The Book of Mormon Musical: Laughing With Us, Laughing At Us, and Trying to Make Us Think You’re Doing the First When You’re Really Doing the Second
By Ken K. Gourdin
Now comes word that the Broadway smash hit, The Book of Mormon: The Musical is coming to the cradle of Mormondom, Salt Lake City, next year. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its media representatives, and many of its members have been doing their darnedest in attempts to make lemonade out of the decidedly sour play. I admit, I would never see the play – not because I’m afraid of it, or because I don’t think there’s any humor in my faith, or because I haven’t learned to laugh at so many of its admittedly quirky ways. It’s simply not my cup of (herbal!) tea. There are plenty of people within my faith who, despite their devotion to it, are fully aware of its quirks and foibles and are not afraid to laugh (and to try to get others to laugh) at those things.
For instance, sometimes I agree with Salt Lake Tribune humor columnist and fellow Mormon Robert Kirby, and sometimes I don’t. But almost without exception, I can tell where he’s coming from because, although we came of age in different eras, we’ve had not a few experiences in common. (Somehow, though, I doubt I could come up with as many fictitious, clever, funny place names from my mission in San Diego, Calif., as Kirby has from his mission to South America, like Nalgas de Vaca and Orina del Toro. [I’m not translating! Google them!])
I think good satire, on some level, often makes a good-faith effort (however small) to understand its subject as its insiders understand it. Without that effort, I think the jokes often come cheap and the laughs often seem forced. I don’t know how much of the humor in The Book of Mormon Musical comes as a result of a good-faith effort on the part of its creators to understand its subject as insiders understand it, but I’m guessing not much.
Parker and Stone don’t bother to get many of the little things right because they think those things are too insignificant for their intended audience to care about such things, and they’re probably right. (After all, this is only Mormonism we’re lampooning here! That’s easy! Given enough talent and resources and the right opportunity, many people in the audiences Parker and Stone are trying to reach would write a similar parody.)
Although I have a disability, I was “mainstreamed” in school from Day One. That was both a blessing and a curse: it was a blessing because it forced me to engage the world on its terms rather than demanding or expecting the world to engage me on my terms; it was a curse because I was scorned, ridiculed, and bullied. I found that my classmates could be divided, roughly, into three classes: those who were laughing at me; a much smaller number comprised of those who joined me in attempting to find the humor in my plight by laughing with me; and those who tried to convince me they were in the second group, but who were really in the first.
Please don’t get the wrong idea: I’m not comparing The Book of Mormon Musical viewers (or its creators) to my chief tormentors. If you want to make fun of my religion (or of me for trying to adhere to it), go right ahead. I wouldn’t stop you even if I could. I’m a big boy who’s grown a thick skin, and I certainly can take it. If you go, I hope you enjoy the show; I would be the last to suggest that there isn’t anything to laugh about in Mormonism. But I invite you to consider this: if the object of the scorn, ridicule, and bullying were my religion rather than my disability, which one of the three groups I describe above would you belong to?
Update, March 11, 2014: Ticking off Militant Muslims vs. Ticking off Mormons – I happened upon a Mark Steyn column which mentions The Book of Mormon Musical. (See the entire column here, last accessed today: http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/328163/bowing-mob-mark-steyn).1 Hat-tip to BYU Professor and fellow Mormon Dan Peterson at Patheos.com, who pointed me to it. The column, from September 22, 2012, discusses Obama Administration officials’ attempts to blame the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya on an anti-Muslim video. Here is the pertinent excerpt:
What other entertainments [besides the anti-Muslim video which they attempted to blame for the Benghazi attack] have senior U.S. officials reviewed lately? Last year Hillary Clinton went to see the Broadway musical [The] Book of Mormon. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”? The Book of Mormon’s big showstopper is “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which apparently translates as “F*** you, God.” The U.S. secretary of state stood and cheered.
Why does Secretary Clinton regard “F*** you, God” as a fun toe-tapper for all the family but “F*** you, Allah” as “disgusting and reprehensible”? The obvious answer is that, if you sing the latter, you’ll find a far more motivated crowd waiting for you at the stage door. So the “leader of the free world” and “the most powerful man in the world” (to revive two cobwebbed phrases nobody seems to apply to the president of the United States anymore) is telling the planet that the way to ensure your beliefs command his “respect” is to be willing to burn and bomb and kill. You Mormons need to get with the program.
Update, March 12, 2014: BYU Professor Dan Peterson, who writes a regular column with a Mormon bent on religion and apologetic issues for The Deseret News, linked to a column from the January 20, 2011 edition in which he discussed the potential impact of The Book of Mormon Musical on public perception of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members. (Incidentally, contributions by the good professor and myself, respectively, once appeared in the same edition of the News. I sent him a private message alerting him to that fact and offering (thoroughly tongue-in-cheek) to do what I could to see to it that nothing similar happened again if he was concerned about any damage that might result therefrom to his reputation. I never got a reply from the (no doubt very busy) professor.)
Professor Peterson’s work (Daniel Peterson (January 20, 2011) Defending the Faith: Anti-Mormon mockery can actually lead to teaching moments,” The Deseret News) can be found here (last accessed March 12, 2014): http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705364781/Anti-Mormon-mockery-can-actually-lead-to-teaching-moments.html. Here is a “money quote” from his commentary:
I believe . . . that it’s far preferable for the church to be attacked than to be ignored, to be considered weird than to be of no interest at all.
So long as the claims of the gospel are being discussed, even negatively, there are openings for teaching. When people are apathetic, there are no openings at all.
The good professor may well be right. I respect his opinion on a good number of things having to do with Mormon apologetics (defense of the faith), as well as those having to do with Mormonism generally. However we might feel about being lampooned, perhaps the best response is simply to “live above it.”
|1.||Mark Steyn (September 22, 2012) “Bowing to the Mob,” National Review, accessed on line at http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/328163/bowing-mob-mark-steyn on March 11, 2014.|
Update, June 16, 2014: Another poster at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion posted a link to a blog post by Danny Rasmussen contrasting his own experience as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Africa with that depicted in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s irreverent, vulgar take on missionary life in Africa, The Book of Mormon Musical. He shares the conversion story of one of his companions who is an African native (“Elder Peace”), of what this young man had to sacrifice both to join the Church and to serve a mission – and of the blessings he received in return. For Brother Rasmussen’s blog post, see here (last accessed today): http://www.normons.com/what-the-book-of-mormon-musical-wont-tell-you/.
In response, I said:
While we’ve never met, I was directed to your blog by a link to this post that appeared on a board I frequent at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion. Thank you so much for sharing accounts of your real-life African missionary experience and of your inspired, inspiring missionary companion. It struck a chord with me on several levels: First, while I didn’t serve a mission in Africa, I did serve in Southern California. Second, good satire, at which The Book of Mormon: The Musical, makes an attempt, has at its root a grain of truth which its creators discovered by attempting to understand its subject as insiders understand it. Parker and Stone’s play fails because they did not make such attempt. And third, an ounce of real-world experience is worth a pound of ill-informed, clumsy satire. Thanks for tipping the scales!
For whatever they’re worth, here are my own thoughts on The Book of Mormon: The Musical:
And here are some reminiscences from my own mission (though I’m sure your mission was far more challenging than my own sojourn in that exotic, faraway, foreign land of Southern California ;-D):
Regarding other comments on Brother Rasmussen’s blog, I wrote:
Gh@gmail.com Said: “Relax! Life is too short wasting time on writing something like this. The Book of Mormon was created just for entertainment value. Those who get offended needs to maybe focus more on spreading the word and accepting that others may find what they do odd or worthy of satire. It’s not like the artist is saying don’t be Mormon. Life too short, laugh a little.”
Ken K. Gourdin Sez: I see: so, Parker and Stone somehow aren’t the ones who wasted their time crafting a clumsy satire that some (perhaps many – including people of all religious stripes, not just Mormons, as well as people of no particular religious stripe)) might (and often do) find offensive. (Mark Steyn, for example, isn’t Mormon, but he’s pointed out the irony that few people who think that The Book of Mormon Musical, in which a character utters the line, “F*** you, God” is uproariously funny, while, conversely, if the play were lampooning Islam rather than Mormonism and the character, instead, uttered the line “F*** you, Allah” would think it equally funny).
Rather, Brother Rasmussen has wasted his time writing a response because you feel that response is too uptight. GH, the fact that many Mormons are offended by Parker and Stone’s clumsy attempt at satire doesn’t mean that we don’t have a sense of humor or that we don’t realize that there’s plenty to laugh about in Mormonism. We do, on both counts, as I point out in my own response to the play (which, I realize, alas, you are apt to dismiss as simply more whining from yet another uptight Mormon; still, in case I’m wrong, see the following link:
I think your assessment of who spent his time in fairer, more worthwhile pursuits has it exactly backward, GH.
I also quoted and responded to another poster:
Non Mormon guy Said: One of the biggest points made in the musical is the fact that your religion (like most religions) puts you in this huge glorified bubble, where there is black and white, good and bad, “oh we dont judge, but you’re goin to hell… Oops my bad, I mean ‘not going to heaven.’
Ken K. Gourdin Sez: Methinks thou paintest with too broad a brush, there, Non Mormon guy. The Mormon conception of the afterlife actually is probably the most nuanced of any such conception in all of Christianity. Yes, we do take literally Christ’s injunction that, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5). We also believe Peter when he said that Christ (in spirit), after His death but before his resurrection (the reuniting of His body with His spirit) went to the spirit world to preach the Gospel there. (See 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6 and 1 Corinthians 15:29).
It’s really hard to go to hell in Mormonism! ;-D
Update, August 7, 2015: God Moves in Mysterious Ways, Even, in Some Cases, Using a Vulgar, Profane Musical as His Instrument – Here’s an account from the Deseret News of Sister Whitney Butters and her experience as a missionary bearing her testimony (sharing her witness) regarding the book’s truthfulness with the cast of The Book of Mormon: The Musical as she conducted a tour of historical sites of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that included the shop where the book was printed. (last accessed August 7, 2015): http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865594160/Bearing-testimony-to-the-cast-of-the-Book-of-Mormon-musical.html?pg=all.
She describes the cast’s reaction: “The cast was courteous, showed genuine interest and asked additional thought-provoking questions.”
I can’t recount exactly what I said, but I remember speaking more boldly than I ever had before. It felt as if the words coming out of my mouth weren’t mine at all, but were the Spirit’s.
I don’t know if any of the cast members gave the experience a second thought. Perhaps they won’t remember a word my companion or I said.
What I do know, however, is the Spirit was there. I felt it, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to stand tall with conviction and declare, “I know the Book of Mormon is true.”
In a perverse way, I am grateful for the continuing divergence of the profane, vulgar, ways of the world (as exemplified, at least somewhat, by the musical, although I will take the word of some of those who have seen it that it is not as critical of or as hostile to my faith as one might expect), on the one hand, and the ways of God, on the other hand. The starker the contrast, the easier it is to discern between the two—whether one actually is moved to act upon the contrast by more earnestly seeking the latter or not.
And, speaking of the divergence between man’s ways and God’s ways (as Isaiah writes, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways, see Isaiah 55:8-9; and as the Apostle Paul writes, often, man thinks that God’s ways are foolish, because, often, man neither has nor hearkens to the Holy Spirit, see 1 Corinthians 2:11), here (also from the Deseret News, last accessed August 7, 2015: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865579813/Inspired-question-Book-of-Mormon-musical-leads-to-former-California-mayors-conversion.html?pg=all) is the story of a former California mayor, Richard Marcus, for whom The Book of Mormon: The Musical figures prominently in his conversion to the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of his reaction to the musical, Marucs reports that it simply whetted his curiousity about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints even more. The article notes that “Marcus attended the irreverent, off-color but critically acclaimed musical at the Pantages Theatre in early September,” and that he “wanted even more to find out what this [Mormonism] was all about.”
Marcus noted the contrast between earnestly attempting to absorb the words of living prophets from one of the Church’s General Conferences earlier in the day and following his usual routine of having a drink before he retired. The article quotes Marcus as follows: “I put the glass to my lips and the Spirit was gone like that,” Marcus said with a snap of his fingers. “I had gone from someone who was Spirit-filled and now I had nothing.”
As for Parker, Stone, Lopez, and anyone else involved in the production of the musical? As much as part of me might hate to say this, I suppose I can only say, “Keep up the good work.”