Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Mormon Just Believes

I recently had the opportunity to see The Book of Mormon musical on Broadway.  I was familiar with the songs and the basic plot outline thanks to YouTube, but I hadn't seen the full production.  Not unexpectedly, the show was hilarious.  But I was surprised at how poignant it was too.  I was surprised at my own emotional reactions to the story and the characters and at how thought-provoking the send-up of the LDS church turned out to be.

The motivated, entitled Elder Price and the bumbling, compulsively dishonest Elder Cunningham arrive in a small Ugandan village to preach the Book of Mormon and immediately encounter third-world problems that threaten Price's dreams of gospel grandeur and Cunningham's hopes for paternal redemption.   This leads to the villagers' first musical number, "Hasa Diga Eebowai," in which they teach the Mormons that their typical method for coping with their insurmountable challenges is by saying "Fuck you, God" in their native dialect.  Before learning of its literal meaning, Elder Price and especially Elder Cunningham really get into Hasa Diga Eebowai as a form of catharsis.  Their problems have not been diminished, but, as Mafala advises, "Having a saying makes it all seem better!"

As the story progresses and the missionaries begin to convert the Ugandans (with plentiful help from Elder Cunningham's infusing of Mormon-friendly pop culture into scripture), the musical actually explores the concept of how much help a philosophy can provide, whether it's true, whether it's false, or whether it's just a saying.  Unlike the missionaries, the Ugandans generally interpret Mormonism as highly metaphorical, using the stories taught to them as parables that promote peace, community, and civility—as well as examples that discourage the kind of negative behaviors that you wouldn't expect to be mentioned so casually in a theater production.  Ultimately, Hasa Diga Eebowai has the same direct material benefits as the metaphorical gospel (none), but the saying doesn't inspire the village in the same way, which is why Mormonism becomes a uniting force that helps them not only to cope, but to overcome.

Some of the characters' personal struggles deeply affected me.  Elder Kevin Price's confusion when the world doesn't work the way he expected based on a lifetime of Mormonism-colored glasses was, obviously, very relevant to my life.  But as Nabulungi sang "Sal Tlay Kasi Ti," expressing her hopes and dreams for how the missionaries' teachings and plans could solve all her problems, I started to tear up a little.  This song is the most important indictment of the metaphorical gospel.  Nabulungi may be one of the few Ugandans who doesn't assume that Elder Price's and Elder Cunningham's stories aren't meant to be literal.  For most of the production, she's the example of how dangerous it can be to sell someone a fantasy when that person doesn't know it's a fantasy.  Most of the villagers get into Mormonism enthusiastically, embracing the cultural values of community and "being really fucking polite to everyone" without placing too much emphasis on the factual veracity of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon—and the gospel does them a lot of good as a result.  Nabulungi, however, believes that Elder Cunningham is going to whisk them all off to Utah where they will be accepted and happy and free from fear and from poverty and from sickness.  She's crushed when none of that happens.

In this and other ways, a show that is ostensibly a lampooning of the religion actually displays a surprisingly nuanced balance between the possibilities for both good and bad fruits of Mormonism.  The missionaries, for example, exhibited a core of wholesome Christian faith and an earnest desire to serve, but there was also plenty of mockery of their less palatable beliefs and many nods to the Mormon tendencies toward naivete, repression, and an intricately selfish brand of altruism.

This balance was mirrored in the hilarious depiction of Joseph Smith, who came off as an obviously idealized caricature indicative of Mormon propaganda.  He was presented with such an over-the-top, swaggering confidence with a thousand-watt smile and glorious golden hair.  But this corny bravado was juxtaposed with Joseph's singing voice, which sounded strained and thin.  He sounded as though  he were trying too hard to be something he's not, like an amateur singer with a whiny, high-pitched voice trying to sound rich, deep, and well-trained.  And, of course, the swagger and the idealization was also balanced by the fact that many of Joseph Smith's exploits were presented to the audience as absurdities.

But, by the time the curtain fell, a musical so peppered with disrespectful humor showed an even-keeled maturity toward its subject matter.  Though it mocked, it could have been much more cruel and it ultimately represented many of the benefits and virtues of Mormonism.  The power of the metaphor was a strong central theme and probably intended to be the primary takeaway for the viewer.  As an ex-Mormon, I was given plenty of food for thought as well.  I'm convinced that I'm right about the church and that Mormon believers are wrong, but the production left me pondering the concept of personal priorities.  My priority has come to be truth, but others value belief or community.  I don't have the same problems that other people do and I should learn not to judge people who have different priorities or different interpretations.  My definition of happiness is only my definition.  Even though Mormonism has some wild and damaging beliefs, how am I supposed to argue that my happiness is more real or more legitimate just because my priority is truth?  Those who've learned the truth and choose to stay aren't necessarily suffering from a logical short circuit.  They may just care about slightly different things than I do.  They may be inspired by the metaphor.  They may be dedicated to the community.  They may be hoping to help adapt the church's teachings to address present-day problems (although I'm sure they'll do it more adeptly than Elder Cunningham did).  It doesn't make me better than they are and it doesn't make them less happy than I am.

Though I of course plan to continue opposing the aspects of Mormonism that I believe are wrong or that I believe have a negative impact on the members or on the world, I should not dismiss the value of Mormons' beliefs.  Their struggles are different from my own, their priorities are different from my own, and there is enough good in Mormonism that, for some people, the church may be exactly what they need.

Although it's still pretty weird that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.