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.
Nicely thought out piece — thoughtful and insightful. I agree that the creators were making fun of all organized religion. Similarly, many who have faith, laugh at (or pity) those without so I guess that joke goes both ways. Basically, most people laugh at any believe that is different than their assumed world view (whereby atheism is its own belief).
I did want to agree and also challenge the statement on aid. Yes, definitely — sometimes faith-based aid to poorer countries (and even richer ones) is hampered by their rules and structures. Yet, the same is true for humanistic charities or organizations because usually they are serving in highly religious communities and that becomes one more stumbling block of communication and culture to work on. It can be a second “language” that needs to be translated so that locals can understand the message. It can be a real challenge in the work. One of the big problems of aid is actually the Western culture that is present in both faith-based and secular aid. Not all organizations or people have this mind you but there can be an idea of “fixing,” superiority by education, and immediate results that can get in the way of lasting impact and “unexpected long-term consequences of ‘half-baked’ improvements.” Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think the aid world has TONS of “unexpected long-term consequences of ‘half-baked’ improvements.” Mat and I struggle with that a lot and it’s part of why we’re pushing so much to learn about it and prevent it. Those questions plague us and actually are usually present conversations at conferences and discussion on aid by the industry. I think however this is more a phenomenon of our culture rather than faith. In fact, faith-based organizations are often in communities for the long haul. They’re small and they look a bit more at the organization as a commitment to the community — many are with communities for decades. [This is focusing on small nonprofits, not the big ones. Missionaries, like those from the Church of Latter Day Saints, have a goal of evangelizing and their stays are short term] So now you have the problem of are they making themselves too integral to the project and not empowering the communities enough, but we’ll leave that for a later discussion.
So now this is a very long comment, but in short, yes I agree with a lot of what you have to say and despite the flaws of our nature, I also am very positive about our ability to make the world a better place and I don’t think it’s groundless this belief.
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