I wondered what the people streaming out of the theater in Birmingham, Alabama on a mild February evening might have been thinking after having watched what is surely one of the raunchiest, most irreverent, most sacrilegious and blasphemous Broadway productions to ever come down the pike. This is the Bible Belt. No. This is the buckle of the Bible Belt. The very next day, a larger percentage of the local population than almost anywhere else in the United States would be taking their places (implicitly reserved) in pews all over the fair city, the faint sheen of sin at having watched and laughed at the musical still clinging to them like the sweaty essence of a clandestine lover. There’s a thin line, like Jimmy Buffet says, between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Were they feeling a bit of guilt at having seen the Mormon Church being mercilessly ridiculed?
Did they figure the Mormons weren’t real Christians like them, making it okay to single them out for mockery and contempt?
Did it occur to them that had it been mainstream Christianity in the dock, the perpetrators of the ridicule would, at the very least, have been severely ostracized, while the uproar amongst the faithful would have been deafening? Had it been Islam or Judaism, aside from ostracism and howls of derision from the faithful, political correctness scolds would have had a field day. There would have been marches against religious bigotry, with echoes of the Holocaust reverberating against city walls. There might even have been violence, maybe even of the type that struck Charlie Hebdo in France.
But what came of all this laughter at the Mormon’s expense? Nothing, really. Not a peep from the Progressive/liberal/politically-correct crowd, yet it would be hard to imagine anything more politically incorrect, illiberal and retrograde as making fun of a whole theology’s religious beliefs and practices. But the Mormon’s pain was my gain. Never mind the laughter, and don’t get me wrong, the musical was funny in a slapstick sort of way, I scored a copy of the real Book of Mormon on my way out of the theater, as the church had strategically placed volunteers outside to distribute free copies after the show, sort of like the Congressional rebuttals that come after a President’s speech. So I finally got to learn a bit of what the religion is about.
I don’t believe in any of the origin mythologies that mankind has devised and propagated in order to create a purposeful narrative of existence that might ameliorate the terrible lightness of being that sentience has bestowed upon us. I don’t believe that God created the earth and its geologic features and its life in six days and rested on the seventh, such as the Hebrew, Christian and Islam holy texts provide. Likewise, I don’t believe that the universe began with a Big Bang and is today filled with some mysterious Dark Matter and Dark Energy that keeps the heavens quiescently cycling along, as goes the origin myth propagated by people (mainly theoretical physicists) claiming to be scientific materialists goes, but who are in fact more akin to Pythagorean mystics. And I most certainly don’t believe that God led a lost tribe of Israel to American shores some six hundred years before Christ who were then visited by Christ after the resurrection but before his birth who then wrote the tales of their journey on golden tablets which were buried in what became known as Wayne County, New York, awaiting the arrival of seventeen-year-old Joseph Smith, who dug them up on the instructions of an angel of God and transcribed them from New Egyptian into what became The Book of Mormon. No, I do not believe that nonsense at all. It is just as fanciful a creation myth as one that requires 96% of the universe to be comprised of forces and stuff that no one has seen or even detected.
To my reckoning, the myths are just that, but that’s okay. People need to believe in something. People will believe in something. It might be secular, such as the beliefs claimed of the scientific materialists that the Big Bang Theory began time itself, with no need of a creator with supernatural powers. Or it might be religious, like the Judeo-Christians, who worship a paternalistic God that watched over his flock like the wandering tribes of shepherds from whom the myths originated watched over their sheep and goats. Or, it might be quite outlandish, such as that a lost tribe of Israel buried a bunch of gold tablets in what became the United States that were then dug up to provide another testament of Christ which was translated to English in roughly the year 1830. One and all, the beliefs fill a void of meaning and purpose in people’s lives. They’re all myths spun from fantasy, but myths that help to keep people engaged in the ridiculousness of a life that has no apparent cosmic purpose, eternally struggling to roll that boulder of eternal life up the hill, to fully well know that as soon as it’s let go, it will roll right back down.
And I say that’s just fine. If whatever is believed helps people get through the day without harming themselves or others, I say believe to the limit of the heart’s desire. Pretty much everyone tells themselves and others a dozen or more lies and rationalizations by lunch time just in order to get through a morning immersed in civil society. If belief helps make the lies palatable, so much the better. I respect whatever a person believes unless and until their beliefs begin harming me.
As for me, my only belief is that I should afford others the same respect and consideration that I hope they will afford me. Which is why the Book of Mormon musical was troubling. I don’t ridicule the beliefs of others and don’t see that an artistic piece should either. Even the famous “Piss Christ” photograph didn’t ridicule Christianity. It plaintively rejected Christianity for all its sins, profaning it for not living up to its promise, which is quite a different thing than ridiculing a religion for its peculiar catechism.
Mormon beliefs are quirky, there is no doubt. Which makes them an easy punch line, of which the playwrights took advantage at every turn. There was not a parcel of low-hanging fruit left on the Mormon mockery tree by the time the musical was through. And a good deal of it was sophomoric and vulgar. Imagine all those god-fearing Christians showing up for church the next day having seen a musical that got things really going with a rousing rendition of Hasa Diga Eebowa, which means “Fuck You, God”, sung by a group of Ugandan natives led by General Butt-Fucking-Naked. The show was written by three guys, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez, the first two of whom bestowed upon American culture the animated vulgarity and irreverence of South Park, and it shows.
I don’t have the slightest problem with the sentiments expressed in “Fuck You, God”, where the natives are lamenting their misfortunes and blaming it all on God. In fact, if the Judeo-Christian notion of an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God is carried to its logical end, God nigh well has to be blamed, and credited, for everything—good, bad and indifferent—that happens. That’s what it means to have all those infinities. I have many times looked in the mirror during particularly unfortunate stretches of my life, giving God the old Bronx salute, blaming him for my misfortune. (Yes, the best place to see God is in your own mirror—being created in God’s image is quite the same thing as creating God in one’s own image. So the best place to cuss Him is right there, in the mirror, with Him looking back at you.) But if the Christians and Jews and Muslims in the audience weren’t offended, it is because they were the rare souls who actually understand the implications of his purported attributes. Most Christians think of God as something of a Superman who is concerned for their welfare, willing to swoop into a telephone booth to don his cape anytime troubles call; that God is there to do battle for whatever the individual defines as good. But no omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent entity ever needs to battle anything, or even can, unless it could be imagined that he would battle himself.
The litany of vulgarities in the musical included a song, Baptize Me, that was hardly about baptism, but instead was a double entendre with “baptize” basically meaning ‘to have sex with’. The laughs never quit coming. No, that’s not a raunchy pun.
The plot line is predictable. Two young guys, just graduated high school or college, are sent out, ‘two by two’ to proselytize the world on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, pursuant to the requirements of the faith for the faithful. One is an All-American Boy, determined to do well by doing good for his church (a Mitt Romney kind of guy), but is aghast when he finds out he is assigned to Uganda with the nerdiest loser of the bunch as his partner. Of course, Nerdy Guy ends up succeeding where All-American Boy fails, and because of his nerdiness, whereas All-American Boy can’t succeed because he can’t think outside the box generated by his own selfish biases.
Nerdy Guy hardly knows anything of the Book of Mormon, having never read it, so when it comes time to proselytize and convert the natives, he just makes stuff up. But he does it with empathy and genuine concern, attributes which All-American Boy desperately lacks. Thus Nerdy Guy wins (including the girl who sings Baptize Me to him), ironically through behaving in just the manner that the founder of Christianity taught. Christ repeatedly pointed out the wickedness of the overwrought legalism of the Pharisees, claiming that the measure of one’s life is not to be found in following rules but in human compassion. It’s not clear whether the playwrights intended for the message of the musical to comport so closely, if tacitly, with Christ’s message, a delightful irony if they did so unwittingly.
The Book of Mormon, the musical, was seven years in the making. The Book of Mormon itself took quite a bit longer, both in transcription and in achieving acceptance for its adherents. The church was founded in western New York state in the 1830’s, and in practically every place the Mormons tried to settle, they were run out of town by locals who were fearful they aimed to establish a theocracy. They finally gathered on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1847, there to found Sal Tlay Ka Siti (obviously, “Salt Lake City”, the musical’s song title for the place where natives who became Mormons would finally find happiness). The area was uninhabited upon their arrival. Brigham Young halted the wagon trains of adherents fleeing Mexico (their last forlorn refuge) saying “this is the right place.” There the Mormons did as the Israelis in Palestine, and made the desert bloom.
The New Yorker magazine recently reported on a Hindu ceremony of Shivaratri taking place in the City at the Broome Street Temple in SoHo. It is a ceremony of all-night wakefulness and fasting to honor the efforts of an ancient Indian noblewoman, Parvati, who had a crush on the Hindu god, Shiva, who was an ascetic. She took up asceticism to try to impress upon him the seriousness of her urges, which eventually worked. He came down from his mountaintop and married her. So now the Hindus honor her efforts with a Shivaratri. The one held at Broome Street Temple recently was attended by over a hundred fifty adherents, one of which was supposed to be Madonna, but she sent her regrets late in the night. And nobody made fun of the silliness and absurdity. The Hindu legend is essentially a throwback to Greek mythology, when humans and gods were believed to regularly interact in controlling or affecting mankind’s fate. But nobody questions it. In fact, it is considered chic to be into yoga, if for nothing other than the pants, and if yoga participation is extended into the actual Hinduism from which it arose, so much the hipper. Does Madonna ever do anything that’s not Queen of Pop hip?
People wouldn’t think of ridiculing Hindu rituals practiced by confused Westerners. Yet the Mormon Church is fair game for all sort of scornful and contemptible mockery. Mainstream Christianity doesn’t mind the Mormons being mocked because it feels threatened by Mormonism’s successes and its quirkiness. Non-believers love it when the ox of any religion is gored, but particularly one as quirky as Mormonism.
But the Jews should be particularly troubled with the ridicule because Mormonism feels like a neo-traditional Judaism. Like the ancient Jews, Mormons live in society but apart from it. The devout Mormons refuse alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, much like the ancient Hebrews (and a select few today) refused pork and shellfish, because each in their day represented things that could impair health and vitality. At about 2.5%, today’s Jews and Mormons represent an almost identical proportion of the American population. And like the Jews, Mormons are vastly overrepresented in the professions and upper strata of society.
I don’t know how those theater-goers were feeling that night last month in Birmingham as we left the show. I can only imagine they might have felt a bit like I did. And I felt a bit sleazy and naughty and repulsed for having had such a good time. I thought the show was funny, but of a low-brow, slapstick variety of humor, almost like one of those movies that parody movie genres, except this was a parody of religion.
I imagine that many of Alabama’s devout Christians felt about the same after attending The Book of Mormon as the people who flocked to theaters to see Fifty Shades of Grey felt after watching it. The Fifty Shades people had to have suffered twinges of guilt for experiencing pleasure at watching a grown woman’s bottom being spanked as an act of foreplay. Likewise for the theater goers seeing the Mormons spanked with intense satire and ridicule in the musical.
The culture seems to have crossed an unseen barrier with The Book of Mormon and Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. Things people might have once felt but would never have said or done are okay if enjoyed from the anonymous comfort of a theater seat. It has to feel something similar to how it felt to attend pornographic movies back during their heyday, where everything being displayed was taboo in public, but okay when presented to an audience in a darkened theater. People in polite society would never have been caught attending a XXX feature film. Nowadays, without experiencing the taboos displayed in darkened theaters there would be little to talk about around the water cooler on a Monday morning.