Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book of Mormon Musical

So I read an article on Mormon Times called "Is the 'Book of Mormon' musical accurate satire?" found here. Never mind the irony in the title of the article, I'll discuss that further in a minute. The article starts out by quoting a former missionary, who has since left the church, who says that his children (who he has kept information about his past life growing up in the church a secret from) learned more from the Book of Mormon musical about the LDS church than he has ever told them. It uses this introduction to go into answering the question of how accurate the musical is. As if they think that if the musical is more sympathetic to the teachings of the church it would be a better missionary tool, apparently.

I am continually amazed at how people in the church are capable of either ignoring, or missing, the point of the musical or attempting to downplay its effect or accuracy. I wonder why members of the church have such a hard time looking at the Book of Mormon musical in a positive light and a way that says that "any exposure is good exposure"? Instead it seems that members of the church want to start out ignoring that the play is indeed out there and, if they acknowledge it and decide to actually discuss it, they immediately move to some attempt to discredit it. Needless to say, this article is definitely in the camp of trying to point out inaccuracies in the play - which I would say is another attempt to discredit it. The article does point out that the play is meant to be satire, which means that you can expect that the purpose of the play is to entertain and not to make sure that all the facts are conveyed in as accurate a way as possible. That is more than can be said for this article.

The definition of satire is; "The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues." (Like, say, religion for example) Regardless of this point, the article then attempts to hold the play up as being full of inconsistencies and untruths. However, this should not even be newsworthy because you would expect satire to be full of exaggeration or ridicule and not attempt to hold it out as something that is full of inaccuracies. This is akin to pointing out that a political cartoon depicting a democrat as a donkey is not accurate because there are no donkeys that have ever registered to vote as a democrat! Nevertheless, after pointing out that the play is intended to be satire, the article then goes on to try to point out all of its inaccuracies.

The article quotes critics of the play who say that "The Book of Mormon" musical is nothing to worry about because; it is a New York thing, made by media elites for people who go to Broadway musicals. I wonder who these people are exactly that go to Broadway musicals? Is there a line we draw somewhere among the population between those who enjoy Broadway musicals and those who don't? I guess as long as we can identify a segment of the population to fit into a certain category that makes us feel better about ourselves? The funny thing is, if you were to ask anybody around the country if they would go see a Broadway musical if it were given to them free of charge or all expenses paid, how many would decline that offer? I dare say the number is extremely small. Apparently, the critic quoted believes that the number of people who would decline such an offer would be very large. This kind of reference to social segregation, I believe, is a very large contributing factor to the problem of creating social minorities. This is very unfortunate, indeed.

The article goes on to quote Michael Otterson, an LDS church spokesperson who wrote a piece in the Washington Post, who says that when used for entertainment purposes, it is fine but the danger is when people take the content too seriously. Apparently, the author of the Mormon Times article can't see that they are treading on this dangerous ground of taking the content too seriously. Nevertheless, the author treads on.

The article accuses the play of "misrepresenting Joseph Smith's history, distorting Mormon epistemology and misconstruing the church's teachings about the afterlife." The author says that having the angel Moroni tell Joseph not to show the plates to anyone is inaccurate. Even though Joseph Smith's own history in the Pearl of Great Price says in verse 42, "Again, he told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken—for the time that they should be obtained was not yet fulfilled—I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed..." Being told that you will be destroyed is apparently a favorite way of getting Joseph to do stuff. There are 36 references to people being destroyed by God in the Doctrine and Covenants and 10 in the Pearl of Great Price.

Even though the article goes on to point out that 11 witnesses testified that they saw the plates, what the article neglects to mention, is that several of the witnesses later complained because they felt the testimony being printed did not accurately reflect their experience with what happened. The article also conveniently omits that at least two of the witnesses (Martin Harris and David Whitmer) later said that the visitation was a purely spiritual "vision" and was not a real life experience. The author also does not mention that these witnesses were later called liars, counterfeiters, thieves, etc. by Joseph Smith himself. (A summary of issues with the witnesses to the gold plates can be found here.) This is just one more example of a limited amount of information being conveyed to an LDS audience, without disclosing anything controversial that might possibly undermine the official LDS history narrative.

The article gives an example of incorrect Mormon theology by saying that a missionary in the play sings about obtaining his own planet in the hereafter. Amazingly, the article admits that this particular teaching can be found in the theology but apparently is taken out of context. I would be very interested to know in what context being able to be in control of your own planet would not be considered a peculiar teaching that some might find entertaining? The problem is, nowadays the church leadership is silent on these sorts of teachings whereas, in the past, these kinds of teachings (that are speculative in nature) were rampant. I kind of miss those days, if for no other reason, for the sheer entertainment value. Maybe if the church would go back to saying this kind of stuff on a regular basis, people would show up in greater numbers to general conference to see what those wacky leaders will say this time. I think this may have been a possible reason for devotion in those early days of the church. Speculation is fun. It arouses our imaginations about the possibilities for what lies ahead. The problem is, we live in a world where not too much about our universe is unknown. The unknown in the universe is what fostered the imaginative teachings and allowed leaders to pronounce with certainty what we would, today, label as kooky and largely unsupportable (the famous teaching of Brigham Young about Quakers living on the moon is what comes to mind here).

The article quotes New York Times columnist David Brooks, who actually says something to this affect. He said, "The only problem with 'The Book of Mormon' (musical), is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False." It seems that creative and imaginative doctrines that are rigorously held to be true by its adherents are what motivate us to be more selfless and caring for others. Based on that argument, it sounds like the LDS church may not last if it continues to be vague and obscure, even though it may be considered uplifting, in the specifics of its doctrines and teachings. The point about it being not quite true, while I think very poignant because the same could be said of the LDS church, is lost on many who believe everything the church says about its history without bothering to question or examine it.

While trying to point out how the play continues to be inaccurate by depicting a dream that a missionary has about a hell of fire and brimstone, the author goes on to say that such a perception of LDS theology is not supported. The author should try reading LDS scripture at some point. The Book of Mormon itself has 9 references to a "lake of fire and brimstone" while speaking of the hereafter and the Doctrine and Covenants has 2 references. How is a believer in the Book of Mormon supposed to have any other view of what happens to the disobedient in the hereafter? Especially when the Book of Mormon makes no mention at all of the "multi-tiered" degrees of heaven the author is trying to point out is the correct version of LDS belief about the afterlife. Where exactly, then, do the references to the lake of fire and brimstone fit into LDS theology, if not in a young person's dream that is experienced after reading and pondering the teachings in the Book of Mormon?

The author then goes on to tell us how the musical is also racist in its references to, and portrayal of, the people in Uganda. Depicting them as "angry, aggressive, sexually charged, physically ill, naive and vulgar", the author tries to point out that this is racist and not satire. I hate to tell you this, but I see the people of Uganda in the play as being representative of people the world over who happen to fall into those categories. I don't think the point of the play is to emphasize that these people in this specific country have a monopoly on all of those characteristics or problems. I agree the play is probably over generalizing to some degree in its depiction of a specific group of people, in a specific country. However, it is not about the people of Uganda specifically. It is about the contrast between two worlds. The world that the LDS live in where all of these things are rare or cured because of a belief in God and a world where God has apparently forsaken a people. A world that is lawless and doesn't concern itself with what is appropriate according to one set of beliefs. Rather, the beliefs are different because of a different set of circumstances. I don't think the point is about the people of Uganda and what they believe about God, but it is about the contrast between those that believe God can, or will, solve all their problems and those that don't. This contrast is especially pronounced in our own backyard when looking at the issue of homosexuality or the role of women.

I had to laugh when the article pointed out that female genital mutilation is against the law in Uganda. Um, smoking crack cocaine is illegal in this country, so that must mean that it never happens here too. I think exceeding the speed limit is against the law too, but I rarely see people actually go the speed limit on highways. I must just be mistaken. Hello! If people pass a law regarding some practice, it must mean there is some concern about it happening too much. A law on the books regarding female genital mutilation in Uganda is probably a sign that it either has been, or is, an issue of such significance that it needed to be outlawed to attempt to stem the practice. How silly can we be?

As a sort of frosting on the cake, I was also amused by the fact that this article, like so many other controversial articles published by LDS church owned media, do not allow comments to be made (or shown) in response to the article. This speaks volumes about how confident they are that their opinions represent the overwhelming majority of the opinions of the readers of the article - Not! Why not allow comments? Anyway, this is something I see consistently found in organizations that cannot withstand scrutiny of their opinions. Since I couldn't leave a comment on the article directly, I have written a blog piece to express my reactions to it. At least I can rest confident that I have written with integrity and not attempted to point out the inaccuracies of a satirical play in an attempt to discredit it in the mind of my readers. If you are one of "those people" that like Broadway plays, I think it would be very enjoyable.

By the way, I haven't seen the play yet, but I have listened to the soundtrack and found it extremely entertaining because of its accuracy in depicting the LDS lifestyle and mindset. I especially liked the song entitled, "You and Me (but mostly me)". That one really resonated with me since that seemed to be the mindset on my mission. Love it!

Update: I guess I need to access the article via Deseret News to be able to make comments. That one can be found here.

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  1. Very entertaining. For an enlightening look at the "witnesses", read descriptions of the witnesses. On at least one site, you will notice that the witnesses contradict each other when describing the plates (one says they were very heavy, another one " light as a feather") as well as seemingly very unimpressed with the holy implications of the plates and Joseph Smith. They either waited years to join the Church, never joined, were kicked out of the church and/or were called liars by Joseph Smith himself. So viewing the plates did not make these folks lives appreciably better. Hmm...

  2. I came across this post from a google search, and I really enjoyed it. You've got a great writing style, keep it up!

  3. A Mormon "just believes". So of course they will try to argue anything that goes against their book...

  4. Well I love going to concerts and musical shows.

  5. You know, there are a lot of other Broadway Shows on offering right now. I was very happy with some How to Succeed in Business Broadway tickets