'Mormon' musical: Pride in prejudice?

Published: Saturday, June 18 2011 2:00 p.m. MDT

As far as the Mormon elements of the show are concerned, Farmer wrote in a long piece for Religion Dispatches magazine that the show's "ethnographic details are wrong" and that "the play mischaracterizes Mormon theology," and he cited a number of examples of both.

"Satire, like blasphemy, is not supposed to be crowd-pleasing entertainment," Farmer concluded. "It is supposed to be discomfiting. Instead of inspiring religious debate, 'The Book of Mormon' has mainly inspired a lot of self-admiration from pop culture mavens, people who evidently believe that singing Mormons and starving Africans are now retro-cool."

"As Eric Cartman might say: 'Lame!'"

No fewer than 11 of the contributors to the Washington Post's On Faith blog weighed in this week with their responses to the question, "'The Book of Mormon': Is faith funny?"

One of the strongest of those opinions was that future generations will cringe at the "Book of Mormon" musical the way many Americans do today at the former national hit "Amos and Andy," said John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Biola University.

"The Book of Mormon is a minstrel show for our present age with Mormons as the joke," Reynolds said, adding that "Broadway has given aid and comfort to the mob of ignorant folk who know nothing of modern Mormonism outside of their prejudices."

"Meanwhile," Reynolds concluded, "the actual Mormons in our midst will keep paying taxes, making strong families with children, and dying to protect the rights of a decayed and decadent theater 'elite.'

"I stand in solidarity with my Mormon neighbors."

James Faulconer, who is a philosophy professor as well as the Richard L. Evans professor of Religious Understanding at BYU, provided an LDS perspective on "The Book of Mormon" in a column for Patheos.com. He pointed out that Mormons aren't the only religious people who find themselves to be the target of comedic derision. "Catholic priests have come in for a good many cruel jokes recently," Faulconer wrote. "Evangelical Christians get their fair share of mockery . . . Jews have been making jokes about themselves for a long time. We could learn from them, and we should laugh when others use humor to point out our idiosyncrasies.

"But 'The Book of Mormon' is more like the cruel jokes about Catholic priests than it is like self-critical Jewish humor. Its point is to show how even people with idiotic beliefs can be nice. It isn't written to show the ways in which Mormons should take themselves less seriously. That could be funny. Instead, it is written to show that Mormons can perhaps be taken seriously as nice people, but no thoughtful person could take Mormon beliefs seriously."

According to Faulconer, the play "marks an already existing division in the United States. Most of us identify with a religion, yet there are a significant number of thought-leaders . . . for whom religion is simply nonsense. How should a religious person respond to that division? How do we show that our 'goofy stories' are more than that, that the connection between our stories and beliefs and our niceness is intimate? How do we demonstrate that our beliefs and our actions are of a piece?"

Faulconer concluded that "we may not be able to convince those who think our stories are goofy that they are wrong, but we must continue to give them pause. We need to make them continue to wonder how people with such goofy stories can be so nice. More important, we need to make them wonder how our lives can be such a blessing to others. Of course, that requires that we become that blessing."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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