One of my favorite things to do when I visit New York or London is to see the shows. We get an occasional traveling production in Salt Lake City, but for sheer quantity, there are no places in the world like New York and London. However, there hasn’t been anything on Broadway that I’ve been very interested in for some time now. So recently, it has been with great interest that I’ve read reviews of the Book of Mormon musical. Of course, I have been interested not only because it has been called the “savior” of Broadway, or because of all the awards it has won. I have also been interested to see reports that a number of Mormons have seen and enjoyed the show. Some Mormons have been quoted as saying that that there is enough to be offended at, but that the message is “sweet.” This might lead one to believe that, despite its offensive presentation, the core message is a positive one. However, as I have heard the show described, it has not seemed to warrant the glowing admiration that it has been receiving. I have been willing to admit that it might have good music with funny jokes. But in my judgment, not only is the show shockingly profane, but the ultimate message of the show is less-than-redeeming.
I have not felt that I could speak with authority against the message of the musical without first-hand information. So now I have listened to (although not seen) the musical. Having done so, I wonder if there is anything so profane and vulgar that has ever played on Broadway. Critics seem to acknowledge the highly offensive nature of the musical, but dismiss it on the basis that it was written by the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Since we should expect them to be vulgar and profane, it’s no big deal.
Putting aside the sheer offensiveness of the lyrics, I found the music itself to be unimaginative and cliché. Some may say that its cliché feel is just part of the satire; that partly, the point of the show is to make fun of Broadway musicals. Fair enough. However, that’s been done before, and much more effectively, in Spamalot. In short, there was very little in the way of unique artistry that can be found here. I’ll admit that it has some catchy tunes. So does Lady GaGa. Both may be long remembered, not for their catchy tunes or even for their messages, but for the way in which they offended modern sensibilities, which is what I think Parker and Stone were going for.
What that leaves is the story. The main thrust of its claims about Mormonism is that Joseph Smith made it all up, and that his message does not apply to the modern world. It portrays Mormons as naïve and simplistic. Of course, Mormons are also a cheerful, polite, and well-meaning bunch, and as such, are basically harmless. But the only way for them to truly do good in the modern world is to change their story so it applies to current problems, which should be fine since their scriptures were made up in the first place. This is all very appealing to the audience and to theater critics. They are made to feel superior to the delusional Mormons, while at the same time, feel good about themselves for acknowledging that it is important to help relieve suffering in the world. They don’t have to feel bad about lampooning the Mormons since the show acknowledges that Mormons are nice people, and since it is just satire, after all.
Many Mormon reviews of the show tend to whitewash the truly disgusting aspects and try to find a positive spin, perhaps to demonstrate how open-minded and hip we Mormons are. Mormons who have given positive reviews argue that the show preaches a positive message of practical religion. However, putting aside the discussions of raping babies, raping frogs, and raping God himself (or herself?), the central theme of the musical is not about service to the poor and downtrodden. It is about how making up a wacky religion can be great so long as it accomplishes humanitarian ends, like reducing incidences of AIDS and female circumcision.
At the end of the show, it is not the Book of Mormon that is being preached and changing the lives of the Ugandans, it is the Book of Arnold, the new scripture made up by one of the show’s Mormon missionaries, Elder Arnold Cunningham. The new church members do not provide clean drinking water, vaccinations, and wheelchairs to Africans, as Mormons have done in real life. They do not testify of the eternal saving power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Instead, they go door to door passing out the Book of Arnold. The practical advice that changes lives comes from a story about how Joseph Smith was about to rape a baby to cure his AIDS, when God appeared to him and told him to rape a frog instead. He later meets Brigham Young, who was cursed by God for circumcising his daughter. The curse was that his nose was turned into a clitoris. Joseph Smith heals Brigham by rubbing the frog on his nose. We are supposed to believe that this message is more crucial and more pertinent to the lives of the Ugandans than the messages that are actually in the Book of Mormon.
When you push past the vulgarity and lampooning of the sacred, the message is that even if you manufacture a religion, and even if that religion has preposterous foundational stories, so long as it addresses modern problems and motivates people to be nice to each other, religion is A-okay. Stone and Parker obviously don’t believe that a fable about raping frogs really has the power to change lives, but what does? While they profess to like Mormons and think that Mormons are really nice people, what makes Mormons that way? Is the real Book of Mormon actually irrelevant to modern day problems?
It is true that the Book of Mormon says nothing about vaccinations, clean drinking water and wheelchairs. Yet, somehow Mormons feel motivated to give of their time, talents, money, and even risk their lives, to go to such places as Africa to serve people whom they have never met. What Stone and Parker apparently fail to grasp is that this motivation actually comes from what is in the Book of Mormon. There is no need for a modern-day revision. The primary reason that Mormons are the way they are is that they have accepted the central messages of the Book of Mormon, that Jesus Christ is our savior and that His church is on the Earth today. The atonement of Jesus Christ has the power to change people’s hearts. The Book of Mormon contains little, if any, practical advice on dealing with modern problems. Yet, as people accept the message of the Book of Mormon, they gain power that helps them to patiently and even cheerfully cope with the trials of life.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker make an effort, and rightly so, to highlight the power that comes from the fact that Mormons believe strongly in their religion. However, they seem oblivious to the fact that this power comes from strong beliefs in things that are true. And despite what the Book of Mormon Musical may lead people to believe, the messages that are actually in the Book of Mormon are a powerful source of good in the world today. That power comes from being based in timeless facts not timely fantasies.