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Thoughts on Mormons, the Book of Mormon, and “Book of Mormon”

Last Friday I saw the musical “Book of Mormon” at the Bass Concert Hall on the UT campus. Before I say anything about the play, let me give my clear, unambiguous opinion:

If you have the opportunity to see Book of Mormon, see it!!!!

If you can’t, buy the soundtrack instead. More thoughts below.

Qualification for the above advice: I’m predisposed to love this show. First of all, I already love musicals. I was raised on Gilbert and Sullivan since I was a kid. I’ve sung in a chorus for many years. I’ve seen “Phantom of the Opera” live four times. Book of Mormon was written primarily by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame — I like South Park, and loved the movie and its soundtrack especially. And finally, I love blasphemy. If any of these conditions do not apply to you, take that into account when deciding whether you would enjoy the show.

Here’s what I found interesting: In the middle of the program booklet was a huge, four page ad for the Mormon church. It said, “If you’ve seen the play, the book is even better!” Now, I haven’t read much of the Book of Mormon myself, but I’m pretty sure that it isn’t true. Even the play itself has a line where somebody says “I haven’t read it! I tried to but it’s SO boring!!”

But the fact that Mormons were willing to advertise in the playbill brings up an interesting point: What DO Mormons generally think about it? And is this a well-informed opinion, or not? I had heard, going into the show, that Mormons love it as much as non-believers do. That the authors managed to successfully walk the line between good natured ribbing and being genuinely sweet, sympathetic, and honest about the Mormon faith.

Now that I’ve seen the show, all I can say is: If any Mormons really like this show, they must be really liberal Mormons. And also, they are probably overlooking what I see as The Point at the end of the story. They’d have to be liberal because the show is totally obscene — very much on par with Stone and Parker’s other works, like the South Park movie and Team America. It has LOTS of bad words. It has massive sexual innuendo. In some cases it has actual rape jokes — although, as other before me have noted, there are ways to make rape jokes successfully, and IMHO this show pulls it off. I just don’t see a Mitt Romney or an Orson Scott Card having a sense of humor about this, at all. So I think that knocks a lot of Mormons out of the running right away. It isn’t even because they’re Mormon. I can’t imagine Bill Donohue, professional Catholic fussbudget, enjoying it either.

I’m going to sum up the story in a nutshell, but I’m going to stay away from details as much as I can so as not to spoil the enjoyment for people who haven’t seen it yet. However, I expect that the comments will wind up containing complete unmarked spoilers, so here’s your

SPOILER WARNING

in advance: feel free to read this entire post, but don’t read the comments unless you’re okay with hearing the ending.

Not-too-spoilery synopsis

So we have a couple of adorably naive Mormon kids, ready to go on their “mission” — every Mormon teen travels somewhere to witness to people. “Elder Price” is a hardworking school superstar, with a big ego, who believes he will change the world. “Elder Cunningham” is a misfit fat kid who doesn’t understand the material (the “so boring” line is his of course) and also has a habit of making up stories on his own.

The kids draw the short straw and are sent to Uganda. Uganda sucks. It is a comically horrible place to live in all kinds of ways. The superstar is disillusioned and has a breakdown of sorts; the lying screwup is forced to preach a gospel that… let’s say, bears very little resemblance to the real Book of Mormon. But the natives are sold on this new story, so they cheerfully incorporate his version of the religion into their culture.

Along the way, there are a few songs that explain — in a reasonably direct way — the real story told in the Book of Mormon. This is done with kind of a knowing wink about the obvious absurdities of the story. It’s not quite on the same level as the South Park episode about Mormons, in which a chorus sang “Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” after every line, and one character directly says that Mormons must be a bunch of idiots. But it comes from the same place. It’s meant to be laughed at.

By the end, there’s an obvious parallel drawn between the fake version of the story that Elder Cunningham tells, and the fairly fake story about an angel bearing golden plates, that Joseph Smith told in the first place.

End of synopsis

It’s this last bit that I find it hard to believe Mormons don’t find insulting. When I wrote a review of Life of Pi earlier this year, I thought the message of the movie was summed up by the sentiment at the end: “I prefer to believe the story that is more beautiful. And so it goes with God.”

This is kind of what the characters in Book of Mormon believe at the end. But the message in this play is clearly delivered with a more cynical edge. The natives genuinely seem happier and more hopeful because of the religious story they have been told. But the story is clearly, unambiguously, a massive pile of bullshit. Even the few true bits of the story are embellished so much that one of the more savvy Ugandans observes, “Of course Salt Lake City isn’t a real place! It’s a metaphor!”

Which is cute, if you are the sort of person who believes that just having faith in something is enough to make you a better person, and it makes no difference what you believe or how true it is.

But your average Mormon doesn’t think the book should be taken that way… do they? A song that Elder Price sings goes sort of like this:

I Believe! That God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I Believe! That Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I Believe! That the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri!
I am a Mormon,
And a Mormon just believes!

You can see that these beliefs are laid out in a way to emphasize their stupidity. But if you’re a real Mormon, you had better genuinely believe this is true, hadn’t you? Salt Lake City isn’t just a metaphor, and neither is Kolob. If you don’t understand the Book of Mormon as a true story, then it’s no more useful than a story about Ewoks and hobbits.

So I wonder what Mormons are thinking when they say they like this show. I found this one useful article, titled, “What do Mormons think about ‘The Book of Mormon’?

Here are some excerpts from the interviews:

I haven’t seen the play… but it must have done some pretty good things to win a lot of Tony Awards from the experts.”

I haven’t seen it… I’m not upset by it and I’m not in any way, shape or form against it.”

“It’s a good thing for the community and Utah in general. No, I don’t [know what's in the show].”

I don’t know it… I read a review on it… There are certain parts of the world where, if you make fun of their religious beliefs, it would be chaos. But we’re not that way, of course!”

This is all anecdotal, of course, but it kind of sounds to me like the Mormons who claim to like the show, mostly haven’t seen it and don’t want to. Rather, there’s this general sense that reacting to “Book of Mormon” with outrage and protests, would be bad. Probably has something to do with the Streisand Effect — “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” In the case of this show, it’s already been pretty well publicized. But still, the Mormons don’t want to seem like bad sports, so they laugh it off and just roll with it by buying advertisements.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s great. I’m glad that secular backlash against religious finger-wagging is now such a grave threat that they’d rather just remain silent and be good sports about it. I call that progress.

At the end of the day, I think Parker, Stone, and company have come out with an enjoyable and thoroughly blasphemous work of art. It made me laugh, it made me think, and it’s gotten great press. And it did all this while promoting the message that even religion’s successes are nothing more than silly people sitting around telling totally implausible, crazy stories. Kudos to them.

Comments

  1. Reggie Dunlap says

    I think you underestimate the ability of Americans to laugh at themselves. I’ve heard Matt and Trey say many times that conservatives are less offended by a good ribbing than liberals. Being that you are very liberal it would make sense that you would come to that conclusion, though anecdote is hardly evidence.

    • cbrgreg says

      I think a better way of looking at it is that populists are more easily offended than non-populists. There’s a lot of liberal populism out there, but the increasing amount (and shrillness) of conservative populists make the whole liberal/conservative angle moot. Just look at how Fox News treats anything as a “war” on whatever they disbelieve in.

      • Russell Glasser says

        I would hazard a guess that it’s a lot harder to feel offended by issues that you genuinely don’t give a shit about. Like for instance: if you think that people who are poor deserve it because they’re lazy; if you think of the inhabitants of third world countries as sub-human and not worth your concern; if you think that God magically fixes environmental problems before they get out of hand; and if you feel that rape victims were probably asking for it… certainly none of THOSE things would offend you.

        On the other hand, anyone who thinks conservatives are less easily offended, hasn’t heard to Bill O’Reilly rail about Christmas.

    • Stacy says

      Well, Matt and Trey are libertarians who “fucking hate liberals.” I’ll take Confirmation bias for two hundred, Alex.

  2. lancefinney says

    I have the same predispositions, and I loved it. Here’s the content my review tweets after I saw it:

    “The Book of Mormon” – the rare people-pleaser about the evils of Female Genital Mutilation. #FunnyToo

    More fully, “The Book of Mormon” had a strong msg about the importance of people over dogma, creating our Paradise Planet here. #humanism

    I think the focus on working together to make our “Paradise Planet” here on earth as an under-discussed expression of humanism.

  3. annabucci says

    “Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s great. I’m glad that secular backlash against religious finger-wagging is now such a grave threat that they’d rather just remain silent and be good sports about it. I call that progress.”

    I had thought they are good sports about it cause they’re really nice people and they don’t consider things like this to affect their faith. I’m sure they’re the butt of jokes and offensive remarks throughout their lives, considering the status of mormonism in this country. This is opposed to scientology who have a giant chip on their shoulder, and are happy to sue anyone that disparages them.

    I dislike the Machiavellian crap the mormon church does as a collective, but individually mormons are some of the nicest, most polite, sincere people I’ve ever met. A couple of mormon “elders”(aka, teenage boys) had come up to my daughter and I while we were practicing archery in the yard, and they asked us about it and didn’t bring up their religion at all. It was just a nice chat. It was refreshing considering I’m a pagan and usually get the nastier side of christianity.

    • says

      I’m sure they’re the butt of jokes and offensive remarks throughout their lives, considering the status of mormonism in this country.

      You may have a point there. It’s possible that Mormons have simply grown some very thick skin.

    • hoary puccoon says

      Individually, Mormons have been some of the most vicious backstabbers I’ve ever met. But, yeah, they can be really, really sweet to your face.

  4. b. - Order of Lagomorpha says

    Actually, COJCOLDS is not particularly happy with the musical judging by the posts on the Recovery from Mormonism board. As for Mormons being “the nicest, most polite, sincere people I’ve ever met”, Annabucci, I’m glad your experience was a happy one. The folks on the Recovery board discuss what they experience after leaving the church–shunning and/or a constant barrage of “love-bombing”, families disowning their own family members for not believing since contact with an “apostate” is grounds to not get a Temple Recommend (which means they can’t take part in any Temple ceremonies), being told they’re under the influence of Satan or that the only reason they left the church was so they could sin. Like, you know, drink a cup of coffee!!!! Personally, I say coffee’s worth it.

    This is all anecdotal, of course, but it kind of sounds to me like the Mormons who claim to like the show, mostly haven’t seen it and don’t want to.

    Much like the Book of Mormon or the Bible, it’s much easier to swallow it if you haven’t actually seen/read it. ;) I think what the church is hoping is that it’ll make people want to check out the BoM. If people call and request a book, the next thing they’ll get is a pair of missionaries at their door wanting them to take part in “discussions” which then leads to an invite to be baptised. Joy. I’ll stick with Mark Twain’s assessment of the Book of Mormon: “It is chloroform in print.” But I’d love to see the musical.

  5. pensnest says

    I heartily second your recommendation of the show—which, as it happens, I revisited yesterday. I remember being utterly gobsmacked, first time through, to learn what formed the basis of the Book of Mormon. What a load of shameless nonsense! It is taken apart with great panache. I think it’s brilliant, very funny, very pointed (pointing mostly at the Mormon faith, but other things too) and a fantastic blast of high energy performances.

    The very enthusiastic audience (in the West End, London) was packed with Americans, though whether they were Mormons or not I cannot guess.

  6. Russell Glasser says

    Here’s a serious discussion about Book of Mormon on a Mormon blog.

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/09/03/46219/

    This guy has seen it and is qualified to comment about it — and I think his analysis completely supports everything I said in this post. He claims not to have been offended by the content that is about Mormons (good sport!) but very offended by the vulgarity of the play (Bill Donohue!).

    However, the actual reason he is not offended by the digs at Mormonism and at religion in general, is because he strongly denies the validity of the message. Quoting:

    But, as the closing number reminds us, they are all still Latter-day Saints (“Tomorrow is a Latter Day“)—“even if we change some things and break the rules and have complete doubt that God exists.”

    …This not a new idea. Religious intellectuals have long wanted to find a way to get all of the good things about religion (community, purpose, comfort, etc.) without all of the bad things (dogmatism, exclusivity, and the intellectually embarrassing truth claims that we enlightened people don’t like to talk about).

    …But this idea has always been a dead end.

    I think Mike Austin and I both understand the message of the play in the same way. But Mike chooses not to be offended by the message, not because it’s not insulting to the Mormon faith, but because he denies that the analogy is valid. I enjoyed the play because I think that the overarching statement about religion — that it’s just silly stories people tell each other to make themselves feel good — is a solid point that applies as much to the Book of Mormon as it does to the Book of Arnold. Mike thinks the message doesn’t hit home, because it’s vital that you believe the truth of the stories.

  7. rory says

    **SPOILERS-ish**

    I enjoyed seeing the show on Broadway and own the soundtrack, but I came away with a less positive view of the show’s message than Russell did.

    I look particularly at the song ‘Making Things Up Again.’ Elder Cunningham makes up stories to justify the moral behaviors he wants the villagers to accept: raping a baby is wrong because God said anyone who does will be “burned in the fiery pits of Mordor;” female genital mutilation will lead to Boba Fett coming down and turning the perpetrator into a frog. But this isn’t any more moral than telling a kid to behave because Santa Claus is watching. It treats the villagers like children who have to be led to behave in a moral fashion by stories told by the wiser white missionary.

    This is also problematic because it depends on us accepting that Elder Cunningham has a basically decent moral compass. He could just as easily have made up a story to justify human sacrifice, or to make the villagers turn over all their property to him. And we’re still supposed to sympathize with him and with the other missionaries, because although their story is bullshit, it still makes people happy. That just didn’t sit right with me–irrational is irrational, and just because it sometimes produces a happy ending doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the show, but I feel like Parker and Stone like to assume there’s a happy medium of nonjudgmental, feel-good religion between the extremes of fundamentalism and strident atheism, and that tends to rub me the wrong way. The show is still well worth seeing for folks who haven’t yet.

    • Doug Kirk says

      I haven’t seen the musical, but I did hear that song on Pandora. The thing that really struck me about that and should not be forgotten, the guy was going to rape a baby to cure his AIDS. Cunningham told him, rightly, that raping a baby was wrong, but did nothing to dissuage him from the idea that raping something would cure AIDS. He told him straight up that God said raping a frog would cure his AIDS.

      Just hearing that song made me think of Cunningham as an incredibly evil (if naive) person who doomed a whole village to short, disease stricken lives and eventual extinction, and the play was going to be about how horrible the consequences of making things up can be even if you’re not tryiong to be harmful. But I guess the play doesn’t bear that out.

  8. jagwired says

    OT, but my wife and I just watched episode 834 and we would like to request more episodes with Russell and Lynnea. You two are very cute and funny together. Plus you guys get shit done.

  9. had3 says

    Go in with low expectations and it will exceed them. I love South Park, the series & movie, plusTeam America; but this was …eh, the same jokes over again. Then again, I’d heard it was great, so it would have been difficult living up to that billing.

  10. says

    Given the Mormon adherence to the prophet, I suspect the church decided early on how to “react” to The Book of Mormon. Once the word got to the bishops, they probably just stayed on script, “The show is great! It’s a funny way of reaching out, but there’s some crude language, so I wouldn’t recommend any Mormons go.” Before you know it, a carefully constructed reaction seems like an organic one and everybody’s on the same page. The more likely someone is to be offended, the more likely that person is to respect their bishop, so the more likely they are to grin and bear it and pretend they love it.

    As far as I know, no other religious sect of such a size is as on topic as the Mormon Church. These guys have their script and around the world, they follow it. Oct. 20th has the same sermon in Australia as it does in the mythical Salt lake City. So it’s easy to build a “consensus” on something like this.

    And so far as Mormons being the most polite and sincere? My wife is a Formon and can relate some much different stories. Fittingly, the LDS Church is home to a thriving community of con artists. There’s a reason Utah is one of the white collar crime capitols of the world. I find that nearly everybody, even the Southern Baptists, is exceptionally kind and generous and polite when they feel they are representing their religion. When it’s just personal, though, even Mother Theresa or Bishop Mitt Romney or the Dali Lama turns out to be a scheming, power grabbing, and cheating pudwhacker.

    • Russell Glasser says

      I think the racist, imperialist overtones that you mentioned are acknowledged and “lampshaded“/parodied within the show itself. The story of missionaries coming to enlighten the poor backwards natives is a common element of religious fiction, and it is at least partly the motivation of real Mormons and other groups who go to foreign countries to spread the religious messages.

      Various songs contain lyrics making jokes about this imperialism before partly subverting it. One native girl believes that Salt Lake City (or “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” as she calls it) is the name of the Mormon paradise, and she sings that we can all get there “If we follow that white boy.” The troupe of Mormon kids sing a song called “I am Africa” where they boast about how much more African they are than the real Africans. It’s very, very over the top. This is just before they realize they’ve all been duped — the Africans haven’t really accept Mormonism, they’ve accepted “Elder Cunninghamism,” the story with hobbits and Boba Fett.

      This is not to say that the show’s message doesn’t sometimes border on real racism. Lynnea and I were scratching our heads over whether the show is genuinely racist or not, and when I posed the question to Ian Cromwell (who knows the show’s soundtrack very well) he couldn’t come up with a definitive answer, despite the fact that he blogs and speaks about racism all the time.

      • Rebecca Weaver says

        Of course, the musical is racist. You really think two white guys and a Latino-American can write a “comedy” about Black people in Uganda, portraying them as starving, having AIDS, and having to worry about female genital mutilation as “jokes”. . .and not have it be racist? This is a play about two white men. Messed up and misguided men, yes, but still the point-of-view characters and characters who ultimately grow and change. These white men succeed in their effort to convert Africans to their religion, and in so doing, vanquish an evil warlord who was trying to murder people. Strip away the psuedo-satire and you have a play about WHITE, WESTERN RELIGION SOLVING THE PROBLEMS OF AFRICA. This is not “bordering on” racism or imperialism. Racism and imperialism is the fundamental message of the musical, as well as it just being a general apologetic for organized religion. Sure, some of those organized religion’s beliefs are pretty crazy, according to Stone and Parker and Lopez, and yeah the religious can be hypocrites, but all is well that ends well and religion is an overall positive force in society. Matt Stone called his play “an atheist’s love letter to religion,” and that is exactly what it is: an atheist’s love letter to imperialist, racist Western religion.

        Not that I’m in any way surprised. South Park consistently pushes hiply irreverent white supremacist messages, so I expect as much from its creators.

  11. notruescott says

    Mormons are instructed to avoid anything that might “challenge their testimony” or indeed anything “anti-mormon”, which pretty much includes anything that doesn’t praise the church and/or congratulate them for being mormon; so naturally they’re generally not gong to go see the play. But I’m a bit surprised that they have taken sort of a relaxed stance regarding the play; mormons truly were oppressed and martyred not all that long ago, and most still carry a martyrdom complex that far exceeds that of any I’ve seen from main-line xians.
    I also know that my true-believing wife found it quite distressing when she heard our kids singing some of the songs from the musical.

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