I’m in San Francisco for a work conference and was able to snag a last-minute ticket to see the touring production of Book of Mormon at the beautiful Orpheum Theatre. I was sandwiched between a group of 47 lovely residents of an Oakland retirement community. The abundant crude humor in the show made this seating arrangement only slightly awkward.
The show was uproariously funny throughout, but was also laced with sad and even tragic stories. South Park veterans Matt Stone and Trey Parker did an amazing job of using humor to present a thorough and multi-layered social commentary. As I watched the show I kept wondering how much of the audience was grasping the deeply cynical and biting undercurrent of this show. I expect that many were not — and perhaps that in itself is just another joke, this time at the audience’s expense.
Early (and ongoing) humor plays off of Mormon beliefs and practices that are surprising or seem silly to non-Mormon audiences. But time and again the humor is predicated on absurd comparisons to more “mainstream” beliefs. For example, one song by a main character proclaims that “I believe that the Lord God created the universe.” The audience remains silent. He continues, “I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.” No reaction. Then, “and I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!” Uproarious laughter.
It makes no sense. It’s absurd. Who would believe that? Never stopping to think that the two preceding lines, from a non-Christian, would sound just as absurd. The verse ends with, “a Mormon just believes,” but isn’t that also mocking all others who “just believe” their own deeply held but never critically analyzed religious convictions?
A whole other class of criticism takes the form of upbeat and absurd songs that portray the suffering of the native Ugandans. In chipper tones and catchy music they tell of their children raped by warlords, family members dying of AIDS, and friends felled by preventable diseases like dysentery. The audience laughs along, but at times it becomes sporadic as particular lyrics hit a little close to home.
A memorable song dreams of the magical land of “Salt Lake City” as a place where the “goat meat is plentiful,” the “warlords are friendly,” there is a “Red Cross on every corner,” and “the people are open-minded.” We laugh, then we realize what we are laughing at — the longings of a poor child who can dream of nothing more than a slightly nicer version of the desolate village that is the only life she has ever known.
Interwoven with the stories of the “Africans” are a number of pokes at white Westerners — missionaries and others — who feel entitled to lecture native peoples on how they should be living, push them to change their lives in highly disruptive ways, and then abandon them to deal with the unexpected long-term consequences of the half-baked “improvements” on their own.
The overall theme of the Book of Mormon seems to me to be that well-intentioned, dedicated, and focused individuals can make a positive impact on the world around them, but that the strictures of organized religion often serve to get in the way of or actively subvert that impact. In that way I see it as a message of hope — our society’s accelerating move away from organized religious institutions need not imply that we will become less dedicated to improving the lives of our fellow man. Far from it. Without outdated doctrine and absurd rules getting in the way, real and lasting impacts may finally be achievable.
Many will no doubt disagree with this interpretation. People often tell me that my relentless positivity about our ability to make the world a better place is absurd. But I continue to take to heart John Perry Barlow’s words that groundless hope is the only kind worth having.