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Is the 'Book of Mormon' musical accurate satire?

Published: Sunday, June 12 2011 10:56 p.m. MDT

Earlier this year, Scott Rudin, a producer for "The Book of Mormon Musical," told NPR about a conversation he had with a man who attended a preview showing of the production, which on Sunday night won nine Tony awards, including best musical. "I left the Mormon Church after my mission (in Africa)," said the man, who had brought his children to the show. "(I) married a Jewish woman and now I live in Montclair, New Jersey. My kids know nothing about my upbringing. They have learned more from this (musical) than they have from all their lives with me."

Rudin's anecdote echoes a common refrain that the show's producers have repeated since before it opened, that "The Book of Mormon," while obviously satirical, offers an accurate depiction of Latter-day Saint doctrines and culture. Indeed, the musical's high-profile creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have claimed in multiple media interviews to have "done their homework" when it comes to LDS teachings.

While theater experts and media pundits have praised the musical, others have pointed out the play is not only profane and inaccurate, but actually an attack on faith more broadly. GetReligion.org's Mollie Ziegler wrote that the play "is an entirely New York phenomenon. It mocks general religious belief using Mormon characters. It's made by media elites (media elites whom I generally like, admittedly) and enjoyed by a class of people who go to Broadway musicals."

Likewise, New York Times columnist David Brooks observed that "The central theme of 'The Book of Mormon' is that many religious stories are silly."

He said the play's message boils down to this: "Religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally."

"The only problem with 'The Book of Mormon' (musical)," Brooks continued, "is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False."

A Deseret News analysis of the show's content, based on its official script and lyrics, reveals several errors and misrepresentations that go beyond the bounds of generalization for comedy's sake — and Mormonism isn't the only subject with which the Tony award-winning musical takes liberties. And those liberties can create important misperceptions.

"Of course, parody isn't reality, and it's the very distortion that makes it appealing and often funny," Michael Otterson, the public affairs representative for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wrote in a recent piece in the Washington Post. "The danger is not when people laugh but when they take it seriously."

Misstating LDS beliefs

The musical's book and lyrics contain multiple inaccurate representations of LDS beliefs and practices.

Some of the errors are arguably inconsequential, and likely the result of efforts to simplify for plot's sake. They include the specifics of how missionaries receive their proselytizing assignments, LDS mission rules and nuances regarding Lamanites and Nephites in the actual Book of Mormon.

Yet, "The Book of Mormon" musical also contains less benign inaccuracies, like misrepresenting Joseph Smith's history, distorting Mormon epistemology and misconstruing the church's teachings about the afterlife. For example, the song "All-American Prophet" puts to music a version of the Joseph Smith story that is riddled with errors both small and large. In one notable example, the angel Moroni sings, "Don't let anybody see these plates except for you (Joseph)," and then toward the end of the song, during the scene depicting Smith's death, the prophet sings "Oh God, why are you letting me die without having me show people the plates? They'll have no proof I was telling the truth or not they'll have to believe it just cuz. Oh. I guess that's kind of what you were going for."

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