To the surprise of absolutely no one, The Book of Mormon cleaned up at the Tony Awards, winning the award for Best Musical, among others. Having actually seen it, I can report that The Book of Mormon deserves these awards – it’s a daring production, on pretty much every level, one that both embraces and satirizes its populist ambitions, without remotely blunting its enraged edges. The music, while perhaps a bit uneven, contains a couple of truly inspired numbers. The jokes are frequently hilarious, even if the humor, just like that of South Park or Team America, is a bit shrill and all over the place, outlandishly scatalogical one moment and remarkably sophisticated/insightful the next (I for one will never think of Orlando again without chuckling…). No, I found The Book of Mormon disappointing for other reasons.
The Book of Mormon perfectly captures our cultural moment, especially with regard to religion. The Mormon setting is a brilliant device, but ultimately just that: a device. Sure, the Latter Days Saints are the butt of more than a few gags here – and I certainly wouldn’t deny that Mormonism itself is targeted – but when the creators and their critics claim that The Book of Mormon is only aimed at religion in general, rather than a few very specific expressions of it, they’re not being entirely honest. Mormonism is largely a red herring (that would be far too easy) and Islam is portrayed as so brutal as to be feared rather than engaged. The Book of Mormon is primarily about Evangelical Protestantism, with perhaps a little Roman Catholicism mixed in for good measure. The critiques of repression, belief for belief’s sake, overt materialism, the very idea of the missionary vocation, the clear insecurity at the heart of much contemporary evangelism, regardless of how funny, have only one real corollary. And as ‘superior’ as it sounds – shame on me – I went into the performance more than ready to relish in the mockery. I was not expecting something so mean-spirited.
Make no mistake: for all the disclaimers you’ve heard, there is malicious intent here. To claim otherwise is wishful thinking. That the show reflects a facile understanding of Christianity is not really the point. I’m speaking here as a religious person, and as a Christian, albeit one who, for whatever reason, rarely objects to “sacrilegious” material. The actual content of The Book of Mormon – what it is trying to say – is both where it falls apart, as well as the reason why it will ultimately only preach to the choir. As uncomfortable as it may be, I give the show a thumbs-down.
What do I mean? Trey and Matt and Robert are spot-on, especially when it comes to the various edifices of American religion. One might even go so far as to applaud them for their ingenuity. John Lahr put it this way in The New Yorker, “The show is smart enough to test the waters of outrage but not brazen enough to take a genuine plunge. The satire is more about the Mormons’ buttoned-down, bushy-tailed style than about the substance of the religion.” In other words, they nail the style. The song “Turn It Off” is as insightful as it gets in that regard. “The Mormon Hell Dream” as well. And “I Am Africa” hits on the self-importance of missionaries in a singular and funny way.
The second part of Lahr’s statement, however, that they’re not attacking the substance of religion, is simply not true. How can such a wholesale dismissal of “belief”- at least as far as serious people are concerned – not be taken as a comment on the substance of religion? That they confuse the pitfalls of “faith” (in the John Locke/LOST sense) as applying to the object of faith as well doesn’t matter – at the end of the day, they don’t take religion seriously enough to comment on its substance, which is, of course, a subtle way of commenting on its substance. They wrap the whole enchilada up in (a frankly ingenious amount of) plausible deniability, making it very difficult to discern what’s really going on. This is where The Book of Mormon diverges from South Park, which has occasionally displayed some sensitivity toward matters of actual doctrine.
The malice becomes apparent as soon as the action shifts to Africa. The “Akuna Matata”-style song, in which the beleaguered Africans turn a collective middle-finger heavenward [warning: they do a lot more than that], is both the most genuinely offensive part of the show and the most far-fetched. Such cynicism about suffering is characteristic of Park Slope, not Darfur! The gag falls flat – these guys have obviously not been talking with any living, breathing Africans, as they would simply never sing such a song. Not even the first note! Instead, the writers have projected a Western nihilism onto the natives. I’ve only ever walked out of something on aesthetic grounds (e.g. the Mandy Moore vehicle Because I Said So), but I now know how it feels to want to do so on ideological ones.
This revealing misstep puts the message of the hapless Mormons and their whitewashed “Salt Lake-a City ” in particularly ridiculous context. Their message is as silly and non-serious, not to mention unengaged with the reality of suffering people, as they themselves are. Doubtless this is how many Christians are perceived as well, but, being a Christian myself, it’s hard not to see how totally off-base this is; if anything, Christians are obsessed with suffering, almost morbidly so. While allowing for the fact that there may be a Mormon-specific element here, it still says much more about those doing the perceiving than those being perceived.
Ben Brantley in The NY Times got it right when he claimed that, “a major point of “The Book of Mormon” is that when looked at from a certain angle, all the forms of mythology and ritual that allow us to walk through the shadows of daily life and death are, on some level, absurd; that’s what makes them so valiant and glorious. And by the way, that includes the religion of the musical, which lends ecstatic shape and symmetry to a world that often feels overwhelmingly formless.”
He’s right. Their presentation of mythology and ritual does make it all look absurd – they place hobbits, Yoda and Darth Vader next to Christian imagery after all – a college-freshman-level reduction that lumps all religion together as some primal attempt to explain and ritualize the unknown. Rather than, say, a set of revealed truths so descriptively profound and counter-intuitive as to be an articulation of the unknown itself. One that even accounts for the outrage and hurt and manipulation that so clearly inspired The Book of Mormon. I’m talking about the real meat of the Christian faith: Jesus, the suffering servant, the friend of sinners. I’m talking about the bottomless pit of human self-justification and denial. Of the endless cycle of victimhood and victimization and the unavoidable economies involved in relating to another human being. The power of the suffering of the truly innocent. The enabling reality of being loved in weakness. Those ideas go noticeably unaddressed – probably because they’ve gone noticeably unheard. But none of Trey and Matt’s arrows stick to that particular Cross. It is no coincidence that the baptism scene is the closest The Book of Mormon gets to real sentiment – its pale echo of rebirth as a community-building ritual has undeniable power.
All this to say, The Book of Mormon takes its shots at the theology of glory and the religious culture of works righteousness, and most of those shots seem deserved. There are some genuinely funny moments, even insightful ones. But let’s not pretend the spirit behind this isn’t malicious. In fact, like so much pop commentary on religion these days, The Book of Mormon tells us more about the psychology of the commentators than the faith(s) they’re commenting on. Not that it matters much – religious people will not be seeing this musical. The audience it attracts will revel in its animals-in-the-zoo vibe, Atheistic condescension and vague carpe diems. Which is probably the most upsetting part of the whole thing: The Book of Mormon is simply more evidence of a sad, sad state of affairs: a depressing reality check – another entry in the annals of “what the world thinks of Christians.” Even voices otherwise capable of remarkable insight into the state of the world and human nature so often get religion completely, almost laughably wrong, in terms of what its real power and lasting appeal consist of. Ironically, it represents a laugh-or-you’ll-cry situation if ever there was one… Can I get an ‘Amen’?!