Fiona Givens was born in Nairobi, Kenya, educated in British convent schools, and converted to the LDS church in Frankfurt am Main. She earned degrees in French, German, and in European History while co-raising six children. Fiona has worked as a lobbyist, a translator, and as chair of a French language program. She is a frequent speaker on podcasts and at conferences. She now works as an independent scholar, having published in Exponent II, LDS Living, The Journal of Mormon History, and other venues. In addition to co-writing The God Who Weeps (Ensign Peak, 2012), she is the joint author of The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Deseret 2014). She currently resides with her husband and Zoe, a dog that belongs to their son, Andrew, in Montpelier, Virginia.
For those in our audience who are unfamiliar with your work, please share a few words about the purpose of your writing and who you write to.
I am fascinated by comparative theology–where various religious traditions overlap and where they don’t. My starting point is Joseph’s magnanimous view that each faith embraces something of real value. Lamentably, I find that the radically resonant ideas of the gospel as taught by Joseph have sometimes been lost to our tradition. We have been a church that has centered much on its history rather than its theology, and as much of the history is now being debunked, many of us are left dangling precipitously. All history is suspect–not just ours, but our theology, I feel, is richer and more universal than other religions with which I am familiar–except for, perhaps, the Eastern Christian Church. I suppose I think if I can emphasize the God–is–great–mankind–is good fundamental that forms the basis of our tradition, it might help us navigate the treacherous shoals of our history–real and imagined.
What led you to it?
A long, slow process of working with my own crises and transitions as well as those of my children, without whom I would not have engaged in the soul-searching that was necessary for me to start plumbing the depths of Mormon history and theology. For example, my teenage daughter had written an essay for her history class on the Hawn’s Mill Massacre. When she received it back, scrawled across the top was “What about Mountain Meadows?” To experience the earth on which you were standing as solid and then feel it crumble beneath your feet is a terrifying experience.
What project drove you to engage with this topic?
I’m not sure when I stumbled upon the importance of collaboration. Ordain Women was helpful, but the movement did not allow much space for collaboration. To my mind, if, indeed, Zion is to be built then the full and equal co-operation of men and women is vital. In my historical research, I have found that gender hegemonies on either side are not conducive to progress–social, economical, political or religious.
Tell me about your writing process. Is there a ritual, place or time that helps you write regularly and at your best?
I am a spoiled brat writer. I can only write anything worth the writing in an environment I find conducive. Above all, I need solitude and as it takes me an inordinate amount of time. Time to find my groove- I need hours of it. I cannot write well if my mind is cluttered with a to-do list. I have to have time to centre myself. That is likely to happen sooner than later if I have exercised and answered my email before beginning. Done. Which is why I could never have written while raising my children. One is never done. And I can’t multitask.
Good writers are often great readers, who do you admire and what do you read to satisfy your heart and need for pleasure?
Oh! I agree absolutely. I was a voracious reader when younger and I was fortunate to have teachers who encouraged me to read challenging literature. And when I read, I read everything written by that author. I have found, however, that women writers, in particular, appeal to my sensibilities. Dickens writes in broad brushstrokes in vibrant, unforgettable colours. Virginia Woolfe, on the other hand, uses a much more sensitive palatte. For the last year, I have immersed myself in the radically resonant writings of the Greek Church Fathers, whose theological predilections have been vital for the writing of our new book. As for delightful, escape writing, I settle myself comfortably into Louise Penny’s bistro at Three Pines with a croissant oozing with brie and bacon, accompanied by a hot mug of chocolat au lait.
As for the grandchildren–the eight and ten-year-old are delving into the colourfully brilliant world of Roald Dahl and the excitement of “The Chronicles of Prydain.” As for my five and six year-old–their favourites are Julia Donaldson’s books. They love the rhythm of her writing and then we are constantly in search of Richard Scarry’s “gold bug” among the cars and trucks and things that go.
What aspect of writing comes easily to you?
The very beginning when I launch myself into the world of words. And the pouring forth is exhilarating. And most of it is rubbish. I will then step away from the chaos I have typed for a while, and when I return, I am often surprised to find something worthwhile in the detritus. It takes a long time for me to write anything decent. Lots of writing, distancing and returning to excise. Once I open my mouth or put fingers to the computer, I am off and running after every fleeting thought. It’s hard for me to keep up with the frenetic pace. Hence, the need for excision and the herding of my thoughts into something remotely coherent. The whole process is time-consuming, but there is also joy when I stumble upon something worthwhile in the mess.
Who do you imagine reading on the other side of your text as you write?
My writing most often takes the form of conversations with friends. I never imagine an audience, for example. Audiences are too abstract. With friends, one can have lunch.
You have co-authored several books with your husband, Terryl. How has the balance worked in the past, and rolling forward as you lead out more on your own, especially with your beautiful and bold piece on the Divine Feminine and women in the early Church in Dialogue last spring?
Hah! We’re back to the topic of collaboration, which, from personal experience I can attest is not only difficult but miraculous if achieved successfully. Much of our collaboration resembles an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit. We are both strong-willed, opinionated people who are more comfortable with declarative statements rather than nuance. That being said, I can also attest to the joy and power of convivial collaboration–perhaps because it’s so rare. 🙂 As for the Dialogue article, I am expanding it into a manuscript, which I hope will be decent enough to publish.
The books you’ve written with Terryl, The God Who Weeps and The Crucible of Doubt have touched a dear spot with so many Mormons, especially women, they speak to a real need for light, critical thinking, and a humanizing expansion of LDS theology. How have you experienced the rousing welcome and the edgy nature of push and pull of this space?
I too am a woman in quest of all those things. However, I have found it helpful to search further afield to find them. Perhaps the most powerful voice for me personally, has been Julian of Norwich’s “Showings.” It was only after reading them that I felt God’s absolute love for me. Reading Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” helped me understand that faith challenges are universal and are, in the US, primarily based on the destructive power of the Protestant Reformation–in which God is portrayed as wrathful, and vengeful rather than as a collaborator in bringing about our work and glory. Christ becomes our shield against divine anger, and such notions of God contaminate true understanding of His love and role as Christ as mediator.
I’ve been to events where you’ve spoken, and your wondrous and warm personality draws a long line and deep admiration. How have who you are and they way you speak and write opened doors for you to explore and ask questions you may not have been able to do otherwise?
Eve recognized in the fruit three crucial attributes: goodness, beauty, and wisdom. Individually and collectively they are emblematic of truth. I believe that when I am talking about goodness, beauty and wisdom truth enters the conversation. A beautiful space is created to which fear cannot find access.
Your experience, upbringing, and interests offer a unique perspective. What are some of the gems from other traditions you have embraced to illuminate your faith?
I find power in the liturgy and symbolism of the mass as well as echoes of ancient Christianity and Judaism in the incense burned. I love the universalism and specificity uttered in the prayers offered at the end of an Anglican service. I find it ironic that Mormons do not worship on the two most important religious days of the year–Easter and Christmas–and yet many Mormons laugh at those who only attend service on those days. Our family Christmas season begins with the Festival of Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of the University of Richmond, and we have, on a number of occasions, joined with our Presbyterian friends in singing praises to the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday. It is wonderful to worship with others belonging to the Church of the Firstborn.
How do you hold this liminal space, and how do you see it expanding?
Liminal space is sacred space. It is space in which crucial, communal decisions are made. I see this space incorporating multitudes of people of various religious and non-religious traditions making a move towards Zion. I do not believe world peace can be created without the collaboration of all peoples of the earth. I sense the movement in that direction accelerating and directed by the collaborative power of women–emerging out of the wilderness–clear as the moon, fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.
What writing advice do you give yourself when you broach sensitive and tricky topics?
Well, the most sensitive subjects I have treated to date are in the Dialogue article. Declarative statements are not helpful in broaching sensitive topics on which opinions may be wildly divergent. For me, it is important to show that I have done sufficient research and have provided enough evidence that the subject might at least be raised and room given for consideration.
What are you working on right now?
Terryl and I are concluding our third Deseret book entitled The Christ Who Heals. I will be devoting this Summer to expanding the Dialogue article into a manuscript that will, hopefully, emerge as publishable.
Looking forward, what would you like to do creatively that you haven’t yet?
My life has taken the most unusual twists and turns. Had you told me that we would be having this very conversation years ago, I would have thought you were barking mad. It has been my experience that as one project ends another makes itself visible and it’s generally not something I would have considered.
We are so honored to have Fiona Givens with us as our Featured Writer this summer quarter.
Look for her writings this month through August in the Segullah Journal.