Title: The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saved Us
Author: Fiona and Terryl GIvens
Publisher: Deseret Book
Genre: Religious Non-Fiction
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages:158
Reviewed by Kevin Folkman for the Association for Mormon Letters
Joseph Smith, Jr. must have been shocked in many ways as his simple prayer in the grove was answered. Certainly, he was not expecting our Heavenly Father and His son, Jesus Christ, to appear and answer in person. The second shock had to be the answer itself, that he should join none of the churches of his time, for their creeds were an abomination, and they had grown far from our Father. Concepts such as the depravity of mankind, Trinitarian doctrines, and an unknowable and passionless God had replaced many of what the Book of Mormon calls “the plain and precious parts” of the gospel.
As Joseph was instructed over the intervening years, these characteristics of the original church were reintroduced to him. This restoration of primitive Christianity then became the primary missionary message of the restored gospel in its early years. The true knowledge of God and the very nature of our own existence and relationship to Jesus Christ was again being taught to women and men on earth. This restoration of the foundation built by Christ and his apostles during his earthly ministry was indeed good news to many who heard the missionaries’ message. [fn1]
Fiona and Terryl Givens, in The Christ who Heals, their third book for Deseret Book, relate how the original message of Christ’s mortal ministry was changed and lost over the centuries following Christ’s death and resurrection. The Givens use their considerable knowledge of theology, the history of Christianity, and teachings of the early church fathers to show how Christianity departed from that message over time. Many of these doctrines persisted in the Eastern Church traditions through teachers including Irenaeus and Origen. Such basic elements as the knowledge of the pre-existence, the Fall as a fortunate choice, and our divine potential, slowly gave way to a theology of humankind as depraved creations of a jealous God whose only interest was in basking in our worship of him. Christianity began to teach of a God who is distant and unknowable to mortals incapable of understanding why we even call him Father.
Most significantly, Joseph Smith restored an understanding of Christ’s role in this fortunate fall as a healer whose primary concern is healing us from the wounds of mortality. Sin is a byproduct of that mortality and not a baseline precondition. As the Givens write in their introduction, “…if the Restoration recuperates nothing truly revolutionary, crucially different…about Jesus the Christ, then the entire enterprise adds little more than some marginalia and footnotes to the Christian plan of salvation.” [p3]
The Givens have divided their book into two parts, the first reviewing the history and impact of the changes in doctrine that preceded the Reformation, and the second about what the restored understanding of Christ as healer means for us as individuals and families. The review of the prehistory of the restoration is important, they point out, because “we Latter Day Saints are still too reliant upon the assumptions, the implications, and especially the language that generations of well-intentioned but misguided theologians and Reformers alike introduced into the domain of religious thought.” [p3]
Chapters are devoted to covenants, the characteristics of God, the Fall, agency, and sin. In each chapter, examples are given of how these concepts were taught in the primitive church, and the implications of changes in these doctrines. In discussing sin, for example, the authors point out that “only one consequence of partaking of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was indicated by God to Adam—and it was death.” [p37] But the reformers, including Martin Luther, were influenced by the introduction of original sin in the Western Christian tradition. Luther writes “Man is…not merely a sinner, but sin itself…your works are found to be all evil…there is not an atom of virtue in you.” [p39] The Church of England in the 14th century proclaimed that we deserve God’s wrath and condemnation, and that our efforts to perform good works “have the nature of sin.” [p40]
This disavowal of our divine nature, the Givens write, has caused many Latter Day Saints to “have drunk so deeply at the Augustinian and Reformation fountains that we are often incapable of either perceiving or savoring the role Christ desires to play in our lives,” [p40] The role that Christ desires to perform for us then makes up the greater half of the book. We are taught about Christ as selfless, wishing to adopt us into God’s eternal family through the Atonement, a sacrifice that emphasizes our own role in the process of healing from the wounds of mortality. We are reminded of our divine heritage as children of Heavenly Parents. As Brigham Young points out, referring to Paul’s statement that the natural man is an enemy to God, “The natural man is of God. We are the natural sons and daughters of our natural parents, and spiritually we are the natural children of the Father of Light…Man [is] the noblest work of God…it was never designed that he should naturally love and do evil.”
When we are taught of our divine heritage and innate potential for eternal life and exaltation, it becomes easier for us to accept the Atonement, and understand its infinite and eternal power. In a final chapter, the Givens focus on the Christ who saves, not by averting the vengeance of a wrathful God, but by the all-encompassing power of the Atonement to potentially bring about the salvation of all our Heavenly Parents’ family. In particular, those who have children who have wandered from the Restored Gospel can anchor their hope in Him for their return through the invitation and pull of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Our temple sealings have power, but cannot rob any of God’s children of their agency. “Clearly, this leaves us in a bit of a quandary,” the Givens write. “We believe in a real, literal heaven…and that families can continue forever. Heaven isn’t a place we enjoy with other people; heaven is eternal companionship with other people.” [p106] How, then, do we resolve this false dichotomy of a stern schoolmaster God who gives few A’s, or the “saccharine-steeped schoolmarm” who gives everyone an A?
This is a false choice, the Givens explain. Instead, we are given a third way of a patient master teacher “devoted to his students, [who] remains with us, staying after class for extra lessons, giving us individuated attention, practicing sums again and again, late into the night, for as long as it takes—until we master the material.” [p108] Christ is not willing “that any should perish,” he has “graven thee on the palms of my hands,” and is the healer who promises “I will never leave thee, or forsake thee.”
This understanding of an infinite and eternal Atonement that is precisely infinite and eternal has the potential for providing answers to many questions, some of which we are not yet even capable of articulating. It even opens doors that some of our past leaders declared closed to humankind. In a startling enunciation, the Givens openly express that such an Atonement, administered by a loving and healing Christ, expands our understanding of progression in the eternities, to include perhaps even progression from lower to higher kingdoms in the afterlife. Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie, and Spencer W. Kimball all felt that final judgment meant an ending to progression. The Givens don’t take a definite position on this topic, but instead point out that scriptural language and pronouncements by Joseph Smith, James A. Talmage, and others, did not preclude this expanded understanding of progression.
In lesser hands, such speculative theology might come across as simplistic, a product of wishful thinking and incomplete understanding. The strength of Fiona and Terryl Givens’ position on the theology of Christ and his Atonement comes from their encyclopedic knowledge of Christian theology and history. Additionally, that complex understanding is communicated through their clear and easily accessible writing style, giving insights about the most important knowledge we may ever gain in this life.
In 2011, Sheri Dew, President of Deseret Book, had responded to Terryl Givens’ public criticism of Deseret Book for not publishing more rigorous works on LDS thought and theology. She offered to print such a book if the Givens wrote it. Happily, this is the third entry written for Deseret Book by the husband and wife team from Virginia. It continues in the same vein as their earlier works, “The God who Weeps” and “The Crucible of Doubt.” The publication of “The God who Weeps” prompted the Salt Lake Tribune to write that it had produced “…ripples of excitement throughout the Mormon intellectual community.” [fn2] Those ripples of excitement ought not to be limited to just “Mormon intellectuals,” whatever that means. This book not only delivers that intellectual depth, but in a manner that can be understood by LDS church members of all persuasions, education, and background.
This reviewer hopes that the Givens continue to write for Deseret Book, but also that the Church’s signature publisher offers that opportunity to other gifted writers and academics who have much to teach us. Based on the importance of the subject matter, there should be plenty of space on Deseret Book store shelves, and ultimately in LDS church members’ homes, for such works.
[fn1] Jan Shipps, “Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition,” University of Illinois Press, 1987
[fn2] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “New Book mines Mormonism’s Theogical Gems,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 30, 2012, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=55141238&itype=CMSID, accessed November 12, 2017.