This, my slightly more scathing review, was printed in the Spring 2012 issue of the Yale student publication on religious life, Fiat Lux.
“Mormons experience the [Book of Mormon musical] like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.”
– Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University
Humor operates by pointing out non-threatening incongruities between expectations and reality. Because of the quick nature of a punchline, the nuance, dimension, and context of reality are often stripped away to remove any distractions from the incongruity emphasized. Sometimes such flattening can be insightful: it can take an uncommon viewpoint and point out its absurd implications. However, flattening for purposes of humor can introduce, reiterate, and reinforce harmful or unthinking stereotypes of minority groups by radically decontextualizing them.
Such is the case in the new hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon. The musical, which follows the exploits of a pair of new Mormon missionaries in rural warlord-ridden Uganda (shades of Kony 2012, anyone?), relies almost exclusively on cheap shots at both African and Mormon characters in order to garner laughs. (I ignore the ubiquitous vulgarity.) The Africans are bawdy, ignorant, cynical, morally cowardly, technologically inept, and socially decrepit. For unflattering and stereotyped depictions of Africans, removing from them the context of slavery, segregation, subjugation, and colonization, we have a term: blackface.
And while the musical is not in essence anti-Mormon, it uses worn and tired anti-Mormon techniques and arguments to elicit laughter. Shall I call it blacktag? The Mormons are flattened to be hideously but endearingly naïve and unsophisticated, super-white, super-compliant, and super-repressed; to their credit, they are determined, sincere, and nice. While in the United States Mormonism still has to break the perception of blinding whiteness (an image adopted in part to combat historical anti-Mormon campaigns that portrayed Mormons as racial others), the LDS Church is a truly global entity now. In fact, before a recent coup, Yeah Samake – a black African Mormon – was a viable presidential candidate in his native country of Mali. But the musical can’t have that much nuance.
Furthermore, the presentation of Mormon doctrines and beliefs is calculated to exaggerate their incongruity with everyday discourse. In the song “I Believe,” the most egregious offender, half of what is said is conventional and Christian (God is our Father and has a plan for us, including Jesus as savior of the world). However, the other half the writers concocted out of detritus the writers dredged out of the sediment-ridden riverbeds of undoctrinal and speculative Mormon arcana … or they just plain fabricated it (divinized humans getting their own planets – speculation; Jesus having his own planet – made up). In fact, so indeterminate and peripheral are these falsely so-called “beliefs” that the LDS Church recently released an FAQ (an exceptionally rare event) refuting their accuracy and importance for Latter-day Saints. Do some Mormons think the Garden of Eden was in Missouri? Yes, but the Church doesn’t know and doesn’t care.
Many of the seemingly absurd statements of Mormonism actually make sense when charitably put into their proper theological and cosmological context – as with many doctrines of any faith. Of course, when recontextualized by the white, wealthy, old, and probably secular or liberal Protestant/Catholic Broadway audiences, the logical framework for the beliefs is totally absent, and unsurprisingly, people laugh at their inevitable collapse. And when the authors can’t get enough mileage out of unconventional-sounding beliefs, they have to dress them up in funny diction. The most baffling line in this respect is “I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.” Upon critical reflection, one realizes that nearly all who pray, particularly Protestants, believe they “speak directly to God.” Humor is created by making the line so dramatically anti-metrical and by particularizing the prophetic vocation with a mundane modern name that is neither archaic nor Hebraic.
The musical also presents Mormonism as hilariously incongruous with even minimal critical thinking. The only characters who truly believe its doctrines are callow missionaries, whose beliefs have never been challenged; missionaries in denial who refuse to entertain the possibility of unbelief; and a single gullible and lovestruck African girl. You never see thinking people work through the complexities of living a distinctly premodern faith in a modern world; any thought whatsoever immediately dispels such beliefs and gives rise to secular (or quasi-religious) disillusionment and enlightenment. The audience sits back in colonialist pleasure, watching the Mormons reel as their primitive notions and unscientific superstitions are deconstructed in accordance with the observers’ undisputedly superior perspective on truth and right. The show’s Africans already believed in this truth and this right but lacked the moral force to act upon these convictions until the missionaries came; the disaffected missionaries, to whom the audience’s morality becomes immediately self-evident, merely contribute their sunny altruism to their new, nice, skeptical paradise. This gives the show that “feel-good” buzz: we’re right, they’re nice; let’s remake the world together!
On the flipside, you can learn a lot about a culture from its in-group humor, something that is almost entirely missing from the musical. You never really see jokes Mormons tell about Mormons; when the Mormons in the show talk, it sometimes feels supremely unnatural, because they’re talking as only non-Mormons would*.
The authors, however, take a degree of pride in being able to hear when there are Mormons in the audience; Mormons laugh at things no one else laughs at and demonstrate that Mormons, too, find the show funny, thus relieving the authors of the burden of accusations of unfairness. However, these guffaws stem not from any clever recognition of underlying incongruity. Mormons who see the show laugh for two reasons. First, they laugh at the incongruity of seeing this or that Mormon detail so remarkably out of place: in a theater, in a musical, written by non-Mormons. It’s the humor of inside jokes and spatial irony, not of wit or commentary. Second, Mormons are often so familiar with the non-Mormon perspective that they can laugh at their own apparent absurdity, just as my family often chuckles at the Lord’s prophet being a guy named Joe Smith. In fact, many of the times Mormons mention the apocryphal doctrines presented in the musical are in the context of self-referential humor.
That said, I would like to end by sharing a good joke about Mormons that would actually be enlightening if others took the effort to comprehend why Mormons laugh at it. It points out an official Mormon belief and notes where the typical Mormon might not live up to the same standard of judgment his Church encourages, bringing out tensions in Mormonism that detractors are all too eager to ignore for a quick laugh.
What is the difference between Mormons and Catholics?
Catholics are told that the pope is infallible, and no one believes it.
Mormons are told that the prophet (president of the Church) is fallible, and no one believes it.
*In one scene, for example, there are missionaries that utter the phrase “Praise Jesus” over and over – something that you would only very seldom hear in an LDS Church, and never repeated every ten seconds. Not that we do not praise Jesus; but that way of expressing it is absent in Mormon culture where it has not been imported by the occasional Evangelical convert.