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Broadway musical misses the point

By Michael Otterson

Published: Sunday, May 1 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: Michael Otterson is director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, owner of the Deseret News. This column first appeared in the Washington Post and is republished by permission.

Reviews of "The Book of Mormon" musical have been all over the entertainment media in the past few weeks. According to the reviews, the play sketches the journey of two Mormon missionaries from their sheltered life in Salt Lake City to Uganda, where their training and life experience proves wholly inadequate to the realities of a continent plagued by poverty, AIDS, genital mutilation and other horrors. While extolling the musical for its originality, most reviewers also make reference to the play's over-the-top blasphemous and offensive language.

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. There's always room for different perspectives, and we can all decide what to do with our free time.

But I'm not buying what I'm reading in the reviews. Specifically, I'm not willing to spend $200 for a ticket to be sold the idea that religion moves along oblivious to real-world problems in a kind of blissful naiveté.

Somewhere I read that the show's creators spent seven years writing and producing "The Book of Mormon" musical. As I reflected on all that time spent parodying this particular target, I also wondered what was really going on with Mormons in Africa during those same seven years.

So I checked.

The World Health Organization estimates that 884 million people worldwide don't have access to clean water. This is a huge problem in Africa, not only because of water-borne diseases but because kids who spend hours each day walking to and from the nearest well to fill old gasoline cans with water cannot attend school. According to church records, in the past seven years, more than four million Africans in 17 countries have gained access to clean drinking water through Mormon humanitarian efforts to sink or rehabilitate boreholes.

More than 34,000 physically handicapped African kids now have wheelchairs through the same Mormon-sponsored humanitarian program. To see a legless child whose knuckles have become calloused through walking on his hands lifted into a wheelchair may be the best way to fully understand the liberation this brings.

Millions of children, meanwhile, have now been vaccinated against killer diseases like measles as the church has sponsored or assisted with projects in 22 African countries.

More than 126,000 Africans have had their sight restored or improved through Mormon partnership with African eye care professionals in providing training, equipment and supplies.

Another 52,000 Africans have been trained to help newborns who otherwise would never take a first breath. Training in neonatal resuscitation has also been a big project for Mormons in Africa.

Then, of course, there is the tragedy of AIDS. A couple of weeks ago I attended a dinner where the Utah AIDS Foundation honored James O. Mason, former United States Assistant Secretary of Health. When he was working for the Center for Disease Control in 1984, a project to research the epidemiology and treatment of AIDS was established at the Hospital Mama Yempo in Kinshasha, Zaire. After visiting the hospital and examining the children and adults with AIDS, Mason described the death rate and the associated infections from AIDS as "horrific." Mason, a Mormon, knows quite a bit about AIDS and a great deal about Africa.

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