Review: The Book of Mormon

(Re-posted with permission from my article in Issue 56 of The Philosopher’s Magazine)

Even if you’ve never watched a single episode of South Park, you’re probably aware that the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, love nothing more than a good bout of sacred cow tipping. Show me an ideology, political, religious or otherwise, and I’ll show you an episode of South Park that lampoons it with the show’s trademark blend of incisive satire and potty humour. So it was surprising that South Park’s terrible twosome wound up creating a smash- hit Broadway musical, which they have been describing, in interviews, as being pro-faith.

Well, the “smash-hit” part isn’t surprising. The Book of Mormon pulls off the impressive trick of winking at the clichés of musical theatre and embracing them at the same time. (After all, the clichés are clichés for a reason – they work.) The story follows two young Mormon men paired together for their mission to Uganda: Kevin, who’s used to being the golden boy and needs to learn that everything’s not always about him, and Arnold, a hapless schmuck who needs to learn some self-confidence. They’re an odd couple and, like all odd couples thrown together under unusual circumstances, they’re going to have to learn to get along. There’s also a sweet Ugandan ingénue, a villainous warlord threatening her village, and a whole lot of really catchy songs. It’s no wonder the musical garnered nine Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, and that it’s been selling out its shows since it opened in previews in February.

But to hear Parker and Stone refer to The Book of Mormon as “pro-faith” was surprising, especially given how often they poke fun at Mormonism. Mormon beliefs can seem so ridiculous to outsiders, in fact, that Parker and Stone wisely realise they don’t need to do much active mocking – instead, they simply step back and let the scripture speak for itself. “I believe,” one missionary warbles in a climactic number reaffirming his commitment to his faith, “that God lives on a planet called ‘Kolob’! And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” With raw material like this, parody is both unnecessary and impossible.

And it’s not just Mormonism that gets skewered. It’s also the self-images of all believers who like to see themselves, and their motivations, as more saintly than they really are. Against a back- drop of war, poverty and disease, one missionary wonders, “God, why do you let bad things happen?” and then adds what is, for many people, the true concern: “More to the point, why do you let bad things happen to me?” There’s only one thing Parker and Stone enjoy sinking their talons into more than absurdity, and that’s hypocrisy.

So in what sense is The Book of Mormon “pro- faith?” Well, it’s affectionate in its portrayal of Mormons as people, most of whom come off as well-meaning, if goofy and often naive. Parker and Stone have made no secret of the fact that they find Mormons just too gosh-darned nice to dislike. But what they’re mainly referring to when they call their musical “pro-faith” is the message it sends the audience home with: that religion can be a powerful and inspiring force for good, as long as you don’t interpret scripture too strictly.

By the end of The Book of Mormon, Africans and missionaries alike are united together in a big happy posse that preaches love, joy, hope and making the world a better place. Having learned by now that it’s more important to help people than to rigidly adhere to dogma, Kevin sings, “We are still Latter Day Saints, all of us. Even if we change some things, or we break the rules, or we have complete doubt that God exists. We can still all work together and make this our paradise planet.”

That’s an appealing sentiment, especially to the sort of theatregoer who prides himself on being progressive and tolerant. It means we can promote all the values we cherish – happiness, freedom, human rights and so on – without ever having to take an unpopular anti-religion stand. But is it plausible? How, exactly, can religion make the world a better place?

I don’t know and, apparently, neither does The Book of Mormon. The central confusion you’ll notice in the musical is that it keeps conflating two very different kinds of “faith”. One could be called “figurative faith”, the warm and fuzzy kind that emerges at the end of the show, which is explicitly about bettering the world but seems to be faith in name only, as it doesn’t involve any actual belief in anything. “What happens when we’re dead? Who cares! We shouldn’t think that far ahead. The only latter day that matters is tomorrow,” the villagers sing. Once you strip away God, and an afterlife, and the requirement of belief in particular dogma, it’s not clear that what’s left bears any resemblance to religion anymore. With its progressive values and its emphasis on the here-and-now rather than the hereafter, it’s basically just humanism.

The other kind of faith in The Book of Mormon is literal faith, but for the most part, it doesn’t actually help anyone. Ugandan sweet- heart Nabalungi believes in salvation in earnest – she’s under the impression that becoming Mormon means she’s going to be transported out of her miserable life to a paradise called “Salt Lake City”, which she imagines must have huts with gold-thatched roofs and “a Red Cross on every corner with all the flour you can eat!” she sings rapturously. But she ends up crushed when she eventually learns that, no, she doesn’t get to leave Uganda after all. (“Of course, Salt Lake City’s only a metaphor,” her fellow tribe members inform her, apparently in figurative faith mode at that point.)

To be fair, there is one example of the power of literal faith in The Book of Mormon. When a villager announces his plans to circumcise his own daughter, and another is about to rape an infant in an attempt to cure himself of AIDS, Arnold manages to stop them by inventing some new scripture for the occasion. “And the Lord said, ‘If you lay with an infant, you shall burn in the fiery pits of Mordor,’” he “reads” from the Bible. (Being a science fiction and fantasy nerd, and having slept through most of Sunday school, Arnold falls back on what he knows.) So I suppose that counts as a point in favour of faith’s power to help the world, albeit conditional on the bleak premise that the only way to get people to stop raping babies and mutilating women is to threaten them with Hell … or Mordor.

Of course, the fact that The Book of Mormon’s views on faith are less than fully coherent doesn’t detract much from the pleasures of its tart- tongued satire, story, and songs. There are just a handful of moments that might raise a philosopher’s eyebrow, such as when everyone sings, in the exuberant final number, “So if you’re sad, put your hands together and pray, that tomorrow’s gonna be a Latter Day. And then it probably will be a Latter Day!” It almost feels churlish to ask “Wait, how does that work?” when everyone onstage is having such a good time singing about joy and peace and brotherhood; nevertheless, one does wonder. Maybe that will be covered in the sequel.

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4 Responses to Review: The Book of Mormon

  1. Avery Andrews says:

    Well here’s a possible reason for theists to be nicer than atheists. Theists, believing in an omniscient God and an afterlife, might be willing to leave the serious punishments up to Him, on the basis that He will do a better job of it, and will actually know who the guilty ones are. But an atheist who believes that this life is all there is might not be happy about letting the real bad actors slip out of life as easily as they do now, and get interested in using technology to develop longer-lasting and more intense versions of the traditional harsh punishments, or even completely new ones.

  2. Rob says:

    @Avery: A possible reason. However, theists these days, as one confessed to me, aren’t really pro-life. They are just pro-fetus. After the discussion on their stances on the death penalty, poverty, public education, child labor laws, war, and SCHIPS, it was hard to defend their “Pro-life.” On consideration to remember is that some atheists are a-mono-theists. Buddhists for example reject the notion of monotheism, and yet don’t engage in the sorts of technologies and practices you describe. Seems the theists are more behind those technologies by way of their “God is Pro-War” stance. I also know many materialist atheists who would have nothing to do with your ideas.

    I will leave out the fact that your ideas and assertion are based on gigantic assumptions.

  3. Avery Andrews says:

    The Buddhist system has got its own inhibitions against inflicting long-lasting extreme punishments (I can’t claim credit for envisioning them, Iain M Banks, Richard Morgan and Neil Asher would be the leaders here); the fact that most atheists wouldn’t want to inflict them doesn’t show that there’s anything systematic in atheism that precludes it.

    & even today, theists are quite diverse. Most of the arguments that theists can be expected to behave better than atheists are refuted by some combination of logic and experience, I don’t see any actual flaw in this yet.

  4. Avery Andrews says:

    edit lat line: this -> this one

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