‘The Book of Mormon’: No Offense
Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to view, its pseudo-archaeological racism, its prevarications over the practice of polygamy, its almost exact resemblance to a cult, stand up to all that gleeful juvenile ragging? But then something mysterious happened, and the show that opened in March at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre drew praise of a glutinous and sickly kind from the greyer eminences of the press—from David Brooks of The New York Times, for instance, who spoke of the “jolt of energy” that surges through the audience during the first number, a “jolt of joy, gratitude and laughter” at the realization that the production was going to live up to its reviews.
Gratitude, eh? A family night out on Broadway can set you back a thousand dollars, and the emotion you are supposed to feel, on not being positively ripped off, is gratitude? And this gratitude, it turns out, is prompted by a show with a message that, as Brooks put it, while “many religious stories are silly,” “religion itself can do enormous good, as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally.” This sounds like a meager recompense for such a handsome outlay. What happened to the no-holds-barred humor of South Park? What happened to the fearless tramplers on taboos? What about all that smut and all that juvenile glee? And how did the Mormon religion manage to defeat satire?
The satire is there, the smut and all the glee, but by the end of the evening—strangely enough—no offense has been given and no damage has been done. No offense has been given, to be sure, because the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints made a conscious and sensible decision not to take any such offense. It is as if they decided in advance, whatever the show came up with, to enter a plea of nolo contendere, or to couch any riposte in the very mildest of terms.
The Washington Post gives a regular platform to the Mormon Church’s Head of Public Affairs, Michael Otterson, a master craftsman of the Utahan bland style. From Otterson we learn three things we should know about Mormons “which are neither trivial nor stereotypical.” The first turns out to be that they follow Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The second is that “Mormons are friends of the family,” by which they mean, ideally, husband, wife and children; what they emphatically do not mean (not that Otterson spelled this out) is two parents of the same sex. The third non-stereotypical characteristic of Mormons: they like helping people—cooking meals for the sick, giving out aid in Haiti or Japan, “incorporating their religious beliefs into their day-to-day actions.”
It is on this business of helping people out in that the plot of The Book of Mormon (the musical) turns. A couple of young men, innocent of experience of the world, are sent as missionaries to Uganda, a country about which they know nothing, but which is depicted as lying in the grip of the most intractable problems. Most of the inhabitants are suffering from AIDS, which is treated, casually and abruptly, as a big joke. Poverty is endemic. Female genital mutilation awaits in the wings. And one man provokes many a hearty laugh by telling us he has maggots in his scrotum. This condition, from which he is still suffering at the end of the evening, is portrayed as something incurably gross in a typically African way. Just as the already active Mormon missionaries whom we encounter have managed to make no converts in Uganda, so it has proved impossible for elementary hygiene to sort out this skin condition.
The mismatch could not be more complete. The two young innocent missionaries (Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad), whose notion of Africa derives from The Lion King, are nonplussed, until one of them, Elder Cunningham, whom we have learnt to be a congenital liar, discovers a gift of improvising on the contents of The Book of Mormon, adding whatever nonsense springs into his brain. The more ridiculous his message, the better it goes down with the natives. Mass conversion follows, until the senior members of the Mormon Church are called in to witness the proselytizing miracle. The Ugandans enthusiastically relate what they have learnt, to the horror of the older Mormons. The mission has been a fiasco, but the Ugandans save the day by pointing out—this is what impressed David Brooks, until he thought about it afterwards—that religious discourse is metaphorical anyway. This gets everybody somehow off the hook, and the show concludes on a triumphant note. Book, music, and lyrics are credited to Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Of these, it is the lyrics that stand out for their acuteness and ingenuity, while the music is more serviceable than memorable. Lovers of the traditional theatrical crafts will enjoy a wealth of painted scenery, designed by Scott Pask in tribute to Mormon iconography.
To the perhaps prosaic mind of Michael Otterson, a satire that turns on the supposed irrelevance and ineffectiveness of the Mormon mission to Africa is very much wide of the mark. After all, as he pointed out to the Post’s readers, in the seven years that it had taken the creative team to put together and mount The Book of Mormon, the Mormon Church in Africa had been responsible for bringing clean water to more than four million Africans, getting wheelchairs to 34,000 legless children, and so on. Why should Otterson pay $200 for a ticket to be “sold the idea that religion moves along oblivious to real-world problems in a kind of blissful naiveté”?
He has a point. The comic situation of The Book of Mormon is perfectly serviceable as comedy, but it has no interest at all as satire on the Mormons’ African mission. We are in Uganda, but we might as well be in Kazakhstan, or any kind of nightmare Abroad. From the point of view of the Mormon missionaries, the attitude of the natives toward Almighty God is crudely dismissive, and expressed in language which causes gasps of tickled outrage from the audience. But it is impossible to reconcile this happy-go-lucky indifference to the Supreme Being with what we have encountered in recent history when the African churches have had their say on the future of, for instance, the Anglican church. What often comes back at us out of Africa, by way of Christian culture, is a sharp Victorian rebuke for our back-sliding. It has nothing happy-go-lucky about it.
The Mormon mission to Africa, as to other dark-skinned parts of the world, was for a long time hobbled by the racism of the movement’s scripture. The Book of Mormon itself (as opposed to the musical) makes it perfectly clear that, whereas light skin is “delightsome” and fair, a “skin of blackness” is “loathsome”—a consequence of falling into unbelief. The American Indian, though a member of one of the lost tribes of Israel, had been stricken with this loathsomeness for this very reason. Nor was it possible for a black African to enter even the first level of priesthood, to which a white male would normally be admitted at the age of twelve. Barred from priesthood, black men could not receive “temple endowments and eternal sealings of marriage that admit its holders to the highest tier in heaven and potential godhood.”
Miscegenation, too, was explicitly forbidden. Brigham Young: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” But it would not, could not always be so. The last remaining state laws against the mixing of white blood with the seed of Cain—not to mention the mixing of metaphors—were struck down by a Supreme Court decision of 1967.
Pressure grew on the Mormon Church in the next decade to relax its ban on the recruitment of blacks to the priesthood, and to abandon those parts of scripture and theology that explained the inferiority and loathsomeness of blacks, their despised condition, in terms of their (assumed) behavior in a previous existence. In particular, a plan to erect a temple in São Paulo brought the Mormons up against the problem that none of their Brazilian recruits were liable to be of anything other than “mixed blood.”
In the face of such inconveniences, in 1978, the leaders of the church experienced, in an “upper room” in Salt Lake City, a highly convenient Pentecost, and with it a revelation ending the ban against black priests. Mormons were still counseled by their church President, Spencer W. Kimball, not to “cross racial lines in dating and marriage”—but this was presented as a practical matter, not a spiritual commandment. Meanwhile certain excisions were made, to render The Book of Mormon less embarrassing, and the text of II Nephi 30:6 was rewritten in 1981, to prophesy that righteous Indians would receive a blessing from the hand of God and that “their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and delightsome people.” In the original version it had been foretold that the Indians would become a “white and a delightsome people.” (The Jews will also become delightsome, thank goodness, when they agree to believe in Jesus Christ.)
This willingness, admirable in its modest way, to jettison or modify revelation in order to conform to public opinion, has been characteristic of Mormonism since the long dispute over polygamy: in the end, it would seem, they get the point. They listen to criticism over the decades. They make some furtive adjustments. They clean up their act. And, at this rate, one might predict—one might be inclined to prophesy—that within a decade or two they will have reformed their teaching on homosexuality, which comes in for much good-humored ragging in the Broadway show, including one of the wittiest of the songs. It is as if the search for acceptability matters more, in the long term, than doctrine. In this sense, the candidatures of Mitt Romney, sacrificing his most significant legislative achievement on the altar of Republican censoriousness, and Jon Huntsman, sacrificing no less than his old master Obama, look like expert strategies of Mormon assimilationism.
In the context of the musical, the openness to ragging, the patience under blasphemous attack, become less mysterious. It is as if they understand the ridicule that they are currently undergoing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater to constitute a sort of hazing. To get through the ordeal they must keep their good humor, and it is worth doing so because, at the end of the hazing, their reward will be a greater acceptance in society. Some hand is going to clap them on the shoulder and say: Well done, you managed to survive. And the audience is going to feel better about Mormons than they did before, and better about themselves for all that better feeling.
And it seems they are right. When the audience rises to its feet at the finale, a blow has been struck on behalf of the Mormons and their crazy African mission. What the Ugandans must feel about being depicted as such fools is quite another matter.
June 11, 2011, 11:30 a.m.