This post originally appeared as part of the Email a Believer blog at RE Online
In 2013 the Book of Mormon musical opened in London’s West End, and it opens in Manchester this month. Despite its title the musical is not endorsed or supported by Mormons, or more correctly The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, the musical is written and produced by the creators of South Park. The London website of the musical describes it as:
… an edgy and sometimes outrageous satire musical which takes shots at everything from organised religion to consumerism, the state of the economy and the musical theatre genre itself… The show tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to a small town in Uganda to bring news of the Latter-day Saints. They are shocked at the cultural differences, as a War Lord threatens the local villages and controls the area by fear. Both missionaries attempt to share the scriptures with the local people, although only one of them knows it well enough. Famine, poverty and AIDS threaten the town, and the duo must battle their own beliefs in order to succeed and make a change.
There are elements of the story that are offensive to most Latter-day Saints. Some of their deeply held beliefs are questioned at best, or lampooned at worst. In addition, the musical is reportedly liberally sprinkled with profanity. As such, the majority of Latter-day Saints do not seek to see the show.
Despite outrage at musicals such as Jerry Springer the Musical there has been little outrage, even in Latter-day Saint circles, about the Book of Mormon musical. In preparing for its opening in London Trey Stone and Matt Parker were questioned about any worries they had about Mormon reaction.
Both men briefly glanced sideways and interrupted each other before Parker blurted out: “They’re way too friendly and happy.” As for repercussions? “That’s not their modus operandi. That’s not the way they work.” “They kill you with kindness,” followed up Stone. “Watch out, man, they’re coming for your country.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal expressed admiration and surprise at the Church’s response to the opening of the Musical on Broadway. The statement itself said:
The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.
In colloquial terms the members of the Church were encouraged to answer questions about the musical in a similar vein. A common refrain was ‘I don’t know much about the musical, but the book is amazing and I encourage you to read it.’ Indeed, the Church has responded by placing similar adverts in the programmes for the show.
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints involved in religious Education I am often asked about my response to the musical. At this point I admit that I have not seen it, and I have no plans to do it. Sometimes this is met with incredulity; I was once presenting at an academic conference and the ‘Chair’ of the session, a well-known journalist, on discovering my religion decided to probe for my responses in a follow up to my paper which was only tangentially linked. He was flabbergasted that I would not countenance watching it. The Thirteenth Article of Faith of the Church declares:
“We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
As such, there are many films and television programmes I do not watch. I choose not to because of reviews and classifications. I don’t watch 18 films at all, avoid many 15s and have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones. These contain elements that I feel would remove me from the influence of the Holy Spirit.
In the same way I will not watch ‘The Book of Mormon’. Speaking to some people who have listened to the music, there are funny parts of the musical, but overwhelmingly it is a satirisation of aspects of my faith filled with profanity, sexual references, and an offensive view of both members of the Church and, from what I understand, Uganda. As another of my friends has commented: “I have had my faith made fun of for forty years, I don’t know that I want to pay for that privilege.”
Why am I not campaigning for it to be taken off the stage? The Saviour taught to ‘turn the other cheek’. Was it Oscar Wilde who said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about? There might be positives that come out of it, and it seems as though the Church hopes it might motivate people whose curiosity has been piqued beyond an evening’s entertainment will look to the Church for accurate information, including on comeuntochrist.org.
From what I understand, there are potentially important messages that need to be addressed. The superiority complex, where everything that the West has is seen to be more advanced and enlightened than that found in other countries. This message has resonance with me, sometimes, however, we are in the middle of the power structures- perhaps we are in power and we do not recognise the position in which we find ourselves. Let me amend that slightly, we might recognise the position that we are in, but we cannot fully understand the perspective of the minority. This was brought home to me as I read Poverty Safariby Darren McGarvey. McGarvey writes of his experience in Pollok, Glasgow in the early 1990s. This was particularly interesting for me as I was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pollok in 1991. I recognised the deprivation that was in the particular housing estate that McGarvey lived in, but I did not truly understand the situation that the families that I met were in. I thought I did, but I did not, and more importantly could not. I tried to empathise, but the only way for me to begin to really understand would be to listen to the honest and authentic voices. Although I was from a working-class background, my experience was not that of Pollok in the early 90s. McGarvey suggests:
A gulf opens up between the professionals and the service users which can become fraught with misunderstanding should anyone attempt to bridge it. That’s why people tend to stick to their own and conform to type, whatever side of the divide they may find themselves on (Darren McGarvey (2018) Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclassp. 6).
While satire can be used to highlight this issue, I think there are less offensive ways for this lesson to be learned. An articulate discussion that raises issues would enable engagement with this issue far more than seeing it portrayed in a musical. Seeing it in a musical is likely to exaggerate it, and in exaggeration it can come across as not being accurate and something to be addressed.
I have to say that whenever I see that a friend has been to see the play, I am slightly disappointed, but in the end, everyone has the right to be entertained in the way that they choose. But all I ask is to not believe that is an accurate representation of my faith. What do I think of the Book of Mormon? The Book of Mormon, for me, is Another Testament of Jesus Christ that draws me closer to Christ.
One thought on “The Book of Mormon Musical”
Stumbled across this post and wanted to wade in and chirp up with a few comments about what you might be pleasantly surprised to hear – although by no means do I think nor recommend going to see the show!
Firstly, there’s no question the content, material and language is very explicit throughout but given it was written by the creators of South Park I guess that’s to be expected or at least most people will understand is likely to be the case.
Parker and Stone have always poked fun at the world and used inappropriate, crass and offensive humour to deliberately exaggerate a point to the most absurd level so it’s easier to then pick apart and consider from every angle. They’ve always refused to draw lines and bend / break rules as they go or be bullied into into backing down over what others deem “too far” because it essentially would mean everything else they have or will joke about is in some way less important or worthy of the same respect shown.
What they have not done is just take Mormons and set them up for an inappropriate, unnecessary means of getting a few cheap laughs for money. Far from actually.
They grew up in Colorado and were friends / went to school with Mormons, Trey Parker’s first serious girlfriend was from a large Mormon family and Matt Stone’s Mother is Jewish. They have always maintained that whilst neither of them specifically identify with any religion, they do have something of a healthy fascination and lifelong respect for Mormons they’ve always known but shared such vastly differing lifestyles and ideals.
The thing I hope gives you some (albeit very slight) reassurance is the musical doesn’t poke fun at Mormons but rather it carries the constant moral story being how ultimately, it doesn’t matter which specific church or religious group and belief a person has.
What matters is being a good, honest and kind person, doing the right thing and whatever gives strength, helps us negotiate life and overcome issues, struggles and find a way to help others overcome theirs is never a bad thing. The musical does go to some dark places and throws in every type of uncomfortable material, the worst most vile language and some graphic and hard to watch moments.
The one scene and song that upsets people most (Hasa Diga) is deliberately grim, offensive and once he realises it’s meaning, causes Elder Price to quickly check and corrects them for using vile and blasphemous language. He reminds them things aren’t always as bad as they seem and this sort of language is not something they should be coming out with at all.
The Ugandans explain how they don’t care because we’re lucky to have these first world problems and time and luxury to be upset and offended in the first place.
To them this vile, desperate and disease ridden existence is their reality day in and day out. Feeling offended and outraged is for us to get in a twist over – they have more important things to worry about.
Your experience as a younger missionary in 1991 jumped out as being very similar to that of Price and Cunningham –
“I recognised the deprivation that was in the particular housing estate but I did not truly understand the situation that the families that I met were in. I thought I did, but I did not, and more importantly could not. I tried to empathise, but the only way for me to begin to really understand would be to listen to the honest and authentic voices”
Anyway I just wanted to let you know this isn’t poking at fun at you, showing disrespect nor should you feel too disappointed when others go see the show and come out seemingly giving it rave reviews.
Just from this post it’s clear the swears, slurs and content will be too much for you to sit through but BoM is really not having a go.
It has been described as “an atheist’s love letter to religion,” arguing that religion can do great things if its lessons are understood to be moral guidelines and not literal commands.
That’s the best, most simplistic point made and I hope helps 😀