Permit me to talk seriously for a moment about The Book of Mormon, the sacrilegious song-fest popping eyeballs and frying neurons this week at The Orpheum Theatre. Written by the creators of Comedy Central’s naughty-nice cartoon, South Park, The Book of Mormon is the devil spawn of America’s dedication to the twin freedoms of religion and speech. As in, go ahead and believe any fool thing you want, but we reserve the right to criticize, mock, deride, and ridicule you for it, without shame or mercy.
No doubt many Minnesotans—particularly the devoutly religious—will think it outrageous that anyone in this day and age could get away with (let alone make a profit from) lampooning religiosity with such obvious glee. But as anyone who has seen South Park can attest, absolutely nothing is sacred on that show; its creators have simply expanded that credo into the arena of musical theater. Making fun of people who claim to know “the truth” is an American birthright, and so is making silly, over-the-top musicals. The Book of Mormon does not intend to let that freedom go to waste.
The setup is simple: Two Mormon missionaries are dispatched to a small village in Uganda, where their brand of beliefs, molded in the crucible of American gullibility and optimism, is especially useless. The village is rife with AIDS and terrorized by a vicious warlord whose own absurd belief is that the female clitoris is evil, and must be removed, as cruelly as possible. There are many other problems in the village as well. The one that gets the most laughs is the frequent lament, “I have maggots in my scrotum.” That, and the baby-raping.
The show lambastes American arrogance, exceptionalism, racism, colonialism, and several other –isms, but religion’s inadequacy in the face of human suffering is the show’s true target. Mormonism is the specific belief up for ridicule, but the show makes clear that all religions are based on bizarre, improbable, largely unverifiable stories, and that “faith” is little more than willing oneself to believe the unbelievable.
For the purposes of comedy, Mormonism is a particularly easy target. In fact, the funniest bits in The Book of Mormon aren’t even jokes, they’re just straightforward explanations of what Mormons profess to believe, with an implied “really?” thrown in: For instance, in the 1820s, in upstate New York, a man named Joseph Smith dug up in his backyard a bunch of golden plates etched with the third installment of the Bible (really?); that the plates were guarded by an angel named Moroni (really?), that God lives near the planet Kolob (really?). It’s a religion that practically satirizes itself. And that bit about sending boys in pairs to faraway places for two years, that’s not even a little gay? (Really.)
The smartest thing about the show is that it uses Mormonism as a window into the world of organized religion, a window through which pretty much everything in every religion looks ridiculous. A virgin gave birth to a man (really?), walked on water (really?), turned water into wine (really?), and came back to life three days after he was killed? God requires baby boys to be circumcised? God doesn’t approve of eating meat on Fridays?
And how did people come to believe such bunk? The Book of Mormon’s answer is: Someone made it up, then sold it to the people like a set of steak knives. When the hapless and hopelessly ignorant missionary Arnold starts explaining Mormonism to the Ugandans by filling the gaps in his knowledge with scenes from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and various fairy tales, he is simply building on a proud tradition of pretenders and charlatans who will say pretty much anything in the name of God. At the same time, it’s understood that people need myths and stories, even made-up ones, in order to make sense of their lives. Otherwise, why would God have given us the Disney Corporation?
Compared to what happens in the average episode of South Park, however, The Book of Mormon is as pressed and sanitized as a missionary’s shirt. The reason the show has been embraced by the masses is that it pulls its punches, puts its tongue firmly in its cheek, and ends up—as unlikely as it seems—telling a morally uplifting tale about the virtue of helping other people. Yes, it mocks organized religion mercilessly, but the ultimate message is that it doesn’t matter what idiotic story you believe, what matters is that you treat other people with dignity and respect, help them when they need it, and have the courage to stand up for what’s right, even if it means risking your life. Actions speak louder than words, sayeth the show, so shut up and do something nice for someone else.
The Book of Mormon won nine Tony awards last year, and is the most popular Broadway show on tour this year. Despite its anti-religiosity and crudity, its core beliefs are surprisingly wholesome. Perhaps the most surprising part of all is how the Church of Latter Day Saints has responded to the show: not by denouncing it, as you might expect, but by buying multiple ads in the program inviting patrons to visit the website thebookofmormon.org—to learn more about the religion they just saw skewered!
Only in America, thank . . . someone.
The Book of Mormon continues at The Orpheum Theatre through Feb. 17.