Mormons have been justifiably nervous about The Book of Mormon, the long-anticipated Broadway musical from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, and Robert Lopez, co-creator of the award-winning musical, Avenue Q. The show opened yesterday but, as most early reviewers found, the main Mormon characters come off as lovably sincere, if a little goofy, so little backlash was expected.
Early reviews of The Book of Mormon were near-unanimous on two points: it is predictably profane and yet it simultaneously manages to be, as one Mormon told the Salt Lake Tribune, “incredibly sweet.” Its most defining characteristic, though, is more subtle than the number of F-bombs dropped and the missionaries’ endearing Mormon eccentricities. At its core, Mormon is an escapist fantasy about faith; two-plus hours of wishful thinking about how we might want religions to function: as powerful platforms for telling stories, joyful stories that only help and never hurt. Two guys often criticized as enemies of religion in fact depict it at its idealized best, prompting us to think about how valuable it can be.
The story follows two missionaries, Elders Cunningham and Price, as they attempt to spread the word in a village in Uganda. If there is an uncomfortable stereotype in the show, it’s of Ugandans, who appear hyperbolically poor, backward, violent, and ignorant. The audience’s first view of Uganda is dominated by a man slowly dragging the half-butchered corpse of a donkey across the stage. An abrupt on-stage execution and threats of female genital mutilation throughout the show are especially jarring given the otherwise comedic tone—though these juxtapositions will be familiar to South Park fans.
Facing such intractable problems, the villagers find that what the missionaries have to offer—the Book of Mormon and promises of future salvation—is of little solace. Cunningham and Price join a demoralized group of missionaries who’ve made zero progress in converting the population until the hapless Cunningham becomes an unlikely hero when he indulges what is early on referred to as his “problem.” Elder Arnold Cunningham, a compulsive liar, uses his vivid imagination to blend characters of pop culture with those of the Book of Mormon to make up stories that directly address the Ugandans’ plight.
Mormon is a made-up story about the value of made-up stories. For its creators, this category includes not just works presented as fiction but the revealed stories of religion; The Book of Mormon, held sacred by Latter-day Saints, and The Book of Mormon, the musical, share the same status. Both are important as stories; fictions that show us something about ourselves while taking us beyond ourselves, and about the world while taking us beyond the world as it is.
Parker, Stone, and Lopez suggest that stories can all function the same way whether they are presented as revelations or as fiction. A pair of hobbits journeying into Mordor, alone against the world, offers a metaphor of perseverance and triumph, just like the story of Jesus, who takes on the sins of the world. All decided to “man up,” in the words of one of the show’s memorable songs, during which Frodo, Sam, Darth Vader, and Star Trek’s Uhura share the stage with Jesus, Moroni, and Mormon.
To the assertion that some of these characters’ stories are true while others are definitely not, Parker and Stone’s answer has long been the same: no they aren’t, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Their combination of gently-mocking disbelief in, and appreciation of, Joseph Smith’s revelations are already well known from a 2003 episode of South Park, “All About the Mormons,” which ends with a teased Mormon kid defending his faith:
Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people.
Parker and Stone echoed the same sentiment in a 2006 send-up of the controversy over James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, a chronicle of the author’s battle with substance abuse which turned out to be partly fictional. In “A Million Little Fibers,” a similarly fictionalized story by Towelie, South Park’s resident sentient, pot-smoking towel (it’s a long story), is defended for the inspiration it has provided others: “What’s the big deal? His book helped people; why does it matter that he made some stuff up?”
This appreciation for the value of a well-told story extends to a love of the story-teller. The Joseph Smith in The Book of Mormon is (like the South Park episode’s Joseph Smith) slightly ridiculous, though never nefarious. Introduced with a pitch-perfect rock-and-roll theme, Smith’s love of storytelling permeates the show, and he enthralls his audiences with a “Donny Osmond flair” (perhaps the most aptly appreciative description of the Mormon prophet ever recorded).
Tentative at first, Cunningham finds in Smith a model as he begins inventing his own stories, becoming more and more excited and confident as he begins to glory in the same joy, singing “Who’d have thought I’d have this magic touch?” The same ecstatic glee animates a Shakespearean play-within-the-play in which the Ugandans retell the absurd, scatological story of Joseph Smith, as told by Cunningham.
This joy of storytelling is responsible for the show’s greatest moments and for what will most likely be perceived as its deepest incongruities. The incongruity comes from the ease with which the Ugandans and eventually the missionaries embrace this metaphorical model of religion. The central female character, Nabalungi, takes Cunningham’s stories literally, and against the backdrop of her blighted village sings a wrenching song about reaching the storied paradise, Salt Lake City, where, she imagines, the warlords are friendly and the Red Cross is on every corner.
Her belief inevitably leads to despair, as she learns that the paradise Cunningham has spoken of is not a literal place, but a place inside. Her reaction prompts incredulity from her fellow Ugandans, who’ve embraced Cunningham’s stories as metaphors. Referring to part of the web Cunningham has woven about Joseph Smith involving, well, sex with a frog, one character asks the disillusioned Nabalungi, “You didn’t really think some guy f***ed a frog, did you? That’s f***ing stupid.”
Cunningham’s model-missionary companion, Elder Price, goes through an abandonment of literal-minded belief more trying but no less complete. Following a song called “I Believe”—which, pointedly, amounts to what Mormons would recognize as bearing a testimony—Price goes off to convert the warlords, only to end up defeated, his Book of Mormon lodged in an uncomfortable place. In a fit of rebellion he winds up strung out on coffee. Ultimately, Price is brought around by the Ugandans’ play, which he calls the greatest religious experience of his life, “even though it was obviously based on made-up crap”—a line that brought the house down.
The faith Parker and Stone push us to fantasize about is based on benevolent stories, told communally and well, that offer a balm against the world by alleviating the isolation of human experience; in sharing the trials of Frodo, Jesus, Uhura, or Moroni together as an audience, we realize that we’re not alone in our own trials.
Of course there are many ways in which this is problematic. Both “Turn it Off,” one of the show’s earlier songs, led by a closeted gay missionary, and the appearance of an intractable mission president later on, remind us of the coercive authority with which religious stories are invested in the real world, an authority which most believers do not easily give up in favor of metaphors. That the main characters do give up that coercive authority is what makes The Book of Mormon a work of fantasy, and such a compelling one.
Mere stories do not generate a privileged place from which to condemn and coerce others: no opposition to same-sex marriage, no battles over creationism in the classroom, and no violence over cartoons depicting Muhammad. Religions do not typically work this way, just as violent warlords probably cannot be defeated by threats of attack from the Death Star. But that’s not the point. It’s a pleasure to imagine that they might, and it makes a great effing story.