For starters, and for the religiously devout, this musical is offensive, raunchy, crude, irreverent, obscene, and offensive (yes, I said “offensive” twice). It is not for those who take their religion too seriously, so caution is advised for those who may not want their beliefs or convictions poked and prodded.
However, if it is true that one of the main characteristics of a mature person (read “believer”) is someone who is not easily offended, then it must also be said that The Book of Mormon is also hilarious, insightful, brilliant commentary, surprising, and delightful entertainment. And though many would not want their religion paraded around on stage like a freak-show titillating the already cynical, I would commend this musical for several reasons.
One, faithful adherents to any religion would do well to view their faith through the lens of outsiders, be they skeptics, cynics, or any other brand of “pagan.” But especially comedians. Why? In life, there are only two kinds of dramas, comedy and tragedy. And while the two illuminate deeper truths and realities that are often missed by simple adherence (and “adherents”), what is more profound is that they — comedy and tragedy — are reflections of each other. The Book of Mormon is funny, in part, because much of what it pokes fun at are tragedies, whether rightly perceived or misunderstood, about the Mormon religion. (Side note, this could be said about any parody of any religion. It just so happens that Mormonism is the subject of this particular musical). For example, in the song “Turn It Off,” the humor stems from the tragedy of a religion that oppresses parts of humanity that many consider to be real, true, visceral, and, well… human. The laughs are rooted in the outcry that many have against any religion that fundamentally dismisses honorable reality for a “spiritual” or “religious” existence that is often “so heavenly minded, it is no earthly good.” This kind of religion is “fake” and “oppressive” as it is ultimately dishonest to the human experience.
Two, musicals like this illuminate what kind of cultural perceptions certain “beliefs” have in a society. It helps us understand the world around us. The song “I Believe,” has multiple statements of belief, but only a certain few get laughs. When Elder Price sings about God creating the universe, or Jesus dying for my sins, or that God has a plan for all of us, for the audience, this elicits little response. But when he sings about what’s so scary about warlords who shoot people in the face, ancient Jews who built a boat and sailed to America, Jesus having his own planet, or that God “changed his mind about black people” in 1978, it gets a laugh. Why? The answer to this question deserves a much longer treatment. For now, I would suggest that one way of looking at it is that certain beliefs resonate with people of a particular culture, and that the culture either has accepted its reality, or that the belief really does resonate somewhere deep within the cultural ethos. For the laughs, these are beliefs which are borderline ridiculous, and express a culture’s disdain at the capricious, illogical, often times dangerous, and unfounded nature of those beliefs. For religious sociologists, I would suggest that there are deep spiritual realities that this illuminates of which all humans ought to take notice. God created. Interesting and thought-provoking. God changed his mind about a particular race. That’s ridiculous. Both of those resonate with (at least) our cultural spiritual climate in profoundly telling ways.
Three, cynics sharpen. While I am not a Mormon myself, there were several times in the musical where I could glean that the twist of interpretation they had on a doctrine, or idea, was skewed in order to be funny. Watching that kind of interpretation enhances my own understanding by providing a contrast that I may disagree with, or a distinct misrepresentation of the fundamental idea. Either way, it is edifying to think through, again, what faith, belief, and convictions really are. In addition, this contrast can empower us to never let cynics dismiss the very helpful and guiding principles that religion intends to bring to bear on the human experience (see the Washington Post article below). Virtues like self-control, faithful obedience, being a maturing moral and principled person, desiring to serve the world, etc., are not necessarily bad things. Granted, many of those are misapplied and misappropriated as to be harmful and abusive. But like technology, the use and misuse of an idea, or religious concept may not ultimately mean the idea itself is a bad one.
Four, let’s be honest. Religion is funny, and we should laugh every now and then at the humor (and cry at the tragedy) that exists in all beliefs, in all religions, and in all worldviews and convictions.
For some further insight, watch the 60 minutes production on the creators:
And as a final closing thought, The Book of Mormon is a parody of religion as a whole, and I perceive the creators to be motivated more by satirical comedic entertainment than social commentary and prophetic utterance. Regardless, Truth is no respecter of form, be they platforms, uniforms, cuneiform, reformations, performances, or even cruciform theologies. Thus, there is both entertainment and enlightenment to be found in The Book of Mormon, and in every other derisive depiction of religion.
Now for a sampling:
I Believe – lyrics
Ever since I was a child I tried to be the best. So, what happened?
My family and friends all said I was blessed. So, what happened?
It was supposed to be all so exciting to be teaching of Christ ‘cross the sea,
But, I allowed my faith to be shaken. Oh, what’s the matter with me?
I’ve always longed to help the needy to do the things I never dared.
This was the time for me to step up so, then, why was I so scared?
A warlord who shoots people in the face. What’s so scary about that?
I must trust that my Lord is mightier, and always has my back.
Now I must be completely devout, I can’t have even one shred of doubt…
I believe that the Lord, God, created the universe.
I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.
You cannot just believe part way, you have to believe in it all.
My problem was doubting the Lord’s will instead of standing tall.
I can’t allow myself to have any doubt. It’s time to set my worries free.
Time to show the world what Elder Price is about! And share the power inside of me…
I believe that God has a plan for all of us.
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.
And I believe; that the current President of The Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.
I am a Mormon, and, dang it! A Mormon just believes!
I know that I must go and do the things my God commands.
I realize now why He sent me here.
If You ask the Lord in faith, He will always answer you.
Just believe in Him and have no fear!
I believe that Satan has a hold of you
I believe that the Lord, God, has sent me here
And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!
You can be a Mormon. A Mormon who just believes!
And now I can feel the excitement. This is the moment I was born to do.
And I feel so incredible to be sharing my faith with you.
The Scriptures say that if you ask in faith, if you ask God Himself he’ll know.
But you must ask Him without any doubt and let your spirit grow…
I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
If you believe, the Lord will reveal it.
And you’ll know it’s all true. You’ll just feel it.
You’ll be a Mormon, and, by gosh! A Mormon just believes!
Oh, I believe. I believe.