The Good Book
While I was away traversing the mighty jungles of mid-town Manhattan, I had the chance to see The Book of Mormon. Even if you aren’t a theatre person, chances are you’ve still heard of this Tony award winning, sold-out-till-2013 juggernaut. It has gotten a lot of national press, since two of its three writers are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brain trust behind South Park. (The third is Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez.)
Because of its pedigree, I was well prepared for a show that might cross the lines of good taste as it mocked Mormonism specifically and organized religion more generally. And it certainly did not disappoint in that regard. I also assumed it would be wickedly funny, and again Parker, Stone and Lopez delivered. Trust me on this. If you see only one light-hearted musical comedy this year that features AIDS epidemics, warlords shooting people in the face, maggot infestations in people’s genitals and coitus with frogs, you could do worse than picking Book of Mormon.
What I hadn’t expected was to leave the theatre feeling uplifted about the world, humanity and – yes – religion. More surprising still, it turns out Book of Mormon is in part about the potential power of religion as an inspiring force of Good in the world; it certainly inspired that tiny spiritual part of me far more than an all-day Kirk Cameron movie marathon ever could.
[A quick kind-of-warning that spoilers will follow. I say “kind-of-warning” because Broadway musicals are not built on the literary mechanism of suspense. You can know the entire storyline of Book of Mormon and it won’t interfere with the experience of seeing it performed, so I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s like not listening to the lyrics of a Springsteen song before you go see him in concert because you don’t want to know how the song ends until you see the show. But if you’re about to see The Book Of Mormon and really, really don’t want any spoilers of any kind, you should turn back now.]
The story of Book of Mormon is somewhat straightforward. Two young Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, are sent to Uganda to cast their nets for converts. Price is Salt Lake’s golden child, whom everyone in the church believes is destined for greatness. Cunningham is a friendless underacheiver, good-natured but hapless and completely lacking in social skills or personal confidence. The Ugandan village to which they are sent turns out to be a cesspool of poverty, starvation, disease, superstition and violence. The Mormon missionaries who have preceded them have yet to convert even one villager despite years of effort. Much hilarity ensues.
One of the many brilliant minor details of the play’s set was a small chalkboard that hangs on a wall in the missionaries’ headquarters. Each missionary’s name is listed, and in subsequent columns it shows how many converts each has racked up in the previous quarter. It’s a sales tracker, that common competitive tool of shame used by sales managers everywhere. It’s such a small part of the set that I don’t know that I would have noticed it had I not seen so many over the years. And of course, all of the columns are filled with zeros, as the church has never succeeded in getting even one convert. And when we witness a scene were Elder Price tells a few of the villagers the story of the prophet Joseph Smith, it’s easy to see why this is so. The messages that mean so much to the missionaries – such as how awesome it is that Joseph Smith was American and that the United States was a country predestined for greatness by Heavenly Father – mean little to people living in constant squalor and fear on the other side of the globe from Salt Lake City.
The tide turns, however, when circumstances force the infelicitous and nerdy Elder Cunningham to deliver a sermon to the entire village. He is terrified, and not simply because he doesn’t like being the center of attention; he confesses beforehand that he’s never actually read the Good Book, and isn’t really sure what’s in it. And at the start of his sermon, things go about as badly as you might expect. However, when various villagers announce they are about to go off and do horrible acts in the name of superstition, Cunningham panics. (And the horrible acts are indeed horrid: one is off to circumcise his grown daughter to appease a nearby warlord’s religious demands. Another is off to have sex with an infant; the villagers believe sleeping with a virgin will cure you of AIDS, and since the only virgins left are babies…) In his panicked attempt to stop them from committing atrocities, Cunningham begins to make things up about the lessons the Book of Mormon contains. They are wild, tall tales, filled with characters from Cunningham’s favorite movies, Star Wars, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. None of the stories are remotely plausible. (“In ancient New York, three men were about to cut off a Mormon woman’s clitoris! But right before they did – Jesus had Boba Fett turn them into frogs!”) As ridiculous as the stories seem to the audience, they somehow manage to connect with the villagers. As a result by the end of the play everyone in the village converts to what they believe is Mormonism, and Arnold appears to have inadvertently created his own religion.
The entire play is, of course, a satire. But all smart satire is based on fundamental truths, and the Book of Mormon’s satire is bloody brilliant. The church that spawned Cunningham and Price is already an old and established behemoth, and is far more focused on growth than betterment. The hook that catches its comfortable American members is winning a paradise planet where they rule as Gods in the afterlife. Because of this the good that they might or might not do on this mortal coil is at best a means to an end, notable only for how it might affect their chances for their own personal after-death bliss.
When the church’s hierarchs visit to see why there are so many sudden converts after years of bupkis, they care little for the positive and moral direction the villagers’ lives have taken thanks to Cunningham’s blasphemy. Their singular concern is adherence to church dogma. To them, a village suffering while ignoring approved messaging is preferable to a village working together to find moral responses to an immoral world if such is due to non-approved messaging.
The “Latter Day” Cunningham and Price have been raised to long for is the one that occurs after death, that they can reach only if they strictly adhere to church dogma. The “Latter Day” they ultimately choose is tomorrow, which compels them to work today to make sure tomorrow’s world is slightly better. The moral calling they feel to help those less fortunate leads them to abandon the church they grew up loving and set their sights lower. (Or higher, depending upon your point of view.) As members of the church they measured their success by the size of their flock; as heretics they measure it by the state of their flock.
The appeal of this message probably has everything to do with my secular mindset. Since I don’t believe in an afterlife, let alone a God that divides the dead into winners and losers, a religion that favors any dogma over compassion to my fellow humans has zero appeal to me.
Further, Book of Mormon speaks to something that I consider a capital-T Truth. The villagers in the Book of Mormon did not need the Lord God to come down from heaven to convince them that horrible acts of evil were, in fact, horrible acts of evil. Nor did they need to study advanced philosophy, that they might reason out over time that this was so. Instead, the knowledge of what was good was inherent inside of them, just as plainly as was the desire to do wrong. Cunningham’s stories did not speak to the villagers because they were divinely inspired (at least we assume); they spoke to them because they contained truths they already knew in their hearts.
I suspect that this last part is the biggest reason that some have a problem with The Book of Mormon. Stories that bring humanity to Truth at the expense of sterility rankle many, even if it inspires to the cause. (If you don’t believe this, try discussing the works of Nikos Kazantzakis with folks at your next church potluck.) For the devout of a certain stripe, the take away to Book of Mormon is the same as the church leaders to the fruits of Elder Cunningham’s good works: the morality of the message to help others in need is superseded by the demand to respect recognized dogma.
Religion aside, the Book of Mormon is a testament to the profound power of storytelling. Cunningham’s stories become more than entertaining tales to those that hear them. For the villagers, they become the candle that keeps the darkness at bay – even the darkness within them. Because of this, as I was watching the musical I found myself reminded less of South Park and more of the works of Neil Gaiman. In fact, Cunningham’s use of storytelling to make people believe that the potential good of their community might win out over the well-armed forces of their oppressors reminded me of nothing more than the climactic scene in Anansi Boys, where Fat Charlie discovers he can dispatch Tiger and remake reality itself into a better place though the magic craft of story.
If you are planning on coming to New York in the next year, I really encourage you to beg, borrow or steal to get tickets.