Saturday, February 9, 2013

Spooky Mormon Hell Dream

Nothing new in terms of the basic picture of Mormonism presented in "The Book of Mormon: The Musical." We already saw it in the "Mormon episode" of South Park. Those Mormons, they believe in some wacky, crazy shit! But they sure are nice. Really amazingly nice!

Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen "The Book of Mormon: The Musical" yet, and you don't want any major plot revelations before seeing it yourself, don't read any further!

In the play, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham arrive in Uganda with high hopes of bringing souls to Christ. Elder Price is a superstar missionary whom everyone expects to change the world, while his companion, Elder Cunningham, is a flunky who has a tendency to tell tall tales, and who's never even read the Book of Mormon. Confronted with the poverty, disease and violence of life in Uganda, however, it is superstar missionary Elder Price who gets discouraged and abandons his post. Elder Cunningham stays behind, only to discover that the missionaries' enthusiasm and faith has rubbed off on one young Ugandan woman in the village named Nabulungi.  Nabulungi persuades the other villagers that perhaps Mormonism does have some unique power that can help them solve their problems and find a new promised land in "Salt Lake City."

Abandoned by his more doctrinally adept companion Elder Price, Elder Cunningham, who knows little to nothing about the Book of Mormon or about LDS Church history, improvises and preaches a gospel to the Ugandans that bears little to no resemblance to the official Mormon gospel.  The Ugandans nevertheless find his message inspiring, and convert en masse to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When the local warlord shows up, threatening to destroy the entire village, their new found faith gives them the courage to stand up and drive the villains away.  Unfortunately, when the mission president learns of the fabrications that Elder Cunningham has used to convert the Ugandan Saints, he orders all the missionaries home in shame.  But Elder Price, who had returned feeling guilty about his earlier abandonment of his mission post (after having a "spooky Mormon hell dream"), decides that doctrinal orthodoxy doesn't matter any more.  What matters is that the faith and enthusiasm of the missionaries made a difference in the lives of the Ugandans.  Elder Price persuades the missionaries to stay behind and continue to work to improve the lives of their converts.  The musical ends with the missionaries and the converted Ugandans joining together to preach a new gospel based on the fabrications of Elder Cunningham that had so inspired them.

I have to say there is much about this musical I loved.  There were silly -- almost ridiculous -- inaccuracies slipped in, perhaps, to deliberately signal that this was a work of fiction.  Mormon missionaries get their mission assignments long before arriving in the Missionary Training Center, and they don't spend their entire two years with one companion.  Oh, and, for the record, though Mormons are often driven by terrifying guilt, they really don't believe in the classical Christian hell, filled with sulfur and brimstone and ruled by a red Devil with horns and bat wings and a pitchfork.  And I'm yet ever to hear a single Mormon utter the phrase "Praise Christ!"  Yeesh.

But much of the texture of missionary life felt realistic to me.  The emotional and spiritual bond between missionary companions is powerful and life-changing -- at least my relationships with my companions were.  There are missionaries obsessed with personal glory, as well as missionaries whose humility and desire to do what's right outweigh their desire for adulation.  The mission field is rife with missionaries who get burned out and discouraged and who give up, as well as missionaries whose faith spurs them to remarkable acts of sacrifice and courage.  And Mormon missionaries do enter the mission field notoriously naive about the culture of the people they are sent there to convert, but they also usually learn to deeply love the people, and are often both challenged and transformed by that love.  Oh, and, for what it's worth, the play taps realistically into the "gay Mormon moment" by including a Mormon missionary character who is gay, and who deals with it by just "turning it off."

An implicit message in the musical is that belief is almost always ridiculous, but the power of belief can still make the world a better place, if we remain humble and are willing to put ourselves on the line for the welfare of others.  This is not a bad message.  It actually resonates with the very scriptural notion that "faith without works is dead."  I like the way the play presents the real-life faith struggle of what happens when prayers aren't answered the way we like them to be.  I couldn't help but be moved by the scene where Mormon elders and converted villagers gather together dressed in white at the waters of baptism.  Mormons are portrayed as hopelessly naive, but Mormons will like the fact that the play generally gives them the benefit of a doubt at least as to their motives, which are portrayed as unfailingly well meaning.  The message in the musical that is least likely to sit well with most Mormons, however, is the idea that it doesn't matter what we believe, so long as our belief is fervent and well-intentioned.  

I'm pretty sure I don't actually believe that at all; what we believe really does matter.  And Mormons have rational reasons for believing that God is real, and that Joseph Smith did speak to him, and that the books of scripture that inspire us are true.  There are aspects of our faith that we all wrestle with (including the racist elements in the Book of Mormon), and Mormons are concerned about objective validation of their beliefs.  I think Matt Stone and Trey Parker do Mormons injustice by acting as if the only ways to believe in that wacky Joseph Smith, and that weird Book of Mormon is either to take everything at face value and never to question anything -- to "just turn [doubt] off" -- or to take it all as mere metaphor.  In my mind, doctrinaire scientific rationalism fails because it doesn't take religious experience seriously, and Mormonism is powerful as a faith because it does.  The universe is more complex than South Park makes it out to be.

All the same, I liked the musical.  Mormons who watch it may have to bring ear-stoppers for all the profanity (though I have to admit, the musical's portrayal of Mormon phobias about profanity is pretty dang funny).  The play is not anti-Mormon, though it presents a view of Mormonism that is colored by the unbelief of its creators.  Ultimately, if Matt Stone and Trey Parker are willing to grant Mormons the benefit of a doubt as to their motives, I'm willing to return the favor.  

And so, apparently, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which took out three full-page ads in the playbill of the Minneapolis show, encouraging play attendees to "read the book" now that they'd "seen the play," proving the play's point that if Mormons really do one thing very well, it is to "believe."


Edward Jones said...

I have only listened to the cast recording of the Book of Mormon musical. But what strikes me as its main narrative genius is that it takes the Joseph Smith story to its logical conclusion.

Joseph Smith found that the received Christian tradition of his time did not answer many of the questions and concerns people had then. So (to some minds) he fabricated some things that were not "true" in a strict sense but which inspired an enormous number of people and gave new meaning to their lives.

So looking to the future, as Joseph Smith's teachings calcify and become out of touch in the modern world, what happens? A new Elder comes along and fabricates, just as Joseph Smith did. The cycle continues!

To my mind, Parker and Stone---in the context of a fun, silly musical---have made a profound observation about belief generally and Mormonism in particular.

M. E. (Mary Elizabeth) Hirsch said...

Great review. I have listened to the songs and read about the story and am looking forward to seeing the show next week. I'm so glad you saw it because you are my Mormon compass. As a marketing person I'm thinking if I worked for the Mormon church I would be thinking there is no such thing as bad publicity.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Edward - I suppose you can take it to the Fawn Brody-esque logical conclusion that one "pious fraud" deserves another. Or you could also follow it to the logical conclusion built into the structure of Mormonism: that "on-going revelation" is not a principle religion can afford to go without.

Mary - If there's one religion that's had to deal with bad press, it's the Mormons.

Gay LDS Actor said...

I think you pretty much summed up my own feeling about The Book of Mormon (the musical)

James said...

I don't know why, but the main "inaccuracy" that drove me nuts was the "Praise Jesus" thing. That just made me crazy when they said it. I still can't figure out why it annoys me so much, but it does. Was anyone else extremely uncomfortable throughout Hasa Diga Eebowai? I clapped any everything, but I just cringed (and laughed).

jen said...

LOVED the play.
Most uncomfortable moment for me was (surprisingly) during I Believe. I had heard the song a million times, but the thing that caught me off guard was the way the audience laughed at things that Mormons really believe. People I love completely buy into the beliefs he lists in that song... I felt like a big sister, "I am allowed to laugh at those beliefs, but YOU are not."

I sobbed during the reprise of Hasa Diga. They nailed the feeling of sadness and betrayal that I felt towards the church once...

"Praise Christ" annoyed me when I just heard it, but it helped me relax a little when I saw the show. Maybe it was because of your reasons: So over the top fictional that I didn't feel like they were making fun of MY family any more. I don't know.

Thanks for the review!

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

"Praise Christ" pretty much was the big giveaway (for those who've had any significant exposure to Mormonism) that this play is definitely set in the land of South Park, and not in real-world Mormon culture.

The "Hasa Diga" thing was crude, but expressing anger and frustration to God has a long and venerable history in the Judeo-Christian tradition... So it didn't bug me as much as it may have bugged some others. Jen, I agree that when the Ugandans sing that reprise to express their anger at being let down by the Church, it takes on special poignancy (for me at least).

The "I believe" song goes right to the heart of my criticism of the play... It definitely portrays belief as mindlessly adhering to a bunch of senseless intellectual propositions. It doesn't capture any of the nuance of Mormon understanding of belief (such as what you find in Alma 32). But then... If you're looking for theological depth, it's pretty insane to go looking for it in "The Book of Mormon: The Musical."