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Lessons to Secular Community from 'The Book of Mormon' Musical: Take on Dogma With Humor

How is it possible that a play can convey a crippling blow to religious dogma and authority without alienating anyone except the most puritan and devout?

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But the underlying message that you can’t pray (or dance) away the gay is well-taken and not funny at all. Neither is the church’s shameful attitude toward race, as is revealed in a scene where Elder Cunningham begins to read the Book of Mormon (the real one) to the villagers and then stops mid-sentence as he realizes he’s telling them that their dark skin is the result of an eternal curse. He immediately veers off course, as he’s actually a nice person who doesn’t want to insult these new friends with his racist religious doctrine. Again, the message: believers can be good people, particularly when they acknowedge their beliefs are nuts.

Stone and Parker and their collaborator Robert Lopez (of "Avenue Q") choose Disney as their second biggest target for send-up. Elder Price truly believes Mormon heaven will be just like Orlando, Florida, complete with putt-putt golfing. (His version of hell, meanwhile, involves being forced to chug coffee and being convinced one is worse than Hitler for lying about a purloined donut.) There’s also a refrain of Lion King jabs, culminating in an anti-“Hakuna Matata” song with a chorus that insults God in the most traditionally vulgar way imaginable.

The aforementioned ditty is only the second most shocking song in the play. The most belly-laugh-inducing, heretical song may be the revisionist retelling of the Mormon origin myth that gets into vivid detail about the grotesque bodily functions and sexual predilections of the “new American prophets.” 

These filthy shock numbers are juxtaposed with gentler songs that highlight and mock a certain optimistic, hopeful, but also slightly self-centered naivete present in the minds of the devout. This strain of satire is exemplified by the song that was performed at the Tonys (video below), “I Believe.” This heartfelt ballad, which contrasts some of the more noble sentiments of the faithful with some of their absurd beliefs, is perhaps the best summation of the show’s attitude towards religion. The song evokes a knowingness about Mormon culture and attitudes while being unsparing.

But perhaps my favorite moment for encapsulating the musical’s mentality arrives as the less ideologically secure missionary, Elder Cunningham, starts fibbing and finds himself scolded for his overactive imagination by an array of characters including Jesus, Joseph Smith, the Angel Moroni, Uhura from "Star Trek," a pair of hobbits, and Yoda. These figures are literally and figuratively on the same level -- "Star Trek" is the mythology Parker and Stone have called their own religion, and they’re pointing out that using Spock as your moral guide is fine, just as using Joseph Smith as your guide is okay. But, they imply, if you started judging every single aspect of life based on Spock’s words, people would think you were crazy, wouldn’t they?

So call me a convert, one ever ready to be enraptured should Parker and Stone set to work on a sequel. I’d love to see the same affectionate cultural send-up mixed with a doctrinal undercutting in forthcoming musicals based on the Quran, the Torah, Dianetics and the King James Bible. 

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.

 
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