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.