Remember last week when I said I was in New York for exciting reasons? Yeah, still trying to translate that experience…but there is one part of that trip I really want to talk to you guys about: The Book of Mormon. The musical, that is. I spent this morning sifting through reviews of and responses to the show (while listening to the soundtrack on repeat, of course) and I noticed that everything out there is either staunchly positive or negative, with very little middle ground. So I feel I should warn you up front: this response is totally noncommittal. You probably won’t come away from this knowing how to feel about The Book of Mormon—I know I don’t—but I aim to shed light on aspects of the issue that the current muddle of vitriol and praise skims over.
To give you some context, The Book of Mormon is a musical about two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who wind up evangelizing in Uganda (portrayed as a hostile environment, to say the least) and have misadventure after misadventure in the process.
So let’s start with the obvious: The Book of Mormon satirizes one of the fastest-growing religions in America. Of course it’s going to oversimplify Mormon doctrine and take the faith’s most outrageous-sounding beliefs out of context for laughs. But it isn’t completely ignorant: everything Matt Stone and Trey Parker ridicule about the LDS Church has at least a grain of truth to it, and they actually did their research on the religion’s history, founders, and leaders. As someone who has interacted with a lot of Mormons, I’d say that the characters do accurately channel LDS culture in a way that is humorous but not maliciously so, cartoonish but not one-dimensional.
The musical’s strongest grievance with the LDS Church is that believers appear to have little interest in questioning it. To be fair, Elder Price struggles with crippling doubt, which drives home the point that even Mormons who seem to have unshakable faith (to the point of outsiders seeing them as merely gullible; as Elder Cunningham says: “Wow, God says go to your backyard and start digging; that makes perfect sense!”) don’t fully gloss over or ignore reality. But I think Parker and Stone are using Mormonism as a vehicle to highlight the same phenomenon in followers of other religions (which, by the way, look just as silly as Mormonism when viewed through hyper-rational eyes).
It’s easy for people to call Parker and Stone out for attacking faith—though I’d argue that it isn’t a true attack—but fewer people are talking about the issue of nationality in The Book of Mormon. Uganda and its people are caricatured just as much as the LDS Church, and in a more visceral, inflammatory way. Parker and Stone have gone through the checklist of characteristics that Westerners associate with developing countries, particularly those in Africa: there’s poverty, war, AIDS, rape, and female circumcision. The Ugandans, too, are portrayed as primitive, their cast complete with an incompetent doctor, a psychotic warlord, and a naïve, idealistic young girl who refers to her typewriter as a “texting machine.”
The show isn’t racist—there’s an African-American woman who makes a brief, very neutral appearance in Act I, and the songs poke fun at the LDS Church’s initial racism multiple times. The Ugandans are even the first to outwardly state that scriptures are a teaching tool that should be looked at metaphorically. But The Book of Mormon does misrepresent Uganda, and it’s harder to count on people to recognize inaccuracy there than on the faithism issue. It’s also worth noting that the LDS Church has done a lot of successful humanitarian work in the nation in the last decade.
The bigger problem for me is that the musical brings up very real tragedies in a superficial way. For those who don’t know, Parker and Stone are the creators of South Park, a television show targeted primarily at adolescent boys. The number of expletives in the play are a testament to the fact that they were still catering to that demographic, but that circumvents potential good that can come from presenting heavy topics onstage. Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues used shock and humor to good ends through the creation of V-Day, a movement that addresses violence against women and often stages benefit performances of Ensler’s play. But in a musical directed at 15-year-old boys, you get stuck at thinking it’s funny that they keep saying the word “clitoris” and don’t connect the issue of FGM to real life, let alone understand what to do about it.
Another objection Parker and Stone have to Mormon culture is what they view as learned repression, both of sexuality and general negative emotions. This is probably their hardest-hitting criticism of the LDS Church, since the sad truth is that gay Mormons are often under pressure to force themselves to not have homosexual feelings, and there’s an alarmingly high suicide rate among gay Mormon teens and young adults. But the creators themselves are indulging in another form of “turning it off” by relegating real-world problems to the world of absurdism, and that’s what I think drives people’s discomfort with the show. What’s really behind complaints of obscenity and blasphemy is the fact that Parker and Stone don’t equip us to deal with the issues they raise.
I do want to give Parker and Stone props for the show; it’s great, I just have a lot of reservations about it. They’ve nearly perfected the art of caricaturing the act of caricaturing, which gets them off the hook for any accusations of bigotry. More than that, they proudly admit to offending everyone equally, which means they don’t take anything seriously. The show has a good heart, and from what I understand, Parker and Stone do, too: “When someone goes, ‘Oh, this group is really pissed off at what you said,’” Parker says, “…that means I did it wrong. I’m just trying to make people laugh.”
In summation: I give The Book of Mormon an A for effort, but I wish they’d consider rerouting the energy it stirs up into real-life solutions instead of letting it fester fruitlessly in audience’s heads.