The Surprising Depth of The Book of Mormon (the musical)
We went to see The Book of Mormon recently when it came to Kitchener. I was cautiously optimistic that it would be pretty funny. I’ve never liked South Park and it was the same creators behind them. It lived up to the hype for humour, though – obviously not safe for work, but I didn’t think it was simply settling for low hanging fruit of fart and sex jokes, either; they were actually clever.
The bigger surprise for me, though, was how many other great themes were addressed – and addressed well – throughout the show. Here’s a quick run down of things that stood out to me:
The White Saviour Complex/Colonialism: the basic premise of the show has missionaries sent to Uganda. They know absolutely nothing about Uganda, but they are certain they are going to do incredible things there to save all of the Ugandan people. Of course, they discover life isn’t quite as simple. A small touch I noticed here: particularly early on when they were more clueless, they often said “Africa” rather than “Uganda” which is common among those with a white saviour complex who don’t always realize that not all Africa is the same.
Racial Justice: This theme is brought up more tangentially in offhand references to the earlier racist teachings of Mormonism – which makes sense for a religion begun in America during the height of slavery. At one point the main character reads from the book of Mormon to Africans and comes across how being black is a curse for sin. A later song then makes a reference about how Mormons are ok with black people now.
Doubt: One of many brilliant musical numbers was “turn it off.” It comes in response to any kind of doubt against what they have been taught. They all sing about how they’ve managed to just shut out these thoughts so they could still be good Mormons. Sometimes we hear similar language in fundamentalist Christians. Hint: it doesn’t work; it never works for long.
Lament: The only song from the musical that I had heard beforehand was (in English) called “F*** you, God.” Of course they didn’t star it out like I just did. This is the greeting for the clueless missionaries who are quickly robbed and are taught to say this as a way to release their worries about it. A lot of religious people would be terrified at saying something like this to God, but much of the Bible’s lament texts are not really any more polite. When done as a release of honesty rather than reinforcing negativity and complaint, it is very valuable.
Religious Adaptability: One of the two main characters has a tendency to lie… or to use his imagination, depending on your interpretation. When he quickly realizes that the content of the Book of Mormon – at least in its literal plain reading – is not at all helpful to the Ugandan people, he decides to make up some other stories instead. These stories convince one man to stop raping babies trying to get rid of his AIDS, among other things that practically improve their lives.
I recall similar conversations in our church history class. When Europe started to discover there were other people and other cultures out there, there was this big debate about how much missionaries should be able to compromise on what they considered to be part of Christianity – in many ways, simply European culture – in order to get people to convert. Sometimes we just need to boil things down to the basics which takes a tough setting aside of many of our own assumptions.
Heaven and Hell: Both Heaven and Hell play interesting roles. First, Heaven, embodied in the one missionary’s love of Orlando as well as the central Ugandan character’s visualization of Salt Lake City. They both sing of these perfect places. For the missionary, it is based on a vague memory as a kid. For the Ugandan woman, it is based pretty much purely on a vision of no more pain.
Hell is about equally prominent. All of the missionaries talk about how they have Hell dreams whenever they do anything wrong, and one of those dreams is depicted in one of the best songs of the show. I don’t recall much directly addressing the character of God that would send somebody to Hell, but they were definitely afraid of the possibility.
Power of Mythology: This is the heart of the message of the show to me. When Emily (my wife) looked up reviews afterward, she saw one refer to it as “atheism’s love letter to religion” which makes a lot of sense. There is clearly a bit of laughing at unusual and unbelievable claims of religion – in this case Mormonism but it is easy enough to extend to orthodox Christianity, too. But then the play ends with the life of the Ugandans made dramatically better precisely because of the hope offered by the Mormon missionaries.
When I refer to mythology, I’m not making a truth or falsity claim. I use myth to mean simply a story told to encourage some kind of behaviour. Whether or not the stories were literally true is irrelevant. The message of Book of Mormon is that mythologies can be very good for our world even when the story isn’t literally true. One of the Ugandan women comments that “prophets always speak in metaphors.”
That’s a valuable lesson for Christians, too. It isn’t assuming that these fantastical stories (Noah’s Ark, day creation, Jonah and the big fish) could not have literally happened exactly as described. Maybe some did. But that just isn’t as important as what those stories are trying to teach us about our daily lives. If we allow ourselves to be impacted by the stories rather than debate their historical literalness, that is a powerful thing.