I recently saw the musical “The Book of Mormon” in person for the first time. Going in, I knew very little about the Broadway show, just that it featured Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as major characters and the Book of Mormon itself in a critical light. I wasn’t really prepared for just how over the top and wild it would be. For those interested, a good plot summary can be found on Wikipedia.
CONTENT WARNING: my reflection will discuss violence, explicit language, sexual violence, and other sensitive topics the musical talks about.
One major thought I had throughout the whole production is that it is almost entirely mocking of the faith of LDS believers. Satire is often useful, but at some point it definitely becomes mean-spirited. And I’m almost positive that is at least some of the intent behind the show. It starts to feel like beating a dead horse after a while.
One also wonders about the application writ large behind a lot of the musical. The point is ridicule of beliefs that are presented as absurd. And that is done in order to bring laughter, yes, but also to shift viewers’ minds about the subject matter. If we’re laughing at the beliefs of another worldview, it is much easier to dismiss the claims without any kind of argument or evidence. The scenes going back to “early America” with Jesus visiting New York and the burying and discovery of the Book of Mormon itself make this even more explicit. Here, the curtain is occasionally totally drawn back to reveal the point being made, with interjections like “or something” or “just because” [I don’t remember the exact phrases] added amidst the truncated telling of some of the history of the Book of Mormon and LDS history.
The type of argument isn’t subtle. Ridicule as dismissal of opposing views has a long history in not just public discourse but in philosophy. Any study of ancient rhetoric or readers of debates like the deistic controversies in England would easily find examples of the same. But when one wields the hammer of satirical mockery against beliefs with which one disagrees, any and every belief can start to look like a nail. After all, if it is hilariously ridiculous to believe that one is going to inherit one’s own planet to populate for oneself, is it all that much less ridiculous to believe that one man could die and take on the guilt/sin/etc. of all other humans past, present, and future? Or isn’t it absurd to think the universe oscillates between expansion and contraction, going from a Big Bang to a Big Crunch and back again into the infinite past and future? Or that all the matter and energy in the universe was once smashed into a teensy, infinitesimal point before it exploded to make everything we see now? Or… or… Eventually, any belief system could be subjected to the same satirical ridicule. One’s simply happening to believe the thing that is being mocked is largely what determines one’s reaction to that ridicule. It goes quickly from laughter to “Hey, it’s actually pretty reasonable to think that…”
But there are also plenty of things to reflect on with the musical aside from this point. First is the extremely explicit cursing at God found among the villagers of the fictional place the LDS missionaries went to in Uganda. A whole song is dedicated to singing “F you, God,” much to the horror of the newly arrived missionaries. While the explicit nature of the song and its totally in-your-face style is probably meant to needle audience members and make many uncomfortable, I was wondering personally about the imprecatory Psalms. In those Psalms, the writers cry out to God for justice in the midst of the horrors they’re witnessing on Earth. And “The Book of Mormon” makes clear some of those horrors. In this fictional village, the people live in terror of a local warlord who has threatened to come and forcibly circumcise all the women in the village. The villagers nearly all have AIDs (interesting to note that Uganda has been effectively working to reduce the spread of AIDs: see here). Others deal with other diseases. Poverty, hunger, drought, and more afflict the village, such that life is depicted as an attempt to survive every single day both physically and mentally.
The above situations highlight another aspect of the musical which challenges concepts from Christianity. When missionaries come to tell the people of Uganda about Jesus–they have other things on their mind. The immediate problems already discussed seem far more important than the possibility of an afterlife with no suffering. One character misinterprets the everlasting hope the missionaries intended to provide with a real here and now hope found in a mystical Salt Lake City where the missionaries can bring the people away from their troubles. Another of the missionaries embellishes the stories from the Book of Mormon with concepts from Star Trek, Star Wars, and other fantastical settings. In doing so, he makes a kind of new Book that answers the questions of the people in their real world situations. Later, we find that most of the people saw the words of the Book as metaphorical, giving some ambiguity to their beliefs.
Mission work though, one supposes, must encounter much of the same. What kind of real hope is being offered to people if their current problems aren’t addressed? And what kind of contextualization takes things beyond the text? And what kind of help is missionary work doing? I don’t know the answers to these and many related questions that come up, but the musical forcefully raises them.
“The Book of Mormon” pokes and prods at just about any religious bone in anyone’s body. I’ve noted some problems with it, but I think that it also can force people like me to think on some of the harder topics in ways we may not have before.
Reconstructing Faith– Read other posts as I search for truth and navigate the messiness that is faith.
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