Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Book of Mormon Musical

The Book of Mormon is part coming of age story that chronicles the attempts of two naive Mormon missionaries as they share the Mormon message in Uganda, and part hilarious religious satire which Parker and Stone describe as "an atheists love letter to religion."

As the crafted, yet nonchalant official Church statement about the show predicts, I was definitely "entertained for an evening." I have never laughed so hard in my life. But like a New Testament parable, The Book of Mormon goes beyond pure entertainment; it has deep themes (and some not-so-subtle messages as well) that Mormons would be better off for listening to, rather than ignoring or denouncing.


When Elder Price and Elder Arnold Cunningham get to Uganda, hoping for Mormon converts, their rosy religious notions crash into Africa's harsh reality: poverty, warlords, murder, female circumcision, disease, AIDS, and "raping babies." To make themselves feel better about their terrible life, the Ugandans sing a song, reminiscent of The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata," called "Hasa Diga Eebowai" (in English, "Fuck you, God").

Cursing God is appropriate if He really does exist in a world with so much evil in it. If God is all knowing, then He knows people are suffering. If He is all powerful, then He could stop such suffering from occurring. And if He is all loving, then he should care enough to stop it - but He doesn't. Then why does so much suffering, caused by war, genocide, murder, abusive parents, disease, earthquakes, and floods, occur? Theologians have wrestled with the problem of evil for hundreds of years. They still haven't found an adequate answer.

If God exists, He must either want us to suffer, not care if we suffer, or else He's a bungler of a God who created us without knowing that we would suffer so greatly. So why not say "Hasa Diga Eebowai?!" Sorta makes you feel good just saying it.

Ridiculousness of Religious Beliefs

Parker and Stone have always ridiculed religious beliefs from Scientology to Islam to Mormons. Nobody is spared.  An L.A. Times review says "Sacred cows, let’s just say, are there for the riotous milking." In the songs "I Believe" and "All American Prophet," the musical ridicules Mormons beliefs like Joseph Smith finding gold plates in his backyard that were made by white Christian Native Americans, that Joseph translated these gold plates into English with magic rocks, that Jesus visited America, that God lives on a planet near Kolob, and that "in 1978 God changed his mind about black people." When you compare these beliefs to any other religious beliefs (like antediluvian floods, talking snakes, creationism, godly insemination and virgin births, resurrection, angels and devils, heaven and hell, salvation, immortality, and all other miracles) are Mormon myths any more ridiculous? Not really.

The New York Times review finds something nice to say: "when looked at from a certain angle, all the forms of mythology and ritual that allow us to walk through the shadows of daily life and death are, on some level, absurd; that’s what makes them so valiant and glorious."

This brings us to our next point: religion as myth, and whether or not there is some utility in this idea.

Religion as Myth

Everybody likes Santa Claus. Kids usually believe in him until they are about 10. But then, when your parents feel that you are old enough (or else your questions are becoming too difficult to lie about) you are let in on the great secret: Santa doesn't really exist! He's a tradition, a myth, an idea. Kids understand myth. They play make-believe all the time. It's healthy for them when they are young. But not when you are 34 years old.  That's how old I was when I finally realized Mormonism and Christianity were great big myths. I must be a late bloomer because I didn't figure out about Santa until I was about 12. Mormonism encourages mythical and magical thinking for way too long. That isn't healthy.

The problem is that Mormonism, in all its ridiculousness, is taught as literal history. The Book of Mormon parodies the idea of literal religious belief when Nabulungi, the dewy village heroin who is constantly trying to get to "Salt-a-Lake City," believes in Elder Cunningham's slightly modified version of Mormonism and is baptized. After realizing that what she had been taught was wrong, she had a brief "crisis of faith." Others in the community chide her saying, "You didn't think Salt-a-Lake City was a real place did you?" or "Didn't you know that religion is a metaphor?" She didn't - and neither do a lot of religious people. Most Mormons believe our founding stories are literal history. That's the "correlated" official doctrine. To believe otherwise is to commit heresy.

But I don't think it has to be. Does it really matter that you believe Joseph Smith really had gold plates, or that the Book of Mormon story is actual history, or that he literally translated the Book of Mormon with magic rocks? What if you just appreciate it in the same way people appreciate Jesus's parables? Learn the lessons of how to be a better person from the stories it teaches. Use the myths to try and be a better person. Focus on actions rather than beliefs; orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. Someday, the church will need to come to terms with its own founding myths, stop teaching them as literal, and let people think of them as pure myth.

It might also help staunch the exodus of disaffected Mormons away from the church when they realize it's not real history. How could it be when Joseph's claims are patently bogus? Gold plates, white Nephites, transoceanic journeys in wooden submarines with honeybees and magic glowing rocks, cureloms and cumons, etc, etc, etc?  As one of the villagers tells Nabulungi (regarding one of their more outlandish doctrines): "People don't really believe that. . . That is crazy shit."


Literal religious belief is almost crazy. The only thing that separates truly crazy beliefs from many religious beliefs is that lots of people believe the religious doctrines. But is there some utility in religious myth? Sure. I think myths can help people unite and form community. Founding myths is what helps Americans feel a sense of pride and unity when we talk about our founding fathers or the Revolutionary War. It's what helps people come together on Thanksgiving and Christmas and celebrate in communities and families. As long as we focus on the community, and not whether there really is a bearded omniscient man in a red suit who gives gifts to everybody in the world (I'm talking about Santa and not Jesus), then myth can be healthy.

Community is what we really need anyway. Kids may need myth and make-believe for developmental reasons. (Note: I'm not saying kids need religion. They create myth naturally without the indoctrination.) But adults don't. We need community. The one thing I miss after leaving the Mormon church - is community.

After the new Ugandan converts perform a religious skit for the Ugandan Mission President that showcased their unorthodox beliefs, the Mission President sends all the missionaries home. But the people had been brought together as a community, rallying around the new myths, and overcame some serious problems facing them.  In the finale, you see the Ugandans singing the same "Hello" song that the LDS missionaries sang in the opening act.  But this time they are using their own myths, written in "The Book of Arnold," sharing them with others. It was a great finale that brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat.

Sure - it's still a myth. But as long everyone knows religion is just myths and metaphors, communities can be formed around them, and nobody has to leave the community when they discover the myths are not true. That disillusioning moment never even has to occur when you are taught it as myth from the very beginning.

"Turn It Off!" Or in Scientific Jargon: Cognitive Dissonance

In order to keep their "literal" myths from being exposed, Mormons use lots of psychological tactics. One of the most commonly employed tactics is cognitive dissonance. In a hilarious song called "Turn It Off," the musical parodies this Mormon tendency. "Turn It Off" advocates shutting down mentally and emotionally when you discover or experience anything that doesn't conform to what you have been taught to be true by religion. Just "Turn It Off."

When the bright-eyed and fresh-faced Elders first land into Uganda and see the poverty, crime, and suffering of these people - and begin to realize their message is not what these people need, the solution is to "turn off" those feelings. When repressed gay-tendencies start to surface with Elder McKinley, the Ugandan District Leader, his solution is to "imagine that your brain is made of tiny boxes. Find the box that's gay and - CRUSH IT!" When Elder Price starts to notice that his message is impotent to solve the Ugandan's problems, he's told to "Turn it off. Like a light switch. Just go flick! It's a niffty little Mormon trick."

The song perfectly describes cognitive dissonance, which is the conflict you feel when you hold two conflicting ideas in your brain. We want our perceptions of the world to match with what we already believe about it. When we hold two dissonant ideas (like the idea that Joseph Smith translated gold plates and the idea that angels don't give gold plates to people to magically translate with rocks) then we have mental uncomfortableness - or in fancy psychological terms: cognitive dissonance. But in order to quell those disquieting ideas we discover in life, the LDS church advocates "Turning It Off" instead of acceptance of the facts.


 I don't think I have ever laughed so hard in my life as I did while watching The Book of Mormon. What made is so hilarious was that it hit so close to home: I use to be that idealistic missionary, Elder Price, who thought he had the most important message in the world. I use to believe it all. Then, like Nabulungi, or a 12 year old who still believes in Santa, I was let in on the secret. I was disillusioned. I felt duped. However, now I can appreciate peoples need for myth in their lives. I can appreciate that certain types of nonfundamentalist religion is not always bad. I just don't think that myth and community and truth have to conflict. I wish more Mormons didn't either.


  1. We'd love to hear more about the play the next time we see you. All the commercials we've seen have been hilarious.

  2. Let's get together soon! Lots to discuss.

  3. What an amazingly well written piece. It really brings the truth home in a real (but not inherently disrespectful) manner. Personally I have no problem with people believing whatever silliness turns them on....but when they try to invalidate my own approach (which does NOT include talking snakes and other such nonsense), that's when I feel the need to point certain things out. Your article offers many tools to use when dealing with fanatics. Thanks for posting it....!!