A few years ago, as part of a school assignment, I was asked to create a teaching presentation on a subject I was “very knowledgeable and passionate about.”
I chose Mormonism. And because my class was composed of fellow musical theater performers, I decided to use "The Book of Mormon" musical as the base line for our discussion about the beliefs and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There was just one problem. I had never seen the musical, and I had no intention of seeing it. But in order to have an informed conversation with my classmates about how accurately this popular, Tony Award-winning musical portrays my church, I decided to get my hands dirty and study the script.
Did I find it funny? Yes, parts of it were genuinely hilarious.
Looking only artistically at the musical, there’s no question it’s a pretty brilliant and well-written comedy. I can laugh at the quirks of my LDS culture, such as Elder Price being force-fed Starbucks coffee by Satan’s minions in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” And, to some extent, I'm OK with laughing at the gross stereotypes of the missionaries and other Mormon characters. (Although had they attempted doing the same using another religion, this musical would have been condemned and closed).
While the missionaries were portrayed as extremely wide-eyed, naïve and cheerful to a fault, I appreciated that they were also very earnest, sincere and devoted to “the most important time in a Mormon kid’s life,” to quote the musical. And, more importantly, it’s made clear that Mormons have a deep faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and as our Savior.
Where the writers Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez crossed the line was not in their treatment of us as a people, or even in the way they presented our history or doctrines (they do slightly skew our teachings and beliefs about faith, obedience, prayer, self-control, salvation and the afterlife — but we'll leave that for another time). No, where the writers went too far was in their blatant blasphemy and desecration of things that I hold sacred.
How could I laugh at a song that turns the action of the holy ordinance of baptism into a double entendre sexual encounter? How could I laugh at the crude portrayal of Jesus, or at a song that curses God in an exceptionally vulgar way?
But perhaps what I found most concerning was the musical’s core message and what it seemed to imply about religion in general.
This concern was shared by David Brooks, who wrote the New York Times op-ed piece titled “Creed or Chaos,” in which he describes the musical’s main message this way:
“The central theme of ‘The Book of Mormon’ is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.”
Lopez, in an interview with NY1 News, said, "There's something supremely, ridiculously fake about (religion), but it helps people live their lives better, and there is something emotionally true about it. But you don't necessarily think that God talked to this guy and had him bury some plates in the ground like, that's ridiculous. But if believing in a goofy story helps a bunch of people live lives in a meaningful way, then it is true. That's where we started from."
So essentially, "The Book of Mormon" team started writing this musical from their position that there is no such thing as absolute truth. There are subjective truths that help you lead a better life, but as for the religious stories and miraculous experiences that a religion is built on, these are too unreasonable for an intelligent person to accept as literal.
So what does "The Book of Mormon" musical suggest a person do with these “supremely, ridiculously fake” and “goofy” stories? Consider the following example from the musical:
Elder Cunningham, who has never read the Book of Mormon, is pressured into making up outlandish (and offensive) stories from the Book of Mormon and teaching them to the Ugandan villagers. He does so by using a mix of elements from popular sci-fi, fantasy and LDS history. Although it seems the Ugandans accept Elder Cunningham’s crazy stories at face value (they begin calling him their prophet), we later learn they weren’t so gullible and only viewed his stories as metaphors. “You need to remember that prophets ALWAYS speak in metaphors,” explains one of the villagers.
People of faith certainly understand and appreciate the use of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and parable in scriptural and prophetic teachings. But it’s imperative these not be confused with those stories and teachings that are literal.
I can understand how in our age of skepticism, people might find biblical and LDS Church history stories hard to believe, just as you might find the ridiculous hybrid of religious and sci-fi stories of Elder Cunningham difficult to accept. It’s normal for people to go through a crisis of faith and feel like Elder Price, who exclaims, “That doesn’t make ANY SENSE.”
But this is no excuse for the writers to mock these sacred stories and historical figures and reduce them to a myth or fable simply because they cannot understand them. It is also no excuse for a person to throw away their faith just because they find a literal story difficult to believe or understand.
What should never happen is what Parker describes in an interview with the Boston Globe:
“There’s a lot of Mormons that I think feel validated by this (musical) in a way because they love their church and they love their family, but they’ve always kind of felt inside that ‘Maybe this is all a bunch of (expletive) but I still love it.’ And I think there’s a lot of Mormons who come to the show and say, ‘That’s exactly how I feel,’ and come out of it actually feeling better about being Mormon.”
Becoming complacent in your faith and dismissing the more difficult aspects of your religion — writing them off as a made-up story you don’t believe in but are willing to tolerate — is a dangerous course of inaction for a person of faith to follow. The stories surrounding the history of the LDS Church that "The Book of Mormon" writers dismiss as ridiculous, I call miraculous. And the miraculous can only be understood and known by applied faith, prayer and study.
In what I feel is the vilest part of the show, Elder Price receives a burst of renewed faith, boldly walks into the warlord’s camp to preach the Book of Mormon and is dragged away. It's then implied that he is assaulted, perhaps sexually, with the book. Lopez, in an interview with Playbill.com, confesses that it’s “pretty dark,” but claims it works because it’s “funny, and also symbolic.”
Well, it’s certainly not funny. And if it’s a symbol, it’s an extremely crude and offensive one.
In reality, the Book of Mormon means so much to those who have read, studied and prayed over its pages and its history. To them, these stories are not “supremely, ridiculously fake” fantasies or mere metaphors for living a more meaningful life. They are the bedrock of our faith, the keystone of our religion.
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God who died for our sins and was literally resurrected. Joseph Smith was actually visited by God and his resurrected Son in a sacred grove of trees in upstate New York. And Joseph was literally visited by the Angel Moroni and given instructions concerning real gold plates buried in a hill near his home, upon which were written the history of an ancient people who really lived on the American continent. These people knew the gospel of Jesus Christ, and were actually visited by the resurrected Savior. These are the real people, events and stories that we hold sacred in our religion.
In his New York Times article, Brooks writes that the musical implies that an ideal religion should not be “doctrinal” and “marred by intolerant theological judgments.”
“The only problem with ‘The Book of Mormon’ 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 .
“The religions that thrive have exactly what ‘The Book of Mormon’ ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.”
I couldn’t agree more. Joseph Smith expressed this same principle when he said: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”
What "The Book of Mormon" musical writers attempt to teach about truth, faith and scriptural stories mocks every religion and person of faith. It’s a theme dressed up as an offensive, crude-humored musical with a faux feel-good, happy and unifying ending.
“Who cares what happens when we’re dead," Elder Price sings in the finale. "We shouldn’t think that far ahead. The only Latter-day that matters is tomorrow."
It’s unfortunate that "The Book of Mormon" musical creators would seek to preach such a watered-down, shortsighted and secular doctrine that has no real power to affect people’s lives beyond an evening of entertainment.
Dallyn Vail Bayles has worked as a professional actor, singer, recording artist and teacher. He recently completed his MFA in musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory. He resides in Boston with his wife, Rachel, and their five children.