of the Restoration together with historical context. I have read most of the other books they have published including “Feeding the Flock”, “The God Who Weeps”, “The Crucible of Doubt”, and “Wrestling with the Angel.” I didn’t know they were publishing a new book until I listened to the LDS Perspectives interview with Fiona Givens where she introduced her new book (listen to it here!).
This is most beautiful and stunning book on Jesus Christ that I have ever read. The Givens speak and teach with such clarity, resolving so many of the uncertainties and inconsistencies I have often felt in the gospel. Please, take the time to read this book.
The book starts with the premise that even we as members of the Church haven’t fully divested ourselves of the “traditions of our Fathers.” We have inherited a vocabulary of Christ, the Atonement, judgment, and salvation from Catholic and Protestant ancestors. Even with the Restoration of the gospel, some philosophies of men have still seeped through. The first half of the book is dedicated to documenting step-by-step what was lost in 2000 years of Christian history. They clarify that the Restoration was not about fixing small errors in doctrine, but restoring the cosmic context of the gospel:
The loss of the larger cosmic context was compounded by failing to see the Fall as a necessary and premeditated immersion of humankind into the crucible of experience, suffering, and schooling in the practice of love. The loss was not about baptizing at the wrong age or in the wrong medium. It was about not knowing that baptism makes us—all of us eventually—literally members of Christ’s family and co-heirs with him as planned in premortal councils. What is at stake is not simple difference in standards of sexual practice or marriage’s purpose per se. It is about failing to see the family structure as a divine mode of eternal association that is at the very heart of heaven itself. In sum, the “Restoration” is not about correcting particular doctrines or practices as much as it is about restoring their cosmic context. Consequently, Mormon emphasis on proper priestly administrators is not about authority for authority’s sake. It is about officiators who understand the contextual origins of that authority and the purposes for which priestly authority is to be used. It is about the performance of those sacred sacraments under God’s immediate direction, according to God’s original intentions and designs. In Joseph’s understanding, the tragedy that befell Christendom resulted from a critically impoverished account of the everlasting covenant, one that rendered all sacraments and ordinances ineffectual not through wickedness but through lost understanding of their scope and purpose—namely, to constitute the human family into a durable, eternal, heavenly association.
The second half of the book outlines in stunning detail what we know of Jesus Christ in light of the Restoration. This Christ is Christ, the Master Healer. We see how Christ doesn’t come to judge the world, but to save it– to heal us from our woundedness.
Some of the things I found most helpful were, the changing of the paradigm from one of sin to one of healing. This is no case of moral relativity, but one of changing to a more correct paradigm. Sin is evil. But punishment comes not from an angry and wrathful God, but rather as a natural consequence. God seeks to heal our wounds. I liked how the Given’s define heaven as eternal sociality, that a life of service and relationships isn’t just what we do to get to heaven; it IS heaven. We are building heaven here. I liked how the Givens broke the dichotomy between the just and fair God that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked and the God who gives a cheap grace, letting everyone in. God is the teacher who never gives up on us, staying with us, loving us, and working with us until we get it right.
For the unfailing plan initiated in heavenly councils that foresaw a necessary immersion in mortal experience, a Christianity stripped of premortal existence becomes instead a story that is primarily about recuperation, repair, and rehabilitation.
However, with the creedal formulations that stress incomprehensibility, and with the development of an atonement theology that emphasized a suffering Christ satisfying a God of uncompromising justice, the rift only grew. Christ embodies mercy where God is perfect justice; Jesus is all gentleness where the Father is all wrath. Rather than collaborators in the great plan of human happiness, Jesus is cast as our shield and protector against the inflexible demands of a sovereign God.
Christ admonishes us to pick up our cross and to follow him as he labored under the weight of his cross. Like Paul, we all have a heavy load with which we struggle. This is why we are called to a particular type of discipleship—to bear another’s burden requires that we kneel beside that person and feel the weight of her or his cross. That may take us to unfamiliar terrain.
(John Wesley) The grand reason why God is pleased to assist men by men, rather than immediately by himself, is undoubtedly to endear us to each other by these mutual good offices, in order to increase our happiness both in time and eternity. And is it not for the same reason that God is pleased to give his angels charge over us? namely, that he may endear us and them to each other.
On our own self-deception concerning our happiness:
“There is yet another sense in which atonement and healing involve collaboration. Our participation requires trusting submission to the Healer’s hand. That may be the most difficult part of the entire process. A popular tweet reads, “‘Do to others what you would want them to do to you’ is a good rule, but treating people how they themselves want to be treated is better.” That sounds reasonable enough, and one wonders why the Golden Rule wasn’t framed that way to begin with. After all, shouldn’t the act of kindness depend on the other person’s perception of his or her needs or desires? Actually, not necessarily. That would be true if we all knew what actions and conditions were necessary to our happiness, most conducive to our thriving.
That may seem silly or presumptuous. Silly, because of course I know what makes me happy. And presumptuous, because I certainly don’t want you thinking your opinion of what I need is more important than my opinion of what I need. But it is in fact neither silly nor presumptuous to doubt your own opinion about what will make you happy. We are capable of phenomenal feats of rationalization and self-deception.”
C.S. Lewis: It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.
Defining religion: For, if we have recognized ethics, or defined religion, as that which moves us from where we are to where we sense we should and could be as free, self-determining human beings, then it is the duty of our religion to shake us out of our complacency. Indeed, true religion should frustrate our plans, reshape our short-term desires, break our habitual ways of responding to what is instinctual and natural in order to move us in the direction of the self that yearns for what Christ calls the more abundant life.
Witnessing other people’s lives: In a rare film that affirms the good of familial relationships, a woman asks an acquaintance, “Why do you think that people get married?” He says, “Passion.” She says, “No!” He says, “Why then do people get married?” She replies, “Because we need a witness for our lives. There are a billion people on this planet. What does any one life really mean?” In committed relationships, “you are promising to care for one person . . . to care about them in everything: in the good things, in the bad things, in the terrible things, in the mundane things. All the time! Every day! You’re saying, ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I love you and I will notice. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”
Analogy of God as school teacher: God’s reputation has suffered wild pendulum swings throughout Christian history. As we have surveyed, we find the sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath, and we find at the other extreme an indifferent God who will “beat us with a few stripes” and then award us all heavenly bliss.20 To use another analogy, some have seen God as a stern schoolmaster. He sets the standards, we take the test, and few of us pass. Only occasional A’s are handed out, while for most of us, slack and mediocre as we are, a perpetual detention is our destiny.
At the other end of the spectrum, some protest that the only alternative is a saccharine-steeped schoolmarm of a God who indulges her students, pats them sweetly on the head, and gives everyone an A in the end. This is the God of cheap grace, who tells us to eat, drink, and be merry, and expect at most a light caning before we are automatically saved in the end. In fleeing the God of wrath, some have found refuge in this version of the ever-indulgent God.
These options constitute a false dichotomy. We should not think they are the only alternatives. In this book, we are arguing for a third way, because our scriptures and our prophets alike have suggested both views are wrong. We believe our Lord is, rather, the persistently patient master teacher; he is the loving tutor who, devoted to his students, remains with us, staying after class for extra lessons, giving us individualized attention, practicing sums again and again, late into the night, for as long as it takes—until we master the material. And we are transformed in the process by his “long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge.”
Happiness isn’t a zero-sum game: A zero-sum game is one in which there is a fixed number of resources, and one can only acquire more if someone else receives less. Any benefit won by me can only come at a cost to you. Status, for instance, works like that. As the political theorist Francis Fukuyama writes, “One person’s recognition can only come at the expense of the dignity of someone else; status can only be relative. In contests over status, there are no win-win situations.” Happiness is not a zero-sum game, but our telestial instincts lead us to act and think as if it were—as if happiness were just another form of status.
C. S. Lewis: “No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, the clean clothes in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give up.”