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'Mormon' musical: Pride in prejudice?

Published: Saturday, June 18 2011 2:24 p.m. MDT

It has been nearly a week since "The Book of Mormon" musical scored nine Tony Awards and a whole lot of adulation in Broadway's landmark Beacon Theater. During that time the musical has received additional praise for its creativity, its taboo-toppling brashness and its perceived ability to make people of faith laugh at themselves. The musical's soundtrack has soared to No. 3 in the Billboard Top 100 — the first Broadway soundtrack to do so since "Hair" in 1969. And it can now boast the highest single-ticket price in Broadway history at $487.25.

As the week progressed, however, a number of pundits stepped forward to voice their concerns about the musical's philosophical underpinnings, and what its meteoric popularity says about the state of religious tolerance in contemporary society.

Alexandra Petri, a humor columnist for the Washington Post, took advantage of "The Book of Mormon's" success to take a tongue-in-cheek look at religious bigotry.

"Anti-Mormonism is more widespread among the self-proclaimed enlightened and tolerant than among almost anyone else," Petri wrote, referring to Mormonism as "the Thinking Man's Prejudice. 'This isn't prejudice,' they squeal, when pressed. 'It's just that they're wrong! Besides, it IS a choice, isn't it? Aren't I entitled to judge someone because he believes something I personally find asinine?"

According to Petri, "Freedom of religion would be worthless if it didn't encompass the freedom to believe things that many sane and rational people deem absurd . . . The trouble is that no one's religious beliefs look sound from the outside. That is why they are beliefs. Religious beliefs . . . always seem a bit silly when you try to explain them to others."

And that, Petri suggested, is the bottom line of "The Book of Mormon."

"Some say the show mocks Mormons," she wrote. "But after listening to the cast album I worry that those people didn't understand the show. It seems to me as though the show is mocking all of us, poking fun at everyone complacent enough to think that what he or she believes is not on some level silly."

Dr. Harold Pease, a history and political science professor at Taft College, was not nearly so light-hearted as he mused about "The Book of Mormon's" creators admission that the show was designed to "gently mock Mormons."

"Imagine a script designed to 'gently mock' Islam or its sacred book the Quran, or Christianity and its sacred book the Bible," Pease wrote in the Bakersfield Californian. "The Middle East would be in flames, al-Qaida would grow and President Barack Obama would travel abroad on bended knee delivering speeches of apology."

Pease finds it ironic that "the people who create this kind of satirical expression, who defend, trumpet or advocate diversity, inclusion and acceptance — largely the entertainment and intellectual industries — often show none of these qualities in their own productions. Instead, they demonstrate quite the opposite, and in this case, profit off the mockery of the sacred beliefs of others to fatten their bank accounts, oblivious to who or what they may offend."

For Jared Farmer, a history teacher at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of an academic book on Mormons, "The Book of Mormon" is more offensive in its treatment of Africans than Mormons.

"The plot twists at the end raise questions about the racial politics of the show," Farmer observed. "Only a threat of American violence saves the villagers from the tyranny of the local warlord. Only the ingenuity of the white men provides Africans a useful religion. The dewy-eyed boys from Utah share the genius of Joseph Smith: the Yankee spirit of invention. The musical's happy ending, complete with missionaries in neo-Mormon garb, contains a strong note of American chauvinism."

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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