The Book of Mormon Musical

Ever since the Book of Mormon Musical took Broadway by storm, I have tended to think that “any press, is good press.” I believe that there will be a silver lining to this, and that it will have the positive effect of raising the interest which people have in the Church, as well as that of opening a dialogue for increased understanding.

Yet that does not mean that I’m thrilled that the musical exists. From the first time I heard about it, or saw an advertisement for it, it made me cringe to see that which I hold sacred, paraded as a subject of ridiculed. Many, even within the Church, have characterized this parody as ‘harmless’ (and it very well may be), but I’m still uncomfortable with it.

It doesn’t feel good to have those things which I hold most sacred, mocked on the public stage, and then be told that I should laugh along. And it also hurts to see friends of mine, not of my faith, heap praises on what appears like something who’s core message is: aren’t these people silly? Additionally, I think I’m also uncomfortable with the musical because of its vulgar nature—which necessarily means it was not meant for my people to laugh along with—as well as the unfortunate stereotypes the play perpetuates.

However Latter-Day Saint Christians like myself face a dilemma when confronting this sort of mockery. A dilemma which I think Michael Otterson (the head of Public Affairs for the Church) best captured as he wrote in the Washington Post:

“Dealing with parody and satire is always a tricky thing for churches. We can easily appear thin-skinned or defensive, and churches sometimes are. A few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have seen this musical and blogged about it seem to have gone out of their way to show how they can take it. That’s their choice.”

And yes, it’s true, we can take it. Life will go on, and being ridiculed is not something we’re necessarily strangers to. But I’d like to express why we shouldn’t have to. And to illustrate this, I’ll turn to two non-LDSC who have spoken out against the play: John Mark Reynolds; and a Jewish man named Levi from New York.

First: John Mark Reynolds, a professor of Philosophy, wrote a strong reproach of the play and its premise in which he expressed his disgust:

“We may laugh, but our grandchildren will shudder as decent folk do at ‘wits’ of the last century whose favorite dance was to ‘jump Jim Crow.’

The parts of the Book of Mormon I have seen are as innovative as a Newsies revival and as funny as the cruel, tasteless jokes told by an inebriated coworker at a Christmas party. The difference is that the coworker might sober up in the morning, but the mindless mockery that also gave us South Park will continue.

I am no Mormon, but I have witnessed bigotry and ignorance directed against this American community. The LDS Church is placed in the difficult position of seeing their most sacred beliefs mocked in a nation that murdered their prophet in a shameful lynching. Broadway has given aid and comfort to the mob of ignorant folk who know nothing of modern Mormonism outside of their prejudices.

No wonder Mormon politicians like Jon Huntsman, bob and weave when asked by bigots if they are part of the LDS church. Few of us have the Mitt Romney courage to stand by our people when the cost is high. For his steadfastness, Romney was linked to the play in a Newsweek parody cover that left only his profile, but a profile in religious courage. Theater has an ugly record of pandering to the prejudices of ticket buyers. Minstrel shows produced catchy music and made New Yorkers laugh, but they were shameful and wrong.

The Book of Mormon is a minstrel show for our present age with Mormons as the joke.

Ugly plays did not by themselves produce the Klan or keep some Americans from voting for African-Americans. Original sin was enough for that, but minstrel shows did give racism an artistic and comedic whitewash. When Americans were hurt by the cruel stereotypes, they were told it was ‘just a joke’ and were painted as petty for not laughing along.

Of course no group has been as cruelly treated as African-Americans, but Mormons have a history of being persecuted. They have been exiled in their own land, but have returned unfailing devotion to our Constitution. This new play will pander to our prejudices and treat our Mormon neighbors as we would never wish to be treated. Some Americans will allow it to confirm unthinking prejudice, while cowardly Mormons will applaud it hoping for crumbs of respectability.

Meanwhile the actual Mormons in our midst will keep paying taxes, making strong families with children, and dying to protect the rights of a decayed and decadent theater ‘elite.’”

In The New York Times: reader’s reviews of the play contained a short commentary by a man identifying himself as Levi, from New York, which asks a pointed question:

“Why is it OK to mock Mormons and not Jews? As someone of Jewish faith, I take personal offense at this show. People point to the feel-good outcome, but little attention is paid to how the show takes you there: by thoroughly mocking the faith of another. There have been some comparisons to “The Producers” and its “Springtime for Hitler,” for example. However, this comparison is baseless. “The Producers” does not mock Judaism — it does the opposite. It does not conjure up age-old bigotry (except to display it as ridiculous and stupid). What this show displays as ridiculous is the Mormon faith and those who practice it. If this show were attacking Jews or Muslims, there would be international outcry. People would be fired, there would be lawsuits, boycotts, etc. It would be all over the news (in a bad way). This sort of thing happens to those of my faith in countries elsewhere in the world. But I cannot believe that New York, MY New York, where I was born and raised, would ever do such a thing. Shame on you, New York Times, shame on Broadway, and shame on all of us who stand idly by and do nothing while the faith of others is mocked. Religious and cultural Jews need not support such bigotry.”

Both these men are correct, and I thank them for speaking out against this play. Yet for us Latter-Day Saint Christians, what can we gain from reacting angrily to it? Should we go out and protest? Picket Broadway? Obviously not. What would we gain from that? Certainly not increased respectability. Life for us goes on, and perhaps some good can come out of this play. I believe it will.

Many Latter-Day Saint Christians have even expressed an eagerness to see the play, or have seen it and say that it is great. One way or another, I don’t believe any Latter-Day Saint Christian should support this play as its apparent emphasis on coarse and vulgar language, and out right Blasphemy, are probably not what would be classified as appropriate entertainment for a devout Latter-Day Saint Christian. However should they choose to, that is their prerogative.

In the end, no response to this play is quite as good as the response from the Church:

“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.”