Lessons from Book of Mormon (the musical)

The Thinker by Rodin

We visited New York City last week, our first trip there since probably 2003. You rarely go there and not see a Broadway show.

We saw two: Come from Away, a heartwarming musical about how a community of 9000 in Newfoundland, Canada took care of 7000 people after 9/11 when their flights were diverted there following the event. In a dark time, it was a reminder that people can be kind in extreme situations.

We also finally saw Book of Mormon, somewhat of Come from Away’s antithesis. Religion is dicey material to stage, and this sacrilegious musical is pretty ruthless with Mormons, Mormonism and their many beliefs. If you have a button to push, it will probably push it. Topics include AIDS, raping babies, murder and removing women’s clitorises, not to mention Mormon’s difficultly suppressing homosexuality. Also arguably it’s more than a little racist, as modern Uganda doesn’t much resemble anymore the thatched hutches that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham find themselves in. Yet somehow this musical works, as attested to by its long run on Broadway that shows no sign of ending. I haven’t had so much fun on Broadway since seeing The Producers there, probably when we were last there in 2003.

I haven’t studied Mormonism, but the musical will certainly expose you to its foundational beliefs, most of which are laughable. For example, devout Mormons believe that you get your own planet, and Jesus has his own planet somewhere out there.

What you do with your own planet and how you can visit Jesus on his is not discussed. Presumably these are Edens much like Earth and without all its strife. I’m guessing you don’t get tractors and bulldozers on these planets, so you live a simple life, probably hunter gathering. Since it’s all for you, I guess you have to be okay with your own company so it’s probably fine to go naked and hopefully the weather accommodates. I’m guessing you get to share it with your spouse, assuming you get married, and that’s pretty much a given for any Mormon.

And then there’s their whole story of ancient Israelites going to North America and creating gold tablets in what is now upstate New York that were the Book of Mormon that curiously only Brigham Young ever saw. Oh, and there’s the whole polygamy thing, until it became counterproductive. Also we learn the blacks won’t get into heaven, until that became counterproductive too and God apparently changed his mind in 1978.

Some of the show’s biggest fans are Mormons, which suggests they are comfortable with its sacrilegious nature, that their religion is full of beliefs and arguments that make no sense, and they can laugh about it while claiming to believe in its teachings. To most of us, the idea that you get your own planet for being a good Mormon is good for a belly laugh.

Absurd as it is though, Mormonism is hardly atypical in this department. It’s just that we’ve gotten used to the idea that most religions are arguably crazy, but since they’ve been around so long, we don’t give it much thought. You have to look really hard to find a religion that doesn’t believe in wacky stuff.

Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the eucharist (once blessed by a priest in mass) was the actual body of Christ, and the blessed wine the actual blood of Christ. The Catholics even have a word for it: transubstantiation. To be a good Catholic you also have to believe a lot of other stuff arguably just as crazy as Jesus (and maybe you) getting your own planet: that Jesus rose from the dead despite no one but his disciples having witnessed the event (you would think the Romans might have noted it in their logs), that he bodily ascended into heaven, that he divided loaves and fishes to feed a multitude magically, and that he could heal lepers and other diseased people. You also have to believe that God comes in three parts: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that the Son (Jesus) was begat by the Father sometime after the Father existed, something very important in around AD 200 because if you didn’t believe this you were either killed or exiled. Then there’s that Holy Spirit entity which never made much sense. Most Christians subscribe to a lot of these beliefs, but most tend to see transubstantiation as metaphorical.

Islam makes a lot more sense: there is only one God, not a god with multiple personality disorder. One doesn’t have to wonder how Brigham Young came up with the idea of gold tablets, since Muhammad went alone into a cave near Mecca where the Archangel Gabriel apparently started chanting verses that became the Quran. Although I don’t get why I need to pray in the direction of Mecca seven times a day, at least it’s pretty simple and I don’t have to worry about transubstantiation. I don’t understand though why it had to fracture like the Catholic Church, and that Sunnis and Shiites seem to spend more time bashing each other on the head over obscure theological points than finding common ground.

Jews don’t get off much better. Moses had to go up Mount Sinai, alone, to get his revelation from Yahweh. Moses apparently brought chiseling tools, which was helpful in creating the Ten Commandments. It’s unclear how the Jews managed to survive in the desert, but if we are to believe scripture it was due to manna sent from heaven. You also have to wonder how inept they could be to wander forty years in the Sinai desert lost; the Sinai isn’t that big a place. And it is a desert. They would need a reliable watering hole. Most likely Moses and the whole story of Jews exiled in Egypt is myth, which makes Passover a myth too.

And so it goes with religion after religion. Hinduism is full of deities with various powers. It may be the 21st century, but Hinduism has lost none of its sway in India and is now undercutting the state’s fundamental secularism to discriminate against Muslims, much like many Christians in the United States would like to do against Muslims too, and Jews also for that matter. Shintoism is also full of deities with various powers. All seems to have their roots in paganism, which they try to paper over somehow. Mormonism seems pretty wacky, but arguably Scientology is wackier and there are plenty of Hollywood elites who fell for it.

Try to stamp out religion and it’s hard not to invent something that seems to be a lot like it in a secular trapping. Communism seems a lot like Christianity without a holy book or spiritual leader, unless you count Marx and Engels and Das Kapital. Fascism and nationalism in general seem to be the sweeping political arcs of the moment, the latter here in the United States where for some Donald Trump might as well be God and divine.

Apparently, humans have an intrinsic need to believe in something wacky and just to worship something: a golden calf will probably do in a pinch. Being decent, secular, civil and tolerant just don’t appear to be enough to satisfy us. If we can’t have more, we’ll invent more.

So it was fun to laugh along with Book of Mormon, but every one of us including me still harbor some arguably crazy beliefs. One of mine is life after death: I don’t believe I will inherit my own planet, but I do believe I am a passenger on a journey and this life is one of many I will experience. In that sense, I am as loony as a Hindu, who also believes in reincarnation.

So laugh along with Book of Mormon, just realized that when we do we are all in some measure also laughing at ourselves.

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