Place, Growth, and Pragmatism in “The Book of Mormon” Musical

*WARNING: I am trying to serve intellectual analysis first and foremost in this post, but it will nonetheless be very offensive to active Mormons, Christians, or frog aficionados for that matter.  Offense is the whole point of the work that I am reviewing here.  You’ve been warned!*

One of the things that struck me about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park, from the moment I first saw it as an awkward 18 year old recently returned from a summer job in rural desert Southern Utah, was the series’ strong sense of regionalism and place.  South Park the town was an isolated Colorado Mountain community; something I could relate to as someone who lived in and loved the rural intermountain West.  There were local quirky characters who were undeniably western (redneck hunter Uncle Jimbo comes to mind).  They had a local “Cow Days” festival (just like Richmond, UT has a Black and White Days!).  The town’s insular but tight sense of community was most evident looking down its Main Street: a small bar, bizarre local businesses like “Tom’s Rhinoplasty,” and perhaps the single, local police figure, Officer Barbrady.  This cartoon location was not a vaguely Midwestern Anytown, USA, as the Simpsons’ Springfield is, and certainly not one of the stock northeastern or West Coast locations that most series, animated or live, rely upon.  It was WESTERN.  Intermountain, frontier, autonomous, peripheral, isolated.  Take away the fart jokes, and Stegner or Turner would be proud.

jimbo and ned

You see, Ned, our sense of place and rugged frontier individualism is key to preserving American Democracy!

But this changed over time from the late 1990s to the 2010s.  Like so many main streets in the rural West, South Park’s became more like the rest of the United States.  Whether as a conscious commentary, or out of Parker’s and Stone’s need for more material, South Park gradually got strip malls, Walmarts, Apple Stores, racial diversity,franchise restaurants, late-model Suburus, film festivals, and 4g coverage.  The single town policeman was replaced by a full force of gritty, urban, vaguely Irish cops.  South Park as an Island Community was no more.

This transition from the quaintly insular toward mainstream integration in the West is not just evident in small western towns like South Park.  It is one of the broad stories of a strongly regional religion a few mountain ranges to South Park’s west: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).  In a process that continues to fascinate and perplex me, an early 19th century millenarian separatist cult has, via very rough road at times, made the journey to being a more mainstream, center-right “Family Values”-type religion, that tries to retain relevance (but also distinction) in the globalized 21st century.

Mormonism has been a recurring topic in the satirical art of Stone and Parker: their first musical, Cannibal: The Musical featured Mormon settlers briefly, their film Orgazmo told the story of a Mormon missionary-turned pornstar, and the faith appeared occasionally in South Park (heaven is populated by bike-helmet wearing missionaries obsessed with arts and crafts, and later an entire episode is devoted to a Mormon family that moves to town).  I wondered early on if Parker or Stone had been raised Mormon; they certainly had enough of a grasp of both theological and cultural quirks to have been.  It turns out that, no, neither had been Mormon, but they had grown up with quite a few.

So, it was unsurprising when the duo created their magnum opus, the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  It is touring off-broadway right now– seriously, go see it.  This Tony-winning work has been analyzed and reviewed into the ground by this point, and, along with the candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2012, has been perhaps the most significant pop cultural force bringing Mormonism to national attention since the Osmonds.  It is brutal in its satire, and makes no qualms that the premises of Mormonism’s unique scripture, The Book of Mormon, are utterly ridiculous.  But at the same time, the musical manages somehow to be polite, and nice to the religion.

newsweek-cover-mormons

The LDS Church responded with civility to the musical’s success: they initiated an ad campaign inviting people to visit their website (there are even LDS ads in the musical’s playbill); devout members politely made comments about how the musical was misunderstanding their culture.  But that was about the extent of controversy.  In today’s age of religious extremism, many media commentators noted that, had a musical about the origins of Islam been written, the religious response would have been much less polite, and probably violent.  Of course this is true.  Fewer people noted that, had a musical taken similar lighthearted aim at, say, Southern Evangelical Christians, the religious response would have also been vitriolic and possibly violent.

The broad underlying theme of the whole musical are the ways in which it shows the problems of Mormonism’s transition (and attempts at transition) from peripheral to integrated, from regional to international, insular to all-encompassing; just as South Park moved from Main Street to franchises.  So much of this is tied to the fact that Mormonism is not simply a religion.  In Utah, it is a distinct culture.  What happens when a distinct and very provincial culture that is so tied to place (the intermountain West), originated in a specific and recent time (Second Great Awakening and Jacksonian America), and was based off of some VERY bizarre and specific “prophecies” attempts to become universal, say, by sending Utahn missionaries to early 21st century Uganda?  This is the theme of The Book of Mormon musical. (note: through this essay, I’l be referring to both the musical and the Mormon scripture as italicized Book of Mormon, but I will specify when referring to the musical.  Pay attention.)

I’ll start with some minor points.

The musical certainly contains plenty of jabs at Mormon culture, all of which I thought were quite apt.  One of the opening numbers features naïve 19 year old males at the MTC (Missionary Training Center), accepting their various mission assignments with blissful joy– “Norway?  Home of Gnomes!”  “Uganda?  Like the Lion King!”  With the  odd-couple pairing of the two protagonists– standout golden boy Elder Price, and overweight, compulsive liar Elder Cunningham, we even get a great look into how the Mormon social hierarchy works.  Price sings about how the pair is going to do great things, but “mostly me!” while Cunningham happily accepts his inferior status as a sidekick.  This hit close to home for me, as I recalled so many church talks on how every member was valuable and important, but that the Lord had ordained natural leaders who were “blessed” with “the spirit” to call the shots just a bit more than the rest.  These natural leaders, coincidently enough, were usually the tall, the blonde, the beardless, the athletic. They would be troop patrol leaders in boy scouts, seminary council members in the church education system, and go on to serve as Bishops and Stake Presidents in their adulthood.  The “Mostly Me” song nailed this subtle hierarchical paradox, in which all adult males  hold “the priesthood,” but only the business-like, clean-shaven, republican, upper-middle class types would move up the ranks of the lay clergy.  It is clear: Price has it, Cunningham does not.  (Mitt Romney also has, or had it)

The highpoint of the musical’s first half was the song and dance number “Turn it off,” in which the Greek Chorus of missionaries instructs the newcomers Cunningham and Price to simply ignore the bad stuff of sub-Saharan African– “turn it off, like a light switch!”  This starts of in reference to a murder by a warlord that the missionaries witnessed, but we all know what the “turn it off” mentality is really directed to (it’s THE GAY!), as various missionaries sing their testimonials of lusty same-sex attraction (or for that matter opposite sex attraction), and then end by saying “I turned it off!”  The irony of seeing a sharply dressed, tightly choreographed troupe of oh-so-gay actors dressed as missionaries sing this was over-the-top awesome, but again, at the root this stuff hit home.  You want to know how deep this “turn it off” mentality goes?  Just read Apostle Mark Peterson’s advice to young boys dealing with the evil temptation of masturbation.

Beyond some of these cultural references to provincial sexual repression, the musical most definitely points at some of the most obvious logical and historical problems with Mormonism’s origins and the Book of Mormon scripture.  Again, Parker and Stone have long been very adept at showcasing the ridiculous nature of Mormonism’s origins as perceived by outsiders– see South Park’s treatment of the Martin and Lucy Harris story for a great pre-musical example.  But, in both South Park and in The Book of Mormon, Parker and Stone are less concerned with the detailed logical problems of early Mormonism (no golden plates were ever seen, Joseph Smith gave multiple versions of his “first vision” story, and so on and so forth), and more with the ways in which ridiculous beliefs can help people do very good things.

It is in this theme that the pathological liar, Elder Cunningham, really shines forth.  Upon thinking (or realizing) that the traditional missionary discussions from his Provo training are simply not engaging his Ugandan flock, Cunningham simply starts making stuff up.  He combines Mormon cosmology and canon into a pop culture mashup of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings,  and frog-fucking (bear with me here), ultimately empowering the Ugandans to join the Church and overthrow their oppressive warlord.

One exchange between Cunningham and a villager who wishes to copulate with a baby to cure his AIDS goes like this:

Uhhh, Behold! The LORD said to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, “You shall NOT have sex with that infant!” And lo Joseph said, “Why not, LORD? Huh? Why not?” And the LORD said, “if you lay with that infant, you shall” [makes an explosive sound] burn in the fiery pits of- Mordor!  … A baby cannot cure your illness, Joseph Smith. I shall give unto you a… a FROG.” And thus, Joseph laid with the frog, and his AIDS was no more!

(full transcript of the musical is available here)

In this sense, Cunningham is very much a mirror of Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith.  As the genius Smith put together the epic narrative of the Book of Mormon (this time the Mormon scripture, not the musical), elements of his own time and place made their way into the story.  Smith did not draw upon Tolkien or Star Wars, but he did slip references to paranoia about freemasonry into his story of the “Gadianton Robbers” and their “secret combination” hand signals (see Faun Brodie’s No Man Knows My History for more details on this).

More broadly, the entire Book of Mormon responded to a pressing cultural need of Americans that other religions had thus far ignored: if America was the greatest, most God-blessed nation on earth, and if the Bible was the literal and comprehensive word of God, why did the Bible not mention America?  Smith responded with perhaps one of the earliest occasions of “fan fiction” in America– “You like the Bible?  Then you’ll LOVE the Book of Mormon!  There are biblical Israelites, but in AMERICA!”  Or, in the slightly more restrained words of Smith biographer and Mormon elder Richard Bushman, Smith gave “America scriptural legitimacy.”

So, by this point in my narrative of amphibious copulation and sociopathic lying,  all devout Mormon readers are probably thoroughly disgusted.  But here’s the thing: When Cunningham threatens the villagers with eternal damnation into the pits of Mordor, or makes up a story of Bobba Fett turning frog fuckers into frogs themselves, he has departed from traditional Mormonism, but also responds to the concerns and needs of the Ugandans with sensational, epic stories that are not entirely his, but that are packaged by his raw talent and charisma.  When his missionary leaders find out about his shenanigans, they are horrified at this perversion of their faith and harshly chastise him.

Similarly, Smith’s own scriptures and religion– with later tenets such as Adam-God Doctrine, Blood Atonement, and most of all polygamy– were a radical departure from traditional Christianity as well, which nonetheless appealed to many Americans, not least because of Smith’s creativity and charisma.  But, here is the most important point: mainstream Protestant Christians of the early to mid-19th century were just as horrified at what Smith was saying about polygamy as modern Mormons would be at Cunningham preaching about Smith fucking a frog.

What Parker and Stone are saying is, “yes, Smith may have been a sociopath, sexual predator, and a liar, but he created a faith and culture that helped people feel good about themselves.  So what?”  A variation of this statement also occasionally appears in South Park episodes, both in the aforementioned Mormon show, and in a later one that asserts in its conclusion: “Who cares if Jesus ever existed or not?  He has influenced more people than most other REAL historical characters!”  Ultimately, Parker and Stone have come to the same conclusion that William James came to in his pragmatist work The Varieties of Religious Experience: religion is valuable for its psychological benefit to the individual and the community.  Whether it is “true” or not is irrelevant, and not even really that interesting.

Furthermore, Stone and Parker’s particular brand of satirical humor strives to mock those things in life that are difficult to mock; they do not shoot fish in barrels.  They transcend the tired divides of today’s culture wars– secular vs. religious, conservative vs. liberal.  It would be very easy– too easy for Parker and Stone– to take the smug, Richard Dawkins-styled approach of “haha, these people are stupid for believing that Indians are descended from Hebrews who were cursed with red skin for wickedness!”  Instead, Parker and Stone have long taken it a further step, mocked religion, and then turned around and mocked Dawkins (as well as all other smug liberals).  In this sense, they are very much a continuation of the sort of non-partisan, libertarian satire that Frank Zappa began fifty years ago when he attacked both the stupidity of both religious conservatives and stoned out hippies.

zappa

There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.  

–Frank Zappa

But I digress.  There are problems with Parker and Stone’s pragmatist view of religion being valuable for its individual psychological benefit to its members, and especially in the case of Mormonism.  As it began, and as it continues to be, Mormonism (and especially Smith) has always been unusually focused on the literal and the material, and averse to the symbolic and the metaphor.  Smith claimed to have translated his scripture from LITERAL plates of gold, rather than simply have it revealed to him as Allah supposedly did to Muhammad.  The Garden of Eden was LITERALLY located in Missouri.  Heaven was not an otherly realm or dimension, but LITERALLY another planet.  Salvation was less spiritual and ethereal– your soul was not redeemed after death, but you LITERALLY regained a body of “flesh and bone.”  When you converted to Mormonism, your blood would LITERALLY turn to that of an Israelite.  God had once LITERALLY been a man, and LITERALLY had sex with his plural wives to create little spirit babies, including Jesus and Lucifer, who were LITERAL brothers.  Do we see a pattern here?

But the problem is that once you hinge your beliefs on the true and the material, rather than the spiritual or the metaphorical, they become vulnerable to scrutiny and being disproved.  This has been Mormonism’s major challenge as it has moved from 19th century Utah into the 20th and 21st century globalized world.  Most of the above doctrines, while not officially abandoned (you can’t ever fully abandon something that a prophet has said), have been  gradually ignored and de-emphasized.  As former church President Gordon B. Hinckley vaguely said in response to an interview question about Mormon men eventually becoming gods, “I don’t know that we teach that anymore.”

But there is one literal “truth” that no good Mormon can publicly deny or even sweep under the rug (though I suspect that many have their private doubts), despite its obvious archaeological, historical, and now genetic weakness to any casual outsider: the literal and unqualified veracity of the Book of Mormon’s story of Israelites living in the Americas from around 800 BCE to 300 CE.  As all devout Mormons state every time they “bear their testimony”– “I KNOW (“know,” not “believe”) that the Book of Mormon is true.”  Literally true.  Similar to fundamentalist Christians who base their faith on the unquestionable truth of the Bible (which, ironically enough, Mormons only believe “as far as it is translated correctly,” part of being a good Mormon is a belief in the 100% truth of the entire Book of Mormon.

This is where the true strength of the Book of Mormon musical lies.  It presents “truths” that are obviously ridiculous, impossible to defend, and rolls with them.  At the end of the musical, the Ugandan villagers state, “of course we know that the stories of Joseph Smith frog-fucking are ridiculous!  What, do you think we are morons?”  It is ridiculous to believe that fucking a frog cures AIDS, just as it is ridiculous to believe that white-skinned Israelites populated the New World, or that your family’s eternal salvation rests upon dressing in silly garments and performing variations of Masonic rituals behind the closed doors of temples.

Yet, they have found strength in these “false” stories.  The movement from the literal to the metaphorical is even seen in the realization that they may never make it to the Promised Land of Salt Lake City (or, as the Ugandans call it, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”).  The land of Milk and Honey in Salt Lake City is eventually seen as less an actual place, and more a state of mind, not unlike Augustine’s much earlier declaration that the City of God dwells in all of us, rather than being a specific place.

In other words, the ridiculous can be used for the greater good, and The Book of Mormon manages in this way to steer clear of attacking Mormonism for the sake of vitriol or smugness.  As Mormonism, which touts itself as one of the world’s “fastest growing religions” (this may be true for the US, but internationally, Mormon growth pales to Muslim birthrates) continues to try to become global while retaining its regional roots, it is going to have to keep dismissing, ignoring, de-emphasizing, but not disavowing or condemning many of its bizarre theological origins (Mormon beliefs about all African blood being cursed, which were finally changed as LDS missions began moving into Brazil are the most obvious example).  The greatest paradox, however, is that all religions exist to provide templates of human behavior that are seen as timeless, constant, and unchanging, but they can only stay relevant if they change, and evolve according to culture and place.

But let’s just all agree not to do this, though, ok?

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