The Book of Mormon
Thru Feb 8
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St.
Like every other reasonable human being on the planet, I was outraged by the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Free speech is sacred, we say, even when that speech is mocking sacred things. That's easy to believe when the sacred thing being mocked isn’t your sacred thing. When the satire hits closer to home, being high-minded and principled gets a lot tougher.
For the last few weeks, Houston has been awash in advertisements for the national touring production of The Book of Mormon, which opens this week at the Hobby Center. The New York Times has declared it “the best musical of this century.” Entertainment Weekly goes one better, praising the show as “the funniest musical of all time.” It’s won nine Tony Awards and launched the career of that guy who does the voice of Olaf in Frozen. It sounds like a boffo, feel-good laff riot, and a fine way to pass a midwinter evening. Nine Tonys? What’s not to like?
I don’t like it. Not because it’s excessively vulgar and puerile; it is, but that’s not my beef. Female genital mutilation jokes are not my bag, but I accept that in this age they pass for crystalline glimmers of sparkling wit. Yes, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, seem like they’re eternally trapped in the back row of Miss Cipriano’s sophomore English class, sneering and snotty and smelling faintly of weed, not nearly as smart or as clever as they think they are, but that’s not my problem with the play, either.
I don’t like it because I’m a Christian, a Christian who happens to be Mormon.
Some of you got to “I’m a Christian,” and stopped reading. That’s fine; no hard feelings. Some of you reflexively objected: “Mormon and Christian? Bah! Mormons aren’t Christians!” and clicked over to some other story. That’s fine, too. I’m not God’s pit bull, come to gnaw on your leg until you give in to my view of the cosmos. Gut-wrenching debates about religion are like watching video of that infamous Oilers playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills: you know it’s going to end badly, and afterward you feel depressed and very, very ashamed. I served two years as a Mormon missionary and six years as a Mormon bishop, and the only time I ever argue about religion is when I’m talking to my kid brother. But that doesn’t count, because he is my kid brother, and we argue about everything.
The Book of Mormon is not really about Mormonism. Mocking the perceived idiosyncrasies of the Latter-Day Saints is a scaffolding for a larger point: Religion, any religion, is fine, as long as you understand that it’s inane and it’s silly and it’s not anything worth taking seriously. For believers, even open-minded ones, this dismissal of faith is jarring and troubling.
It’s been a tough few years for religion. More than one billion people adhere to Islam. Most of them have never cut somebody off in traffic, much less taken hostages or shouldered a machine gun, but Muslims the world over feel compelled to reassure us that “we’re not terrorists.” Two billion people are Christians. Not all of them are pedophiles or con men or misogynists or Enemies of Science, but say “I’m a Christian” in many circles, and you’ll either be treated with the gentle condescension normally reserved for the severely concussed and the enfeebled, or asked if you really believe that Jesus rode dinosaurs in the Palestine hill country.
Say “I’m a Mormon,” and you get all sorts of comments. Over the years, I have been asked, and I swear this is true: “I thought you couldn’t drive cars?” (that’s the Amish); “So how many wives do you have?” (just the one, thank you); and “How could you vote for Romney?” (I didn’t).
Some of the cynicism is understandable. The panoply of mullahs who claim to speak for Allah send what can only be called mixed signals. Christianity hasn’t done itself many favors lately either; it’s understandable that many dismiss it as a cynical money grab, aimed at an aging, dwindling audience, less a powerful source of spiritual guidance than another Eagles reunion tour, or the last seven seasons of The Simpsons.
Some of the loudest voices professing faith in Jesus also loudly promote intolerance and division, politicizing, misrepresenting, and repackaging Christ’s message to suit a narrow political agenda, to justify bigotry, or to confirm a conviction of superiority. The Austin Lounge Lizards summed up the spirit of this strain of belief in the song "Jesus Loves Me, But He Can’t Stand You." And Mormons do tend to be a bit clannish, a tad withdrawn from the rest of the world. Imagining us huddled together in wide-brimmed hats and Steve Young jerseys, milking cows whilst listening to Donny Osmond albums, isn’t much of a stretch.
Of course, critical scrutiny has also fallen on other faiths, to great popular acclaim. PK, a withering 2014 satire of the dizzying array of religious traditions in India, is the most popular Bollywood film of all time, grossing nearly $100 million worldwide and filling theaters from Mumbai to Toronto. It also sparked outraged protests, vandalism of movie theaters, and death threats against the director, Aamir Khan.
Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism have all had their share of scandals and absorbed their share of ridicule. Defenders of all of them have resorted to violence in an effort to quell dissenting voices. The sectarian world is dotted with Charlie Hebdo moments, of varying magnitudes of atrocity.
When my own faith is lampooned, resorting to outrage and indignation, the choice of tribalists everywhere, becomes very tempting. Religion is so intimately connected to cultural identity, to self-identity, that criticisms of faith are easily interpreted as personal attacks. I was born Roman Catholic; Mormonism is my choice, not my family tradition. That does not dim the anger I felt when The Book of Mormon star Nikki James told an NPR interviewer that The Book of Mormon didn’t need to embellish Mormon doctrines because "a lot of it is really funny the way it is—you don’t have to dress it up at all."
I happened to be on my way to church when I heard that interview, and it felt like everything I cherished was being invalidated. Yeah, sending young guys dressed like mailroom clerks from a lost episode of Mad Men out to spread the word—helmeted and on bikes, no less—is pretty funny. Elevating swipes at peculiarities to wholesale dismissal of a faith held by millions, laying it low with a breezy “Wow, that’s a weird thing to believe,” is grossly insensitive. I had to remind myself that a core tenet of my faith is freedom: freedom of every person to follow his or her conscience, “let them worship how, where or what they may.” And I got over it.
This week, when you head over to the Hobby Center to watch The Book of Mormon, remember that it’s not the whole picture. It’s a parody. It’s a pastiche, as much of traditional Broadway musicals as of Mormon doctrine. Some of it is accurate—we are, as a rule, enthusiastic and optimistic and almost criminally naïve—and some of it isn’t. Mormonism, for instance, rejects the mainstream Christian notion of Hell; we worry about a lot of stuff, but “Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams” aren’t part of the package.
Some parts of the musical are genuinely hurtful: for believing Mormons, Joseph Smith is a brilliant leader, a revolutionary thinker, and a prophet of God, not an affably clueless yokel stumbling his way across 19th-century Middle America, collecting concubines until a posse gets fed up and puts an end to him. The lyrics of “I Believe,” a surging mess of misinterpretations, inaccuracies, and stuff that’s almost right, leavened with a gimlet-eyed commentary on Mormons’ tendency to be relentlessly task-oriented and almost irrationally optimistic, is cynical and reductionist. It leaves the impression that Mormonism is only slightly less ridiculous than Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and the people who believe in it little more than peppy, slow-witted teenagers.
This doesn’t mean you should be worried about a bunch of Mormons raiding the theater. We don’t even picket. On the play’s first run, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints took out ads in Playbill that said, “You’ve seen the musical – Now read the book!” with a website address where playgoers could order a free copy of the real Book of Mormon. After 185 years of japes about polygamy and jibes about our underwear, we’ve developed a pretty good sense of humor. And we’ve cultivated—most of us, at least—the perspective that the God we worship loves everybody, even the people who don’t see Him the way we do, even the people who don’t see Him at all. And we don’t serve Him by attacking those who disagree with us.
I’d like to think that there are some other believers out there who could learn a thing or two from our example.