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The 'Book of Mormon': A satire that doubles as a recruitment tool

Why are Mormons genuinely excited about the obscene musical that skewers their religion?
The 'Book of Mormon's' Elder Price and Elder Cunningham.

The 'Book of Mormon's' Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Photo: Joan Marcus

This is not a "Book of Mormon" review. “Book of Mormon” needs a review about as much as Bill Gates needs you to lend him bus fare. The Seattle run of the show, which features the original Broadway cast, has been sold out for months with ticket resale prices edging toward $250 apiece.

The high-energy musical follows Mormon golden boy Elder Price and his rotund and endearing (despite the compulsive lying problem) sidekick Elder Cunningham, as they embark on their first mission to . . . Uganda.  As you might expect, the pair is ill-prepared for a world that features warlords, AIDS, blasphemy and scrotum maggots.

Yes, "Book" is as good as everyone says. Yes, you should see it if you get the chance.

The real question though is how the Latter Day Saints themselves think about the show. Some have balked at Book’s coarse language and overt sexualization of Mormon missionaries. “Baptize Me” features Elder Cunningham serenading a saucy Ugandan convert-to-be who is wearing a short white dress:

“I’m about to do it for the first time . . . and I’m going to do it with a girl,” sings Cunningham.

“He will baptize me, right in front of everyone,” she sings back with delight.

But the Mormon church has wasted no time in sidling right up alongside "Book." The church bought three full-page ads in the show’s program. In one an attractive and ethnically diverse trio flashes their pearly whites at program perusers: “I’ve read the book,” boasts the goateed fellow with friendly crinkles around his eyes. The implied, “And so should you,” is missing, but not lost.

Why, in Joseph Smith’s name, is the Church of Latter Day Saints trying so hard to cozy up to the South Park collaborators skewering their beliefs? I can think of a few reasons:

  • It might be satire, but it’s educational. The story of Joseph Smith finding the golden plates that would become the real Book of Mormon on a hill in upstate New York and leading his followers toward Salt Lake City is all there. So is Smith’s transference of the plates to Brigham Young when he fell too ill to complete his journey. And the fact that the general public is clamoring to see a show that teaches them something – anything – real about Mormonism is great news.

"One thing that's really clear to me is that Americans are so curious about and so hungry to connect with Mormons and we've been so inaccessible," Mormon author Joanna Brooks told the LA Times in September. "It took [the creators of] 'South Park' to push Mormons out into telling our stories."

  • It airs the dirty laundry – all of it. Yeah, you can’t really be gay and Mormon, but there’s a solution for same-sex attraction and any other unfortunate thoughts you might be having. Croons one peppy self-suppressing gay missionary:

    When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head
    Don’t FEEL those feelings,
    Hold them in instead. 
    Turn it off, like a light switch.
    Just go click.
    It’s a cool little Mormon trick.

    In moments like this, the show innoculates audiences against the church's more controversial positions with fancy footwork and pervasively flamboyant undertones.

Although "Book" pokes plenty of fun at the naivete and self-repression of the church’s missionaries and the rigidity of church rules, polygamy is nowhere to be found. This must be a welcome absence after the popularity of HBO’s hit series, “Big Love,” which dramatized the life of a prominent Mormon businessmen and his suite of wives.

Book, for all its cheeky satire, is the best PR Mormon church leaders are likely to see — and they know it.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

I won't see the play because it is so gross, and satirization of the sacred really offends me. I hope you are correct in claiming the irony of this play having a positive influence on people.

The statement that "Smith’s transference of the plates to Brigham Young when he fell too ill to complete his journey" is a complete fabrication, contributing to my presumption that the play is full of such misrepresentations. "Artistic license" is a poor justification. I hope that anyone who thinks they will learn something about the church from this play will be able to separate fact from fiction.

dillet

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Joseph Smith "fell too ill to complete his journey"?? No, he fell too dead. He was murdered in 1844, by an anti-Mormon mob in Illinois, three years before the journey to Utah.

tfyqa

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

I for one am waiting to see them do a similar satire piece on Islam.

Not holding my breath.

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

All these topics generally get tested on South Park first. Furthermore "Orgazmo" starring Trey Parker is already a full length movie.

A South Park episode on Islam was already produced but Comedy Central didn't have the nerve to air it in its original version. Anyway, don't blame Matt and Trey for being gutless.

word

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

This production doesn't air all the dirty laundry, but the Church would surely like you to believe that it does. In addition to polygamy, there's the matter of the theologically sanctioned Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857 and its cover-up -- a cover-up that continues unabated to this day.

woofer

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 9:58 p.m. Inappropriate

In some ways the Mountain Meadows Massacre is to the LDS Church what the World War II death-camps are to the German people. However, it was NOT theologically sanctioned nor planned or ordered by Brigham Young! See "Mountain Meadows Massacre" by Juanita Brooks and "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" by Walker, Turley and Leonard for the most scholarly and accurate treatment of the Massacre.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre was a terrible tragedy. Some Mormon leaders in southern Utah were directly responsible for it and more of them (not just John D. Lee) should have been punished by the law and not just guilty consciences. Why they were not punished is a bit complicated.

It was a time of supercharged feelings in Utah and the U.S. The general leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at that time, bore significant responsibility for the climate that led to the massacre. President Buchanan and the U.S. Government at that time also bore even more responsibility for the hostile environment. Greed was probably a motive for some. The provocative acts of a few members of the wagon party also incited feelings in that tense environment. Nevertheless, several LDS leaders in Southern Utah ignored Christ’s Gospel of Peace which they espoused and condoned, committed, and in some cases commanded horrible acts.

The cover-up was also the direct responsibility of some LDS leaders in Southern Utah. There was also a general amnesty granted to the Mormon and the new governor of the Utah territory avoided investigating what is obvious to us is murder. Then the Civil War and a continuing tumultuous and adversarial environment led to a lack of mutual cooperation between the General LDS leadership and the U.S. Government for decades. Finally, most human don't want to focus on their own, or their friends, darkest actions.

This tragedy is the one of the most chilling massacres in history and should be studied as a cautionary example of how simmering anger and an excess of zeal can lead people to lose perspective, ignore human decency, and commit monstrous acts. The only good things about the Mountain Meadows Massacre are that it wasn't repeated and that current LDS leaders are showing support for the families of the victims and encouraging honest research into and disclosure of the facts. Finally, in light of this tragedy, I especially applaud the current LDS emphasis on civil discourse.

dillet

Posted Wed, Jan 16, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I think few people realize(or care)that the vast majority of so-called history written about the LDS Church has been produced by people with a strong anti-Mormon agenda. In reality, the only thing that "continues unabated to this day" is denial of charges such as those you are making, which I presume stem from your reading of such books.

On Polygamy, no credible historian would claim that the plural marriage of the 1800's was anything like the current corruption of Warren Jeffs and his twisted version of the practices.

In addition to the "Massacre" titles cited above, interested readers can turn to the following for trustworthy, academic information on
other relevant topics:

On evidence for the factual nature of the Book of Mormon--"An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon", by John L. Sorenson, "Lehi in the Desert" and "The World of the Jaredites" and "Since Cumorah" by Hugh Nibley.

And the most thorough, even-handed history of both Joseph Smith and the LDS Church currently available, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" by Richard Lyman Bushman

dillet

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 7:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, in addition to the Mountain Meadows massacre, there is the organization of Mormons into voting blocks to influence public policy. That continues today as the Mormon church bankrolls anti-gay legislation. Also, Mormons are extremely fond of rewriting history - ever visited the "Polynesian Cultural Center" on Oahu? You will learn there that all the islands were colonized from the Americas rather than Asia. Whew!

Matt and Trey do not focus on these issues but tend to focus on what's silly (and also sometimes good) about Joe EveryMormon. However, the history of the Mormon church is modern and available to everyone and bears scrutiny.

word

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 7:42 a.m. Inappropriate

As a retired psychologist, I'd like to compliment you on an astute analysis of the psychological appeal of this play.
And I'd like to comment to the group distributing flyers: “Enjoy The Show!” the fliers urged. “But please, don’t be educated about The Church of JESUS CHRIST of latter-day Saints by South Park.”
If you say to a small child, "DON'T get into the book shelf",that's the first thing they will do. It's a known fact that our subconscious tends to disregard the negative in any suggestion and hear the rest of the sentence without the negative.
In short, if you want someone to BE educated about the show, just hand out a flyer that asks them NOT to.

laverl

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 9:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't read these comments.

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