Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Book of Mormon

I finally got an opportunity to go see The Book of Mormon, the outstanding musical from South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez  co-composer/co-lyricist of Avenue Q and Frozen.  Being a big fan of Avenue Q as well as Parker and Stone, I jumped at the chance to see this highly lauded play.  I'd become a fan of the Avenue Q soundtrack before seeing the production, which filled in the gaps between the songs and made the story a bit more understandable, but I still knew the plot ahead of time.  So this time around I chose to not get the soundtrack until after seeing The Book of Mormon so I'd be able to come into it fresh and be surprised.

And man, was it worth it!

The songs are fantastically written and the entire play feels like it could be a South Park episode or movie.  The South Park boys are no strangers to Mormonism or musicals, and their biting take on the silliness of the religion is hysterical, especially for someone like me (but maybe not so much for the more-than-likely Mormon guy who was sitting next to me in the theater).  The play isn't about making fun of Mormons, but rather making fun of their religion and religion in general.

I'm not here to write a review of this four-year-old play, however.  Instead I wanted to talk about the subtext on some of the songs and how they pertain to all forms of religion, not just Mormonism.

From the very first number, the critique beings with the door-to-door proselytizing the LDS church (and the JW folks) are known for:

Hello! My name is Elder Price
And I would like to share with you the most amazing book

More and more "Elders" take the stage, each one touting the wonders of this free book that they'd love to leave with you, as the lyrics slowly start to unmask the obvious ridiculousness of the claims.
Hello! My name is Elder Young
Did you know that Jesus lived here in the USA? 
When claim of faith are boiled down and subjected to the light of day, you get lines like that one.  I loved Julia Sweeny's Letting Go Of God which also opens with a visit from a couple of Mormon missionaries and pokes holes in a similar fashion as this musical.  Criticism is one of the best ways to get people to question themselves -- to be able to see things so oblivious to them, as in the "That's fine; Have fun in Hell" line in the song.  Once you realize how evil the idea is, you begin to see why believing it is unfounded and harmful.

The first number finishes by introducing one of the two main characters, and does a splendid job of it.  The character building and storyline are really well done, but again, that's not what this post is about.  Don't get me wrong, the plot is fanatic, but I like the subtle and often double-edged stings that lie within the musical numbers because this is ultimately what the play is "about".  Take one of the final lines for instance:
You simply won't believe how much this book will change your life!
I can see the multiple meanings there.  On the one hand, the line is delivered by a young, naive, idealistic nineteen-year-old who thinks he has found the key to the universe.  On the other, it is written by someone who is saying that the text is literally "unbelievable".  (Matt Stone has stated that he is an atheist, but Trey Parker won't go that far, though he's close and can see the absurdity in religious ideologies.) There is a third meaning: taken at face value, the line is true.  Believing in the religion -- in any religion -- will change your life as you conform it to fit how you perceive that particular doctrine.

That kind of stuff is all over this play.  I'll touch on a few more, but hopefully you can see where I'm going with this.

Ignoring Reality

The play continues as the Mormons set out to do their mandatory two-year missionary work.
Two by two
We're marching door to door
'Cause God loves Mormons
And he wants some more
The main characters wind up being sent to a tiny war-torn village in Northern Uganda.  One of the Mormon kids is excited, thinking it's "like Lion King" (many other plays are subtly referenced, another awesome perk of this show).  Lion King it is not, as they discover the village is a squalor where the people have little food or access to medical care -- even the village's own doctor has maggots in his scrotum!  But like Lion King, the boys find that the villagers have an African saying that makes things seem not so bad: "Hasa Diga Eebowai".  However, after singing it with them a few times, they soon find out that it translates to "Fuck You, God!"
We've had no rain in several days...Hasa Diga Eebowai!
And eighty percent of us have AIDS...Hasa Diga Eebowai!
Before the Mormons learn of what the saying really means, they join in with the villagers by recounting the bad things affecting them:
The plane was crowded and the bus was late...Hasa Diga Eebowai
Talk about First-World-Problems!  The song reminds me of when people accuse us non-religious folks of just having a rough life or that some terrible tragedy has befallen us that causes us to "hate God". It's a sidestepping tactic that is used as an attempt to keep the Problem of Evil of being an actual problem.  Indeed, when the boys find out the villagers are cursing God's name they respond with "Things aren't always as bad as they seem".  The village leader shows them an example of how belief is contributing to their many problems: a man from another tribe got caught trying to rape a baby, because he believed that having sex with a virgin would cure his AIDS, and since there are few virgins in the village, some turn to infants and children.  An all-powerful and loving God wouldn't allow things like this to happen.  Hell, even a being with nearly-omnipotent power and a love no greater than you, dear reader, would find a way to do something about it.  And we are to believe that an all-loving, all-powerful creator can't?  The very idea of such a "God" is trash.  Hasa Diga Eebowai!

The play features two songs that are absolute stings in the face of religion: "Turn It Off" and "I Believe".  The former is sung during a scene in which the two main characters met their fellow missionaries stationed in the area.  The group are telling the newcomers about a way to not worry about the bad things they've seen so far...about how the Problem of Evil isn't really a problem if you just don't think too hard about it:
I got a feelin' that you could be feelin'
A whole lot better than you feel today
You say you got a problem...well, that's no problem!
It's super easy not to feel that way
When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head –
Don't feel those feelings – hold them in instead!
As the name suggests, the trick is to just "Turn It Off", like a light switch.  This is not just a "cool little Mormon trick", but can be applied to any dogma.  (Christians too love to use the trick of not thinking about difficult things.)  The group's leader, Elder McKinley, chimes in about his experiences with having gay thoughts and feelings, but he just flips his light switch and the "bad" feelings are gone.

What's great is that during the song, he's even challenged by one of the main Mormon characters, when he tells McKinley that it's okay to have these thoughts just as long as you never act upon them.  McKinley replies that this would be lying to yourself, and lying is worse than being gay.  It is better therefore to "turn off the gay", so to speak:
So just realize you have a curable curse –
And turn it off!
And if that doesn't work:
Then you've only got yourself to blame
You didn't pretend hard enough
Obviously the notion of changing your sexuality by will is ludicrous to the rational mind, and I appreciate the writer's showing this scene to, surprising many, Mormon faithful.  The LDS church took out three full-page ads in the playbill with phrases like "The Book is always Better" and "You've Seen the Play, Now Read the Book!"  The church's response suggested they took the play as a full parody, and indeed a lot of it was.  But parody is based in truth, and to claim that none of it was based on real Mormonism is comical.

The song "I Believe" takes a swing at boiling down the Mormon faith into one-liners:
I believe that the Lord God created the universe
I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sins
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America
The last line there gets a big laugh from the audience, but from where I sit, I can see the first two lines being no different.  It's simply that we've heard it so many times that we've become desensitized to the absurdity.  The other chorus lines are perfect swings as well:
...I believe [God's] plan involves me getting my own planet
...I believe that the current President of the Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God
...I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people
...I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob
...I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well
...I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri
The LDS wants to brush all of this under the rug as just simple silliness, but each one of these points can be drilled into and opens a discussion on their faith.  I appreciate that the church too sees these as topic-starters, and I think that not only can they attempt to use them for their cause, but their opposition can use these points against them as well.

It's the final line in the chorus that I love the most:
I am a Mormon
And a Mormon just believes
Oh how I love that line!  Anyone who "just believes" anything doesn't have a prayer in the world (pardon the expression) because their ideas are based on nothing but empty hope.
You cannot just believe part-way, you have to believe in it all
If you believe, the Lord will reveal it
And you'll know it's all true – you'll just feel it
Read more of my blog for more on why this kind of thinking is asinine, harmful, and, as the LDS puts it, silly.


The other numbers are extremely well written and entertaining both musically and thematically -- the production I saw had stunning stage work.  But there is one other song I want to focus on that I think holds a fair amount of meaning behind it.

The Mormons are preaching in the village, and one of them explains the tale of how Mormonism came to be, and how the followers were led to Salt Lake City, Utah.  One of the villagers becomes drawn in by this tale, and daydreams about how hopeful and happy the place must be.  She sings about this paradise in a song entitled "Sal Tlay Ka Siti".  She talks about how her mother would tell her stories of paradise to calm her in the frighting nights as a child.  Now that a ruthless warlord is assaulting her village with murder, rape, and female genital mutation, Nabulungi dreams about how this place is:
...not just a story mama told
But a village in Ooh-tah, where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe, I know just where I'd be –
Right on the next bus to paradise: Sal Tlay Ka Siti
There's two points I want to make with the examination of this.  Apart from the "If I could let myself believe then I'd believe" bit, which we've already touched on, there's an obviousness here that still merits mentioning: this young African girl is looking at the world through the only perspective she has.  Through her eyes and ears, she miss-hears words like "Utah" and "Salt Lake City" and translates them in a way that reflects her surroundings.  Since practically all religions have been passed down through word-of-mouth, think about how many ideas were miss-translated from one language to the next, or miss-heard from person to person, group to group.

Regarding the other point, Nabulungi also starts filling this newly-established paradise with wants and wishes that also reflect her station in life:
I can imagine what it must be like...this perfect, happy place:
I'll bet the goat meat there is plentiful, and they have vitamin injections by the case
The warlords there are friendly, they help you cross the street
And there's a Red Cross on every corner with all the flour you can eat!

Sal Tlay Ka Siti, the most perfect place on Earth
Where flies don't bite your eyeballs and human life has worth
...A land where evil doesn't exist: Sal Tlay Ka Siti
"Thatched" roofs of gold, plentiful goat meat and flour, the warlords are nice and there's no flies or evil.  None of this exists in Utah, except maybe plenty of flour.  The obvious point is that she is describing the afterlife FOR HER.  Think about the tales of your afterlife, if you believe in one.  Was it dreamed up by people of lived in a time when a big house and riches were the pinnacle of existence?

The play ends with scenes that bring to light the nature of interpretation, and includes the ingredients that bring about the creation of a new religion.  When their Mormon missionary is understood to be killed and Nabulungi discovers that the things one Mormon has been saying aren't part of the Mormon religion and therefore not true, she tells the others in her village, who respond by saying they have always known this.  They simply believe that the missionary was speaking in metaphor.  And whenever the Mormon boy returns to the village, they see it as a resurrection and revert back to believing in a literal interpretation of his message.

We see this happening everyday.  Are the main selling-points of your religion metaphor or are they literal?  If both, how do you discern which is which?  Why do some people within your same religion view something you'd call metaphor literally, and why do you take one thing as literal when others -- maybe even in the very same church congregation -- as metaphor?  Are you using the same tool to tell one from the other: faith?

The play ends with a spot-on message:
Even if we change some things, or or we break the rules
Or we have complete doubt that God exists
We can still all work together and make this our paradise planet
And that's the ultimate truth, at least as I see it: whether you believe in an afterlife or not is irrelevant.  We can all work together to create a better existence for the time we're alive, for this one life we know for sure we get.  I don't see why that notion would be upsetting to anyone.

There is a lot that I am leaving out to keep the focus of this post on point.  If you get a chance to, go see it!  Even if -- especially if -- you are religious.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Too Much Pressure

I've been feeling down as of late.  It might be lack of sun or some vitamin I'm not getting, but this uneasiness has caused me to come back to this blog after yet another long hiatus.

As I sit here typing, my second monitor is displaying a picture of my daughter when she was a newborn.  The auto-slideshow just changed it to her playing her drumkit when she was three.  That seems like yesterday.  She'll be starting school very soon; leaving the house for hours out of the day when neither me nor her mom will be with her...

And I'm scared.

Good Ol' Days
It's becoming more obvious that I'm slowly losing her to the world. As parents we can fight all we want but we can't win that war.  We can't shelter them forever, nor should we, for the sake of health.  But still, as a parent you want to keep them all to yourself, safe in the cave.  I knew this day would come and I know that other, even harder days will eventually come too.  But I still can't help but be scared.

The world I'm giving her to seems to be a frothing, bubbling cauldron of chaos.  Mass shootings, out-of-control law enforcement, governmental quagmires, corporate megalomania, destabilizing climate, ubiquitous vapid entertainment, and eroding common sense are a few of the things I can't help but spot as my eyes scan the horizon for danger before letting my cub out of this cave.  I just saw there was another shooting in a movie theater yesterday.  You used to not even think about being scared to go out and watch a movie, but now it crosses my mind every time I step into one.  I'm always planning ahead, running "what-if's" in my head in an attempt to be ready for anything, not just at a movie theater but everywhere I go.  Maybe that's been heightened since I became a parent...I'm sure all parents do that to some extent.  I'm watching out for my little girl whenever I can.

But she's growing up faster than I can think.  She'll be going off to school -- another place that used to be safe.

Didn't it?

It's easy to think that the world is going to pot.  I hear people saying that things have gotten worse, throwing around the old "used to not have to lock the front door" argument.  I have to catch myself and remember to be rational when I hear these things.  Because in point of fact, things have been and continue to be better.  Statistically, we're safer than ever, and crime has been in steady decline.  Through technological advancements, the world is becoming better and better each day.  But it's hard to miss the big stories and headlines.  But it's a product of our modern world.  If not for our ability to get 24/7, instant notification of nearly anything we want, it wouldn't seem like everything is so bad.  It's all in how you look at it.

Bad things happen every day.  Bad things have always happened every day, only now we know about them faster, so it seems like it's getting worse than it used to be.  But it's not.

It's easy to think that before Columbine, school shootings where "just something you didn't ever see".  But that phenomenon it didn't start in 1999.  Ever since there have been guns and schools, there have been school shootings.  A man entered a school in Pennsylvania with a gun, shot and killed a teacher and nine kids.  That could be a report from any day in the last decade -- but it happened in 1764.  And things like that have happened ever since.  Look up the number of deaths from school shootings in the US since 2000.  The number fluctuates from 19 one year to 4 to the next; from 38 to only 3.  Now granted, every single one of those are tragedies and I don't think I'd give a good goddamn that crime has dropped in this country if my daughter were one of those cold statistics.  "I know she's gone, but there were only 3 this's actually getting better!"

We're better informed about the news of terrible events (if not informed, at least aware -- hell, we can know there's a shooting taking place before we even know how many people are pulling triggers), but we're at a loss for the reasons why some of these things happen.  Of course each is it's own issue and a blanket statement is both belittling to those issues themselves and a non-sequitur of any kind of approach to dealing with them, but nevertheless I hear a rather loud majority unfolding their favorite blanket: religion.

(I'm going to digress into preachy mode now...this is my atheist blog by the way)

Can't Reconcile Fact and Faith
We don't have enough of it, they claim.  We've "turned away from God" and "taken the Lord out of" every facet of our lives, so it shouldn't be such a shock when someone shoots a building full of innocent people.

Indeed, why would an all-loving, infinitely powerful force lift an invisible finger to help us if we hurt its feelings?

This is not going to be a post about tearing that argument apart.  You've probably already done that before reading this sentence. Instead, I'm more interested in a larger and clearer problem.  And it stems from this: I agree.  Religion is likely the problem.

But it isn't because we are not as fundamental as the fundies want us to be.  On the contrary; it's because people believe in it, and it's hard to believe in, even for the believers.  I think that a majority of people are good, decent and loving.  We all want our kids to be safe and happy, and we all don't want to die just because we're in close proximity to a crowd of others.  This is true no matter your country of origin or background in life; it's universal.  But believers been suckered into thinking that they need religion in order to be decent and loving -- that in fact those qualities come from religion itself.  (Each religious and "spiritual" person will have their own exact deity or force in the end, but for the sake of argument we can lump it together here.)  And those who believe that must reconcile the world we all live in with the claims their religion makes.

If you believe in some kind of loving God, you have to try to rationalize the problem of evil, there's no way around it.  I'm just arm-chairing here, but I think that doing so causes so much cognitive dissonance that it leads to detrimental effects.  I don't have the clinical knowledge to even begin to really talk about such things, but to me, it seems an easy sell.

I say that because of personal experience; I've been there.  I know what it's like to have that internal struggle...that "crisis of faith".  I also know what it's like to think I have beaten that, to keep thinking that God loves the world while horrible things keep happening...that there's a "reason for everything".  I know the arguments and the bible verses.  I get how comforting religion can be whenever these bad things happen.  And now, as an atheist, I can't call upon a sense of love and safety in a deity.  But by facing the truth that I'm alone in the universe (theologically speaking) I've found out how to be on my own.  I know now how to find true, real hope.  I've reconciled personal fears about death, for myself and others.  It's something everyone has to do for themselves...I don't have a guide for that.  But I can say that I feel healthier and more at ease for understanding the world around me now that I'm not trying to fit a God in there somewhere.

Many people claim we need religion for comfort.  But when I have to watch someone I love die slowly, it's comforting to know that it's not because of some supernatural Shakespearean drama between magical forces.  When my grandmother died, I found it comforting to know that there was no outside force that failed to save her, and that there was no outside force that caused her demise.  She wasn't "called home" and she didn't die because we failed to pray hard enough.  To me, it's more painful to think one or both of those things is true than to look Truth in the eye.

And in the end, I think that's what make most people uneasy.  Maybe that's a reason for a lot of the behavior of people, from rebellious pre-teens up to mass-murdering adults.  They're stuck on the problem of trying to get an answer out of an unanswerable question, like trying to squeeze blood from a stone.

Not everyone will take the time or effort as I have -- either through a lack of personal ability or overwhelming apathy, or something else entirely --- to sit down and think about all this "God stuff".  A lot of people I've talked to are on the fence when it comes to religion.  There's too much misunderstanding and stigma attached to the "'A' Word" and people wind up being "just spiritual" or "agnostic" in the wrong sense.  We don't like to challenge our own thoughts.

As an animal, we seek to minimize pain.  This includes mental anguish.  Therefore, I don't find it surprising that humans take comfort in religion rather than tackle the hard parts of life (including questioning said religion).  And I understand that having to deal with those feelings when you realize religion is empty of real hope can seem daunting.  It takes more work, but you get real, tangible, substantive joy from it.

Ditch Faith, Find Hope
When we were burying my grandmother, we stood for the preacher's final words before departing the cemetery.  Then he said something along the lines of, "Without Jesus there is no hope...for everlasting life."  The ellipsis there represents a pause he took, a pretty important pause.  If he had ended his sentence before then, I'd have probably made a scene right there my grandmother's funeral.  Not only do I hate having to sit through religious funerals where we are mostly there for church and not to remember the one we've all lost, but then to be told I have no hope on top of that...

But he did finish the sentence.  And honestly, he did a good job with the service overall.  It was more about her than church (although just barely).  I only bring it up now because of that one incident.

He is right, ya know; without believing in Jesus you can't pretend you'll live forever.  Well, unless you're one of those "spiritual" folks.  If you are, try talking to someone.  Preferably to someone who doesn't believe the same things you do.  Challenge everything you believe, not just religion or "spiritual" stuff.  Ideas are either strengthened or forgotten by challenge.

[To all my loyal readers who come to this blog for concise, well-written posts: forgive this rambling mess as I try to re-enter the blogosphere.  I've got some rust to knock off.]