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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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“South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done something unthinkable: made a piece of art about religion that both adamant skeptics and “traditional-values” apologists can enjoy. The Book of Mormon is a show that undermines the very foundations of religious beliefs while acknowledging that many believers are trying their darndest to be good people--all with more cussing and blasphemy than Broadway has ever seen. It’s quite a winning formula, entertainment-wise, but it’s also instructive to the secular community in its methodology for taking on religion, using absurdity rather than anger.

Don't be fooled by the reviews or interviews claiming this play is a "love letter" to Mormonism; it's appreciative of the American Mormon spirit, but it leaves the religion itself with little ground to stand on.

How is it possible that a play can convey a crippling blow to religious dogma and authority without alienating anyone save the most puritan and devout? Is a certain type of humor (plus technically adept song and dance) that makes the targets of the joke feel welcome, as though they are in on the joke, our best weapon against extremist religious stances?

Let it be so! The Book of Mormon musical, which just cleaned up nearly all the major awards at the Tonys and already has the highest-debuting musical soundtrack in history, is a touch more subtle and clever than “South Park.” And unlike the cartoon’s equal-opportunity iconoclasm, the play has a fairly coherent message, which is, basically: “Religion is essentially nonsensical myth and has the same moral validity as Star Wars... but if you recognize this and you don’t take it literally and you don’t use it for bad reasons, then go ahead and believe.”

The Book of Mormon's story concerns two highly mismatched young LDS missionaries. Elder Price is floating through life in a smug but smiling haze of his own purity and self-righteousness, while Elder Cunningham is geeky, incompetent and more well-versed in Star Wars and Tolkien than his own faith’s liturgy. The two are sent on their mission to a comically exaggerated village in Uganda, a place where every single problem on the sub-Saharan African continent is congregated in one tiny stage-set: AIDS, drought, female genital mutilation, and a homicidal warlord with a fearful reputation and a name that’s a string of unprintables.

When our two missionaries’ upbeat attitudes (a perfect match for the musical form) come into contact with the locals’ poverty and despondency, what results is a vicious satire of Mormonism, Western attitudes and religion in general. The missionaries’ increasing desperation to gain converts, and the rather imaginative route they end up taking to success, implies that twisting, warping and changing mythology to suit people’s spiritual needs is a time-honored religious tradition, one from which no major faith has been exempt.

There’s no more perfect medium for this ideological juggling than the musical format, in which clever lyrics, melodies, dance steps and acting must all be juggled as well. The heroes’ journey is relayed to us through good old Broadway song-and-dance, with each song being a pitch-perfect parody of a sub-style within the musical genre. The musical numbers mock everything from the overly melodramaticLes Mis to the play-within-a play in the The King and I to the current fad of rock musicals.

The highlight for Broadway fans may be “Turn it Off,” an achingly hilarious tap-dancing chorus line number about repression, sexual and emotional, in Mormonism. A secondary character tap-dances and shimmies with increasing camp to lyrics about “crushing” his gay thoughts as per his religious instruction. It’s a hilarious juxtaposition and it allows Mormon and non-Mormons in the audience to have a laugh at this “nifty little Mormon trick.”

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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