I was recently quoted in an article by the Canadian Press, who contacted me for my thoughts on the Book of Mormon Musical. For anyone who read the article and were desperate to read a long elaboration of my personal opinions, you’ve come to the right place! These are some (fleshed out) notes I compiled before, during and after my interview with the journalist, (whom, for the record, was very kind, sincere and deferential.)
The Book of Mormon Musical
Some Thoughts for The Canadian Press
I’m not planning on seeing The Book of Mormon Musical personally. I recognize that it is difficult to speak with any credibility about a play I have not seen, so I won’t presume to discuss its artistic merits. I expect there will be some members of our Church who will be curious enough to buy tickets, but I suspect the majority of Latter-Day Saints will steer clear.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone are by all accounts quite gifted satirists, and their musical was certainly well-received critically, but I believe most members of the Church take more than critical acclaim into account when selecting entertainment. Those members who choose not to see the musical won’t do so simply because they are thin-skinned, or can’t take a joke; in spite of suggestions to the contrary, Mormons are generally self-aware enough to laugh at ourselves. I’m suspicious that the skewering of our faith is more vicious than good-natured, however.
But even if the portrayal of Mormon Missionaries is ultimately sort-of sympathetic, albeit condescending, as I have been led to believe it is, other vulgar elements of the production could turn off potential Mormon viewers on principle. In general, we prefer entertainment that is uplifting, and tend to avoid entertainment that contains a surfeit of crude sexual, scatological or violent content.
In addition, I would like to think that members of the Church would avoid this play regardless of what religion was being parodied, whether it was a different Christian religion, or Islam, or Judaism, or anything. Mormons hold the freedom of religion quite dear; in fact, one of our articles of faith states that “we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” We are sensitive whenever any religious group is singled out for derision.
When our faith, or the tenets thereof, are held up for ridicule it can be difficult to laugh it off, because occasionally the object of ridicule is something that we hold to be very sacred. Mormons have a long history of persecution that may contribute to our sensitivity in this regard. But you won’t see outraged protests or petitions, or official boycotts of the musical by members of the Church. This certainly doesn’t constitute the first time our religion has been mocked or ridiculed publicly, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. We aspire to an ethic of Christian civility in all our interactions, which includes turning the other cheek.
I was very impressed with the Church’s official statement regarding the Musical, which was succinct, unruffled, and brilliant, in my opinion: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
There is a tendency in popular culture to portray Mormons as either hopelessly naive, ignorant to the realities of the world, or as dangerous narrow-minded Christian fanatics. Both portrayals are reductive, and not particularly flattering.
With nearly 200,000 members in Canada, and 14 million around the world, active in our communities, and engaged in massive humanitarian undertakings worldwide, it will be increasingly difficult to convincingly pass off inaccurate depictions of Mormons, because people will know better.
The fish-out-of-water premise of the play, where two hapless rubes are let loose in Uganda, ill-equipped to deal with the realities there is very much out-of-sync with the insightful perspective our Church has on both the humanitarian and political realities that exist in African countries. An article in The Washington Post by the Church’s head of Public Affairs, Michael Otterson, details the phenomenal work the Church has done in African nations over the better part of the last decade.
I would just hope that anyone who watches the play would recognize that the Mormonism depicted is a fun-house mirror-distorted version of a much more nuanced and complex truth. And if a few viewers decide they’d like to find out what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints really believe, they can go to mormon.org and get in contact with actual missionaries whom they will find bear virtually no resemblance to the missionaries of the musical. In fact, I suspect that anyone who knows members of the Church in their personal life will not recognize their caricatured portrayal in the play.