The highly anticipated The Book of Mormon didn't quite provoke the highly anticipated shower of controversy we were told to highly anticipate. In the months leading up to its debut, the show indulged the predicted criticism by dismissing it. Its website touted reviews calling it "blasphemous," "boundary-pushing," and "crudely provocative." Trey Parker, one of the show's director/writer/composers, publicly declared "We're just not scared... And not like in an 'Awesome, we're fearless' way. We're just reckless."
Yet it seems Parker, Stone, and Lopez (of South Park and Avenue Q fame) had little to fear. In fact, the show made headlines last week when some of its LDS audience members were thrilled to have been "treated with affection" and declared themselves "pleasantly surprised by how incredibly sweet it was." But how surprised should they have been? As Slate's Christopher Beam pointed out, South Park has a long history of articulating conservative values with a decidedly liberal panache. And The Book of Mormon is in keeping with this tradition. In a brilliantly executed, entertaining production that crafts complicated and sympathetic protagonists, the show skillfully weaves a narrative that leads its audience to what is really the only reachable conclusion and then, in a final act almost religious in its blissful ignorance, concludes precisely the opposite. It seems the trio just wasn't fearless enough to divine that while missionaries can be very, very good people, they are doing a very, very bad thing.
In a genre not known for its subtlety, this musical stayed away from stereotypes, portraying its two missionary heroes as deeply earnest, deeply flawed, and often deeply conflicted about their own beliefs. The young, idealistic, mismatched pair comes from a world that has thus far been far smaller than the isolated village in Uganda where they are sent on their first mission.
Before seeing The Book of Mormon, I remarked that for religious people, death isn't scary. Life is. After the musical number "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" I was singing a different tune. (Namely, that one.) The story humanized a religious minority that is often subject to mean-spirited parody and immature, unclever humor, and instead showed its audience how struggling to live by such a strict code can be overbearing and torturous for young people.
The irony, of course, is that these young people have been sent halfway across the world to impose this code on others. But when they attempt to do so, they are faced with far more immediate and pressing concerns than their religious text is equipped to solve. Upon hearing a missionary describe the deep-seated spiritual ennui that results from a life lived without Christ's love, one villager mistakes this condition for the deep-seated physical discomfort that results from having maggots in one's scrotum. "You should see a doctor about that," the missionary suggests. "I am the doctor," he responds.
We are eventually led to believe that doctrine, however fantastical, can be useful to struggling people when treated as a metaphor. Stone described this musical as being partly borne out of the questions, "Do goofy stories make people nice? What if, in their goofiness, these stories somehow inspire that in the right way. Is that a social good?"
But doesn't the practice of proselytism undermine the value of religion as social good? Any humanitarian effort requires some kind of framework in order to truly effect lasting change, but imposing a religious framework is dangerous and arbitrary. It's based on the illusion that your stories are best suited to solve the problems of others. But everyone's religion has evolved to provide them with the support and comfort that their environment requires. How can someone armed solely with his scripture claim to know the best way to earthly salvation? Isn't it cruel in its recklessness to promote the notion that serious problems can be solved through religious belief, which after all can't fill empty stomachs or exterminate the maggots in one's scrotum?
And if the point is that religion really can save the destitute, then how far is it really from the argument that religion, or a lack thereof, is what damned them in the first place? Somehow, the three most politically incorrect people on the planet have found a politically correct way to rehash the age-old argument that the world's wretched suffer because they have yet to discover the power of Christ.
Stone may be right when he suggests that "At the end of the day, if the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?... I'm not sure the veracity of the stories is that important." This is true only when mass delusion achieves the desired outcome. But can any religion effectively produce that outcome in the same way that education and humanitarian outreach can? If scripture is revered enough to have that kind of impact, it cannot be flexible enough to change with social mores and scientific progress. There's an underlying danger that the show rightly touches upon, but far too playfully. Aren't today's parables tomorrow's doctrine?
I was entertained, not insulted, by the crude boundary-pushing of The Book of Mormon. But these are all complicated questions that deserve complicated answers. And there is no holy book malleable or sophisticated enough to provide them. If anything was blasphemous about this play, it was the notion that there might be.