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Mormon the Musical - What The Smith?
Mormon the Musical - What The Smith?
This smash hit musical, The Book of Mormon, was created by the writers of the coarse television comedy South Park. It is a satire of Mormonism, and yet the musical presents a serious and complex social message – to have perfect doubt in God. The focus of my review here is how this complex ironic paradox - perfect doubt - illustrates a new way of thinking about religion as imaginative allegory.
In this review I explain the plot of the show, so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read it. I went to see it last night in Boston, since it does not come to Australia for another two years.
The moral parable of this musical begins with the observation that the Mormons invented an imaginary story about God which suited their practical needs, and turned out to also suit the needs of a durable, stable and fecund community. The musical implies that such evolutionary creativity is the essence of real Mormonism of the latter day saints. This is a rather heretical version, because it means that faith is whatever works, not a revelation of an absolute literal truth. So this mutant version sits uneasily against the evolutionary requirement that a successful meme must be stable. However, when you consider the stories of the golden plates, Jesus crossing the sea to America, the planet Kolob, magic underwear, etc etc, the elasticity of faith presented here is not such a stretch.
The two star elders in the musical are a peachy-eyed golden boy hypocrite and a fat weirdo liar. They get sent to Uganda for their two year missionary service together. For them Uganda is next to hell, while Disneyworld in Orlando Florida is peachface’s idea of heaven on earth. He prays earnestly to Heavenly Father to get sent to Orlando. They find the situation in Africa less than perfect. The locals are regularly shot, raped and mutilated by gunmen, believe in raping virgins to cure aids, suffer disease such as parasites in the scrotum, and have a main prayer that translates as Fuck Off God. None of these features endear the Mormons to Uganda, but they have a Divine Mission to complete through sober prayer.
There are already Mormon missionaries there, white shirts, black ties, neato hairdos, crazy hypocrisy and all, but their conversion rate of the poor Ugandan locals sits at zero. The fat weirdo liar, Elder Cunningham, becomes the hero of the show when he sets out to baptise some locals who have adopted SaltaLakaCity as their metaphor for heaven. They end up in a theopolitical dispute about whether Salt Lake City is real or imaginary. Those Ugandans who believe SLC is real find themselves bitterly disappointed when the Mormons can’t arrange visas.
Anyway, as they learn about Mormonism as part of the baptism process, the locals comment that Elder Cunningham is trying to get them to believe useless boring lies. They start to give up and backslide on their initial interest, despite the imagined Holy Grail promise of Entry Permits into the USA. At which FWL strikes upon a stratagem of genius, perhaps not entirely unfamiliar to Joseph Smith. He just makes up whatever the Smith he wants, and then, with brilliant sincerity, says his invented story is already in The Book of Mormon.
So to stop the rape of babies, he informs his credulous ignorant listeners that Joseph Smith Himself was a baby raper until the Angel Moroni told him to fuck frogs instead. For those who practice female genital mutilation, he tells them the Holy Book the Third Testament of Jesus Christ as dictated on Golden Plates by the Angel Mormon states Infallibly that their nose will transform into a clitoris if they chop off a girl's clitoris. The point here is that these are important moral messages. Even if the punishment is imaginary, in an illiterate society these dire warnings could have a deterrent, in theory at least. More importantly from the point of view of church growth, such inventive fiction could serve to deliver converts to a newly invented Mormon-animist syncretism.
Naturally, the higher ups in the Mormon Movement are not entirely brimful of pleasure and praise at this evolved form of the One True Faith when they find out about it. They come for an Inspection of the success of the local Mormon district, following reports of the good conversion rate. The Ugandans earnestly express their new faith regarding baby fuckers and genital torture as a Green Card ticket. This does not entirely satisfy the expectations of the Representatives of the Church of JCLDS. Filled with Righteous Fury, the oldies decree that this syncretic Mormon African faith is as far from the latter day saints as it is possible to get. They instruct the perpetrators, FWL and co, to pack their bags for Utah. But rather rudely, FWL, aka Elder Arnold Cunningham, suggests the oldies can stick their priggish opinions where the sun don't shine, since his imaginary Mormonism has produced conversion and dialogue and moral progress, or something like that.
This musical contains many pointed comments about Mormon racism and sexism and homophobia. The type of chilled-out South Park crude faith that is served up here has an ironic perfect doubt in God. Doubtless such doubt would not work very well as the basis of a mass movement, given the difficulty people have in claiming to hold false beliefs. There is often a cognitive dissonance between the idea that Joseph Smith discovered golden plates and the scientific recognition that the probability this is true is close to zero. But no matter, faith can move mountains, so the dissonance can be readily overcome through the same "turn it off" light switch method used to banish homosexual yearning among Mormons.
This theological perception of the psychology and sociology of faith, the common human capacity to overcome the logical difficulties inherent in what Mark Twain called 'believing what you know aint so', is a core topic in Mormon the Musical. This challenge of belief applies not only to the Mormons but also to Scientologists, and, more to the point, to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus, Buddhists and everyone who takes myths literally.
What I find fascinating is the underlying question of whether social unity and direction is possible without mythical faith, given the need for popular imagination to have a simplified and comforting story, such as the story of Jesus. I was intrigued in reading a book called The Longevity Project to find that Mormons tend to be healthier and wealthier than average. You have to ask what constructive and effective role their crazy beliefs have in providing an adaptive evolutionary belief structure, which gains in effectiveness what it lacks in truth.
Science has a sort of ethical paralysis by comparison to religion, due to its principled stand against faith. My sense is that the paradoxical hope that Mormon the Musical points to is the evolution of a rational faith. This ideal is a faith in which no imaginary fiction is required, where a community can achieve loyalty and purpose through perfect doubt in God.
This sort of ironic paradoxical faith is not easy to sell to people who demand that religion has to be about real supernatural entities. The challenges of simplifying an imaginary rational faith in ways that can create a mass movement are obviously immense. The possibility of such a rational faith appears to be the underlying parable in Mormon the Musical. For all its humorous and satirical side, and its serious social critique of the actual practice of Mormonism, this vision of a transformed understanding of faith is an agenda with real political and ethical content. I wonder if it is possible?
Last edited by Robert Tulip on Fri Oct 09, 2015 7:23 am, edited 1 time in total.