Truth comes in really difficult packages sometimes. That is especially true when things that might not be true are sheltered by traditions that have seen the shedding of blood in their name. And of course religions come to mind in that regard. It can be said that the more deeply felt the faith in such hard-earned truths, the more difficult it can be to reach even basic objectivity on the subject.
Laughing at religion
Recently I attended the musical The Book of Mormon, a raucously irreverent commentary on the Mormon faith and religion. It contains the always-disturbing views of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the equally disrespectful adult cartoon South Park.
What I loved about The Book of Mormon was its colorful skewering of the politically correct paradigm not to ridicule the religion of other people. The Book of Mormon not only ignores that bit of supposed social etiquette, it kicks those rules to death and buries them in front of the stage before the second half even begins.
Siding with Christians?
I did not even feel bad when Book of Mormon took swipes at my own faith tradition, which is Christianity. Jesus is depicted in a robe lit up with white Christmas lights, and at one point he calls a fallen missionary who has acted selfishly a "dick." So this is not the Jesus of your Sunday school stories.
Of course Christian depictions of Jesus and other biblical characters have long been exaggerated to grotesque extremes. But here's the scary part. The blonde Jesus depicted in The Book of Mormon was not that far from pictures in actual Christian literature.
Ignorance in favor of belief
When you grow up in a faith tradition, some of these exaggerations can be ignored. Clearly the pictures of Goliath as a literal giant perhaps 20 feet tall were completely bonkers, yet those of us who grew up in the 1960s recall those pictures. But the point of most legends is not the literal truth of them, of course, but the significance of the events they come to represent.
The Book of Mormon has a lot of fun at the expense of Mormon archetypes Joseph Smith and certain Mormon angels. The gaps in faith tradition upon which Mormonism depend, including complete absence of evidence for existence of the golden plates around which the faith evolved is just one of many suppositions slaughtered and urinated upon by The Book of Mormon.
What emerges from the wreckage is something interesting however. One of the lead characters is a missionary who doesn’t quite get the whole Mormon thing in the first place. His hilarious interpretation illuminated with other characters of fictional mythology is what hits home with the people he is trying to reach, however, and that produces a real change of heart and actual courage in the face of life’s challenges. The dopey missionary who takes liberalities with Mormon tradition is the one who saves the day and actually baptizes the Ugandan villagers his faith set out to reach.
When the villagers turn around and perform their understanding of the Mormon faith for a visiting Bishop, the perversions of the original narrative are hilarious. Yet lurking within even their interpretation is a message of hope and courage.
The net result is a theological salvation of its own unique breadth, and the entire world of faith gets turned on its head.
The worse the curse words and profane gestures got in the show, the more the holy principles of treating each other well and respecting the ideas of others came forth. The Book of Mormon is a humanist’s celebration of personal liberty and belief that dares religion of any kind to stand up and be accountable for the falsehoods faith too often uses to browbeat others into submission.
But here’s the really funny part. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints seems to acknowledge that the premise of its religion is not so important as involvement in the religion itself. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what you believe as it does to belong to a faith and abide by its practices.
Proof of the merit of the ruse
For example, in an article on The Huffington Post (5/13/2013) writer Danielle Tumminio encounters two Mormon missionaries actually handing out The Book of Mormon outside a theater where The Book of Mormon musical is playing inside. The two admit nervousness at the fact the musical lampoons their faith. But they keep handing out their scriptures anyway. It’s just like it says in the musical: When you encounter something negative in life, just “turn if off” like a light.
The Mormon Church takes this approach quite seriously, ignoring even its own doctrine as a selling tool while trying to engage and involve participants in the Mormon tradition.
As the Huffington Post article notes: “What the LDS Church seems to be doing in trying to reach newcomers in many ways reverses traditional conversion methods, where the emphasis is on teaching doctrine first. The idea is that if you know what a religion believes, you'll come to believe it yourself, and then become part of a community of believers. Instead, the LDS Church now seems to be embracing a different approach -- meet us, become part of our community of believers, and you'll come to believe in the faith yourself and become more familiar with the religion's dogma as a result.”
So The Book of Mormon as a musical may be irreverent and disrespectful, but when it comes to the real attitudes of the Mormon faith in relation to foundations for truth, it is not very far off the mark. Not at all.
Laugh away folks. It’s all good.