With The Book of Mormon musical debuting to mostly rave reviews, Maureen Dowd declared on Sunday that this “is the Mormon moment.”
(Hey, Maureen, thanks for noticing!)
In her column, Dowd observes that at its core, The Book of Mormon musical is a message “not against Mormonism but literalism.”
Indeed, the literalism of contemporary Mormon belief is the tender spot The Book of Mormon musical strikes. The majority of active and observant Mormons maintain a degree of literal belief in their religion’s teachings that most non-LDS people would find astonishing. To understand the predominance of literalism in contemporary Mormonism, imagine that believing that Moses literally parted the Red Sea was required for participation in institutional Jewish life.
As for the exotic or controversial elements of our religion highlighted by The Book of Mormon musical, some Mormons prefer to set them aside or “put them on a shelf.” Some of us shy away from interaction with non-LDS people for fear of having to explain them. Others recoil from Mormonism entirely and feel or are made to feel they must leave the community when they discover controversial or contested elements of Mormon history and teachings.
For its part, the LDS Church has quietly deemphasized the “weirder” aspects of the religion, focusing instead on salvation (now branded as the “Plan of Happiness”) and the importance of family relationships (now branded as the “Doctrine of the Family”). You could probably go a month of Sundays in your average suburban Mormon congregation (unless you’re hanging out with men over seventy) without hearing more than a casual reference to Joseph Smith’s peepstones, the planet Kolob, or the question of whether the Garden of Eden was located in Missouri.
But there are also thousands of contemporary Mormons who do understand controversial aspects of LDS history, maintain a non-literal or agnostic outlook on theological questions, and yet still find reasons to identify as Mormons and participate in Mormon life.
A group of about fifty such unorthodox Mormons from across the country gathered in NYC last weekend to see The Book of Mormon: The Musical together.
What did they think of a play that poked fun at literal Mormon belief claims while celebrating the tradition’s sweetness? What did they think of a play that put Darth Vader, Joseph Smith, and Frodo Baggins on stage in a musical tableau meant to suggest that religious stories can be powerful and meaningful without being literally factual?
As one member of that unorthodox Mormon caravan told me, in a word: “Brilliant.”