Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Mixed Feelings on Book of Mormon

So, the week before ACL Fest we went to see Book of Mormon at Bass Concert Hall.  For those who aren't familiar, Book of Mormon is a Broadway musical that was created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, in collaboration with composer Robert Lopez.  The show is billed as a religious satire that lampoons organized religion.  It's received a ton of critical acclaim, garnering 9 Tony Awards, and selling out performances on Broadway and across the country. 
Book of Mormon is, in many respects, the sort of thing you would expect to see from the creators of South Park.  It's vulgar, crass, offensive, and extremely funny.
The plot involves a couple of young, Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to proselytize and convert Africans.  Their mission becomes much harder than expected when the Africans demand to see concrete ways that Mormonism will make improvements upon a lifestyle that includes sadistic warlords, AIDS, poverty, and female genital mutilation.  In fact, the Africans are more than a little bit suspicious of the fact that God might be out to cause them problems instead of wanting to help them.  It's probably safe to say that the creators of most Broadway musicals would avoid a lot of these topics.  Stone and Parker, on the other hand, charge right in.
Book of Mormon will make a good many people laugh really hard.
Personally, I found large parts of the msuical really funny, especially in the first half.  Some of the jokes are offensive enough that your surprise yourself by cracking up.  And as with South Park, many of the jokes are the sort of things where you find yourself cringing and laughing at the same time.

The musical is extremely fast paced and hyperkinetic, and these characteristics work in favor of the style of humor that's presented.  Many of the jokes, particularly about the Ugandans, are making light of things that are so horrible that they're not funny at all if you really stop to think about them (AIDS, warlords, and rape?), but I guess that the audience ends up laughing at, more or less, the absurdity of the whole situation.  If laughter is a defense mechanism, Parker and Stone are the masters of launching an assault on audience sensibilities in order to drum up chuckles.  As with everyday Americans who learn are constantly bombarded with tales of atrocities and horrors in the news media, the Book of Mormon audience has little choice but to sort of shut off the empathy switch and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. 
And the comedic horrors of Africa are included in the musical to make a point.  The play's protagonists, Mormon missionaries, find themselves struggling to explain the relevance and significance of their religious doctrine when confronted with the harsh (albeit hopefully somewhat exaggerated) circumstances of the Africans whom they are trying to convert.  The Africans, unconcerned with the specifics of particular religious beliefs, essentially want to know "what's in it for me" in terms of benefits that Mormonism might provide.  It's easy to see why they might have such a pragmatic view of religion, given the depiction of their lives as brutal and difficult (but in a hilarious way!).

So, it was sort of weird to sit in a crowded concert hall and listen to a Broadway musical audience laughing at musical jokes about AIDS, sexual assault, and genocide.  The jokes were absurd, but somehow the extreme enjoyment by the audience was even more absurd.  I kept imagining the whole performance as a South Park episode where the audience is ultimately the butt of the joke.

The other thing that I found weird and sort of troubling about Book of Mormon is the way that the play treated Mormonism itself (or, more specifically, Mormons).  I'd heard interviews on NPR and read articles about the musical, and they all generally seemed to indicate that the musical was not really an attack on Mormonism, but actually a critique of organized religion in general.  Well, while I might agree that this was true in the broadest sense, I also feel as if this musical would by singling out Mormonism, in particular, this show was able to get away with criticizing religion in a way that a mainstream audience would accept.  And that made me a little bummed out.
Somewhere through the second half of  the musical, after the intermission, I started thinking about the audience and about how they would react if this play had been satirizing and criticizing a different religion in a similar way.  A few of the jokes were meant to cast jabs at other religions or religion in general, but the vast majority of the jokes were targeted toward Mormonism in a way that was meant to ridicule (for comedic effect!) their specific beliefs and ideology.  Essentially, the entire theological mythology of Mormonism was lampooned.  The musical had a field day with the idea that a legitimate religious leader might appear in 19th century America, with the idea that Mormons will someday inhabit their own celestial planets, and with the evolution of Mormon beliefs as they became more accepting of blacks and minorities over time (there's a part of Mormon religious doctrine that was previously interpreted to say that dark skinned people were descended from an evil tribe).
Now, I'm not a Mormon, and, yes, I'll admit that I find a fair number of their beliefs strange and, to be honest, a little absurd, but that didn't make me feel any better about the fact that an entire theater full of people was sitting there as a group and laughing at the religious beliefs of another group of people.  I'm an agnostic, and I find most religion to be sort of strange and bizarre if you think about it for very long. 
I sat there and imagined a musical in which Christianity and its beliefs might be ferociously (but hilariously!) ridiculed, and I couldn't help but think that there would be offended Christians protesting outside the theater and/or leaving the performance in droves.  The more traditional or conservative Christians who were sitting there guffawing during Book of Mormon would probably be angrily demanding their money back if the musical had been about how silly it is to believe in the teachings of a 2000 year old, Middle Eastern Jew, his nonsensical promises of an afterlife, and claims of a resurrection that were propagated by his followers.
As for the more left-leaning, liberal intellectuals in the room who were enjoying the play, I could imagine their hackles being raised by similar attacks on Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or any other religion that's practiced by a minority group that they might deem as being more worthy of protection than the mostly Caucasian, conservative Mormon church.  Even liberal atheists tend to get riled up if they believe that religious beliefs are being attacked when those religious beliefs are associated with some minority group that they deem worthy of protecting.  If a Broadway musical had been created which took aim at the specific beliefs of Hindus or Muslims, I don't think that the art-supporting liberal crowd in New York would have ever really patronized the thing enough to keep it afloat.
Mormonism, on the other hand, the offbeat religion of a bunch of white westerners from the United States, was fair game.

So I felt like this Mormon-based humor included a fair amount of bullying.  For a long, long time now the Mormon church has relied on a policy which avoids confrontation and which seeks to advance the Mormon religion by way of neighborly example and friendly proselytization.  Perhaps due to an early history in which members were almost wiped out by angry mobs, the Mormon Church seems to have long ago made a conscious decision not to antagonize or pick fights with the rest of the country.  I think that they know that the rest of the world sees their beliefs as strange, and they try to keep other people from becoming suspicious, fearful, and wary of them by being as friendly, neighborly, and "normal" as they can.  It's a nonconfrontational, peaceful approach, for the most part.
Anyway, my point is that Parker and Stone took a religion that was an easy target and laid the hurt on them pretty good.  Very few people outside the Mormon religion were ever going to come to their defense when Book of Mormon came out, and Mormons themselves probably didn't want to look like angry, weirdo fanatics who couldn't take a joke in response to a satirical musical. 
But this musical actually has songs that systematically take aim at their individual beliefs one at a time and make an effort to point out to the audience how stupid those beliefs are.  And every night a whole new auditorium full of modern theatergoers sits and enjoys the spectacle at the expense of their neighborsas this travelling production crisscrosses the country.  The Mormon Church bought out ad space in the program for Book of Mormon, encouraging people to consider investigating the actual church, but the move seems almost sad when you've been watching a piece of theatre make fun of their beliefs for two hours.

Book of Mormon makes some kind of halfhearted attempt in its closing act to point out that all religion is a little silly and that its most important facet is to be found in the way that it helps people to pull together in aid of one another.
But I think that this overall point is weakly made, probably for fear of alienating religious believers in general, and made half heartedly.  Parker and Stone wanted to lampoon religion, but they probably still wanted ticket sales from the vast numbers of religious people who were in their prospective audience.  They could probably still be successful without the Mormon demographic, though...

Anyway, I laughed during Book of Mormon.  I couldn't help it.  Parker and Stone know how to write some funny stuff.  But after I left I sorta felt like some school kid who just stood by while the class bully did an entertaining job of picking on the awkward kid for everyone else's amusement.  Nothin' to be proud of...

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