No, I’m not talking about the book of scripture from which the nickname for my church is derived. I’m talking about the Broadway musical that won so many Tony awards last Sunday night.
I’ve admitted here to some ambivalence about “The Book of Mormon.” On balance the musical seems to be harmless nonsense that, I hope, signals a recognition of my faith as sufficiently established and familiar in the USA to mock. In other words, the musical might be seen as a back-handed compliment to Mormonism.
Part of me is uneasy about the notion that is is acceptable — even praiseworthy — to mock a religious minority that has a history of persecution. As much as “The Book of Mormon” may be a sign of mainstreaming Mormon culture, if not its beliefs, it may also foreshadow the acceptance of intellectual persecution and ridicule of a distinctive religious tradition. We Mormons are a little sensitive about that.
But it has taken an Orthodox Christian professor at Biola University, John Mark Reynolds, to make the point for us. In a must-read op-ed at The Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, Professor Reynolds (a favorite of this blog) writes of Amos and Andy and The Book of Mormon:
If we assume the play a brilliant satire with PR unfortunate enough to release only the cruel and facile bits, then we are still left with two unfortunate truths about this play. First, the writers are cowards. They inflict pain and mockery on those already despised while going soft on the tired assumptions of their rich and powerful patrons. Second, in a pluralistic society they have targeted a group already misunderstood and discriminated against.
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.
Please read the whole thing.
In the end, I, and other Mormons like me, find the musical disturbing and somewhat worrisome. In the aftermath of California’s Proposition 8 we felt the sting of public attacks on individual members of our church who acted on a matter of conscience. Yes, that makes us nervous about the extent to which we might have to steel ourselves for further such attacks in the future. We do not like the idea that ridiculing and marginalizing our most sacred and fundamental beliefs is not only acceptable, but hilarious. What person of faith would?
Two days ago Susan Brooks Thislethwaite, a Professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, writes of “Mocking Mormons.” Professor Thislethwaite takes a slightly more benign view of “The Book of Mormon,” and tells Mormons “welcome to the American mainstream. Now, in order to join this fraternity, you need to go through the hazing.”
Other reviewers disagree, of course, that attacking faith or Mormonism is the goal of this musical. Mark Kennedy writes for Associated Press that the “Book of Mormon” is “a pro-religion show at heart.” Why? Because it has an uplifting moral at the end. “Far from being nihilistic,” Kennedy writes, “the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.” That’s about as watered-down a version of religion as you can get; but after all, Kennedy writes for the Associated Press, not Beliefnet, so what does he know? (That was a joke, Mark.)
But that doesn’t mean that the “Book of Mormon” isn’t funny, especially if you like silly, sophomoric humor of the “South Park” variety…. What is offensive to some can be funny to others, but often precisely because it is offensive. Humor isn’t always kind; humor is routinely used to put minorities in their place. In the case of “The Book of Mormon,” the offensiveness seems to be the point, not the ‘doing good.’
Can Mormons ‘take a joke’? Like women in the workplace having to suffer through sexist jokes, I see this musical as a sign both that Mormons are moving into the mainstream of religion and culture, and that there is resistance to that.
I hope Thislethwaite is right, I really do. But John Mark Reynolds convinces me that we ought to watch the progress of this phenomenon closely, and with more than a little concern.