Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Making Things Up Again?

Personal Reflections on the Book of Mormon Musical


I gave the following remarks at the November 23, 2011 panel discussion  entitled "The Book of Mormon:The Mormon Moment in Musical Theater," sponsored by the Yale LDSSA. Other contributing panelists included McKay Nield, LDSSA VP; Kathryn Lofton, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies; and Dan Egan, Lecturer in Theater Studies.


I was wary as I walked into the Eugene O’Neill theater. I had read considerable amounts on the internet about the Book of Mormon, both positive and negative, and had some strong opinions about the musical already. The musical met some of my expectations and blew others away.

I.

Perhaps the most interesting thing was that it was shockingly not anti-Mormon - in its ultimate message. In political science fashion, I had created a method to test whether the musical was unfairly targeting us: if the musical could have the same effect by representing any other religion, it would be worthy to ask why Mormonism –against which there is enough prejudice and misunderstanding- was chosen. In the end, I decided that the musical’s desired effect required a religion that fit three criteria:

1. Its members are widely liked and respected.
2. Its beliefs are widely ridiculed and derided.
3. It has a well-known brand name.
And a fourth was useful: Missionary work facilitates a culture clash narrative.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that Mormonism is the only one that fits all four. Catholics and Protestant beliefs are not widely considered absurd; Jehovah’s Witnesses and Evangelicals are widely disliked, probably especially among theater-going New Yorker crowds; Seventh-day Adventists are not well-known; Jews and Muslims are made nearly untouchable by their connections to intense racial and political issues.

On the other hand, even the great Charles Dickens noted in 1851 that “what the Mormons do seems to be excellent; what they say is mostly nonsense.” I disagree, of course, but I understand how some actual teachings of the Church could seem absurd. My family’s always joked that God must have a sense of humor to choose a guy named Joe Smith as his prophet.

The writers merely posit the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an exemplar religion: they believe the stories it tells are preposterous, but those stories are still inspiring and contribute to general niceness. In fact, the musical ends with the missionary main characters starting their own church based on the tales that a missionary with a penchant for compulsive lying had concocted by cobbling together characters, items, and places from Mormonism and the scifi/fantasy fandom.

The fact that Mormon missionaries are teenagers, furthermore, allows the musical to tell a coming-of-age story, which in the present is commonly linked to growing disillusionment with childhood religion. Despite using this device, the musical partially subverts the common trope equating so-called secularization with maturity when they have their characters start a new church.

II.

Second, the fact that Parker and Stone had so very obviously done their research – they even got the Church’s official font right – only made the places where they deliberately distorted Mormon teachings and practices more egregious. While it wasn’t anti-Mormon in its conclusions, it nevertheless used the same devices used by anti-Mormon writers. For example, all throughout the song “I Believe” I wanted to shout, “You’re making things up again!” Among actual, commonly-held LDS doctrines the elder belted were numerous folk doctrines that have currency but not canonicity in the church, like the things about planets. Others represent overemphasis of peripheral doctrines, unflattering explanations, or blatant fabrications that I’ve only seen in ignorant anti-Mormon tracts.

My greatest concern involves these applications of creative license. While the audiences may have had the sensitivity and knowledge to recognize the caricatured exaggeration of Africa enough to not be outraged at that, I know beyond doubt that most that see the musical lack sufficient knowledge of or interest in LDS doctrine to distinguish fact from falsity. For example, I’m afraid that people will think that “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” represents our vision of the afterlife, instead of its being an appropriation of an Evangelical depiction of hell for the sake of symbolic familiarity and comedic effect. First, we don’t believe in the fire-and-brimstone hell of Puritan jeremiads. Moreover, a recent poll showed that Mormons are the least likely among American religionists to believe that adherents of other religions will go to hell. If any take the musical as representing Mormons accurately they will walk away with misguided impressions.

III.

But there were some parts of the musical that I loved. Parker and Stone, after all, did their research. I could relate to just about every situation in which their missionaries found themselves, and sometimes it was actually deeply touching or uncanny. They captured common missionary experiences well.

On a personal level, as a missionary in Northern Argentina, I certainly had the same single-minded, driven determination of Elder Price, but I also had the exceptional nerdiness of Elder Cunningham. The sentence “The Mormon in my basement speaks Elvish,” uttered by a friend, referred to me.

I too dealt with the discouragement it brought to walk miles each day, speak with dozens of people, and find no interested parties. A scene in the show when the two main characters were climbing into their low-quality twin beds for the night, exchanging thoughtful phrases of encouragement, bore so much verisimilitude to so many moments on my mission it immediately transported me back to the dusty apartments and creaky beds in Saenz Pena or Garupa.

I too dreamed of doing incredible things, and admit that at moments altruism may have been tainted by ambition. When I got the chance to preach in the town of Campo Largo, where no missionaries had been for almost three years; that was the fulfillment of a dream I’d had for over a year.

On another note, when the two missionaries on the stage had an altercation that escalated to one shouting the other down, I was taken back to the six weeks in which I had a companion, new to Argentina, who resisted the majority of my advice with yelling and threats.

IV.

Lastly, the final song, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day,” is a refutation of the things Parker and Stone find wrong with Mormonism: self-repression and a focus on the afterlife. It is also an affirmation of the things they feel religion should do: encourage social unity, improvement, and optimism – and now. “The past may be in tatters/ but today is all that matters.” However, I feel that it unintentionally encapsulates an important element of particularly Mormon thought.

The last author in the Book of Mormon, Moroni, begins his record by declaring that “I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people.” Despite his circumstances, however, he sees in God’s promises of postmortal happiness “a more excellent hope,” and some of his last words are in praise of the Christian trio of faith, hope, and charity, which he held dear even if their fulfillment, for him, would only come after death in the paradise of God.

One of the most characteristic Mormon hymns is “Come, Come Ye Saints,” composed by pioneer William Clayton on the trail westward. The final stanza is runs thusly:

And should we die before our journey's through,
Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!

But this otherworldly hope does not preclude this-worldly hope. If Latter-day Saints were totally heaven-minded – focused only on the latter day to which our name refers, the coming of Christ – we would not have as part of our mission to care for the poor and needy. Nor would we send out thousands to proselytize while we believing that missionary work will continue and perhaps be more effective after death. We only do these things because we care about the worldly wellbeing of those we believe to be God’s children. The hymn’s first verse is familiar in tone:

Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell -
All is well! All is well!

That in mind, I can join in the chorus, with some reservations, and sing along: “Why are Mormons happy? It’s because we know it’s a latter day tomorrow.”

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