The Book of Mormon Musical: A Postmodern Critique of Evangelicalism

The writers of The Book of Mormon musical answer the question: “What does the world think of Christians?” Their response is a melodic, witty, and uproarious put-down. Note: This post contains spoilers. 

I watched The Book of Mormon on Broadway with my two teenage sons. My second son picked the show and I thought it would be stupid. Who wants to watch a musical satirizing Mormonism? It doesn’t seem very entertaining. Full disclosure: I also thought Alexander Hamilton’s life was a stupid musical idea. However, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez (hereafter abbreviated as PSL), are comedic geniuses. Their collaboration is incredible. It is a pop culture masterpiece -  ruthlessly satirical, hilarious, and wondrous. In short, my boys and I loved it. 

I was interested in how I would respond to a work that attacks faith, in particular Mormonism but in general, all religious faiths. And make no mistake: Mormonism is the writers’ primary target but their critique condemns the worst excesses of evangelical culture. There were moments I was quite uncomfortable and felt offended. I was prepared for that. And yet in lampooning religious faith, PSL reveal just as much about their own worldview baggage as their problems with Mormonism. PSL want to satirize religion and the musical genre and at the same time, adhere to their conventions and inspire through the very medium they’re critiquing. And if you don’t look too carefully, they pull it off. As one reviewer puts it, like the musical The Producers, PSL manage to have their cake and eat it too.

The plot is pretty simple. Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are 19-year old Mormons who are paired off to on their Mormon mission trip to Uganda. Elder Price is the narcissistic, good-looking, charismatic Eagle Scout who dreams of making a name for himself. Elder Cunningham is the archetypal comic relief awkward loser sidekick. The missionary drama centers around a Ugandan village's struggle with a violent warlord who practices ritual mutilation of female genitalia. They feel no relevance with the Mormons' teaching and the Mormon outpost has had zero baptisms - that is, until Elders Price and Cunningham arrive. 

Here are the three critiques Book of Mormon levels on evangelical culture:

1) Judgement and repression of negative feelings

The song Turn It Off is about repression and how most religions, Christianity included, have a reputation of ineffectual emotional management. It’s about pushing emotions down and ignoring them:

Turn it off, like a light switch
just go click
It's a cool little Mormon trick! 

We do it all the time. 
When you're feeling certain feels that just don't feel right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light and turn em off,
Like a light switch just go bap!
Really whats so hard about that?
Turn it off! (Turn it off!)

PSL are right. My experience with evangelical Christianity is that most churches are ill-equipped to deal with negative emotions. We don’t know how to handle them. We deal in platitudes, cliches, and out-of-context Bible verses. These tactics are not helpful. This is not even necessarily a religious phenomenon. Every family where morality is strictly regulated has a turn-it-off syndrome. 

In any case, the accusation is valid. We, as the church, must become more skilled at addressing the reality of negative emotions. Repression is not reflective of the realities of the gospel. David, Solomon, and Job relentlessly pour out their complaints to God. The bible is psychologically profound but it would be anachronistic to impose psychological categories on the text. We must learn to deal with the reality of negative emotions without experiencing them as a threat. They are not an obstacle but part of the richness of emotional life God intended for us. This is about compassion - to deal with depression, anger, anxiety, fear, shame, and guilt with sensitivity, empathy, and gentleness. There is no magic wand to turn these off. And yet in Christ, we have a High Priest who willingly joins us in our pit of badness. 

2) Viewing doubt as cancerous to faith

I Believe is an incisive song. It deals with evangelical culture’s fixation on eradicating doubt as if it was an infectious disease:

You cannot just believe part-way.
You have to believe in it all.
My problem was doubting the Lord's will.
Instead of standing tall.
I can't allow myself to have any doubt.


Doubt is risky and is an attack on certainty. Every mature Christian has gone through a season (if not seasons) of doubt, uncertainty, and outright anger towards God. It is an important part of one's growth as a believer and there is significant biblical evidence for the importance of doubt. In his final week of life, Jesus prays for a way out of his impending suffering and on the cross, questions why God has abandoned him. There are absolutely rays of faith present amidst the clouds of doubt but it is in the storm of uncertainty that trust emerges. 

The question isn’t about squelching doubt but how to come to terms with doubt and certainty and still have a viable faith. Book of Mormon alleges that the Church of LDS (along with most other religions) do a poor job of taking doubt seriously and having a satisfactory answer to questions or even the courage to ask tough questions. Often doubt is viewed as a threat and indeed our faith is at risk in the midst of uncertainty.

And yet as Christians we need not fear doubt. It doesn’t have to paralyze us. It is a natural and necessary part of my journey towards truth. So doubt is a constant companion. He is not always a friend but he has led me to some incredible places that I would not have been able to visit if not for his presence. The father of the demon-possessed boy acknowledges his doubt right before Jesus exorcises the demon. It’s tempting to obscure doubt’s role as the crucible of faith.

This means we need to become better at asking and dealing with hard questions. It means the ability to self-critique and reflect. Throughout history, the church has actually been quite good at this. It may take years, decades, centuries, but Christians have wrestled with hard questions, admitted we are wrong, and grown through the process.

3) Refusal to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of faith

One of PSL’s main targets is the absurdity of the founding history of the Book of Mormon. They poke fun at the idea of Jesus being in America, the gold plates never being found, the Mormon idea of each male being given his own planet. PSL are ruthless on Mormonism because of its absurd claims but if Mormonism is a 10 on the absurdity scale, Christianity is a 7, and Judaism rates a 5.

Viewed through the lens of empirical science, every religion makes absurd claims. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family and remember trying to making sense some of the basic ideas of Christianity: God has only one son. He is both 100% human and 100% divine and born of a virgin. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and equal and yet separate and distinct. It’s some crazy stuff. Here’s a quote from a New York Times review:
But 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.
Absurdity is only one test of veracity. Western civilization will absolutely overweight this criteria. And as this reviewer states, PSL want the reverence and the ridicule at the same time. They project their Western nihilism upon the African natives who, because of their suffering, sing out an expletive to God. They want to tear down and build up with the identical raw materials. That’s the beauty and arrogance of postmodernism. You get to tear everything down and then build it back again the way you want. There is no universal truth - only personal truth and it’s validity comes from its personalization. In the end, I don’t believe PSL have so much a problem with absurdity but rather that Mormonism and evangelical culture have trouble admitting the inherent absurdity of faith. If we were more candid in acknowledging the mystery, wonder, and tension of faith rather than assuming a tranquil marriage between faith and reason, it would go a long way in addressing skeptics’ distrust of organized religion. 

PSL say religion is a made-up enterprise and its power lies in its ability to make culturally relevant moral distinctions. When Elder Cunningham realizes the Book of Mormon has no cultural relevance to AIDS, female genital mutilation, and the suffering of Africa, he begins to make stuff up, passing it off as Mormonism, with hilarious results. That’s the point. Religion is making stuff up to make sense of pain and suffering. And to that end, PSL acknowledge it works. So the truth is not important, rather everything religious and absurd exists as metaphor - to help us have the sense that we are part of something bigger without that something bigger actually being real. 

The postmodern thesis of Book of Mormon is boiled down thus: 

The beauty of religion is not in its truthfulness but its ability to inspire. Likewise the power of a musical isn’t in its adherence to reality but it’s ability to captivate. 


Our goal as Christians is to demonstrate both the truth and beauty of our faith through appreciation of doubt and sensitivity to negative emotions. It’s a lofty ambition I’m confident the church is capable of achieving, if we would listen to our detractors.  

Comments

  1. Thanks Fred, really liked your insight here and your wisdom on how the church needs to "demonstrate both the truth and beauty of our faith through appreciation of doubt and sensitivity to negative emotions." Want to read more of your posts. -Marc W

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