Book of Mormon (includes spoilers below the line)

Sarah and I saw Book of Mormon yesterday, and it was very, very funny, and quite rude – we expected no less from Parker & Stone.

The play is the story of two mormon missionaries (Elders Price & Cunningham) who are sent to Uganda and encounter misery and problems (AIDS, dysentery, warlords, female genital mutilation) far beyond their very limited training and experience. Price feels the experience as a challenge to his faith, and Cunningham has to devise a not-so-orthodox way to attract the interest of all of the villagers who are preoccupied with their other concerns. Many of the thematic elements parody other musicals – the Lion King gets mercilessly mocked, and in general religious themes and ideas are largely ridiculed.

============== Detailed review including spoilers below ===============================

The basic premise of the musical includes a couple of wholly-unforced errors which weaken the story – a few examples (my memory of growing up in Utah is confirmed by the wikipedia) are that while a mission length is two years, missionaries normally change companions every few months, and are typically sent to multiple places. Further, in places where foreign language skill would be required (such as Uganda, where Swahili would be needed for effective communication), additional immersion language training would be provided. In addition, “Uganda” is used to represent “foreign African place which has no money and lots of problems” – but in actuality Uganda is one of the places that has actually dealt with AIDS better than, say, Washington DC (at least judging by the decline from 30% infection rate to 6.4% of Uganda, while during the same period DC has maintained a steady 3% rate).

Essential to the story is the idea that Cunningham is an inveterate liar who has not actually read the Book of Mormon itself – he goes on to completely invent ludicrous accounts (Moroni from the Starship Enterprise, for instance, or Joseph Smith having sex with a frog) to captivate his audience. The problem is that the premise falls apart under scrutiny: of all of the religions I’ve encountered, the one with the most self-scrutiny with regard to qualifications to perform important functions (like going on a mission) is LDS – a person exhibiting these qualities (where they were even recognized by his parents) would not pass muster and make it through at all. So the Cunningham arc and resolution to the whole story is essentially a strawman – it makes me wonder whether anyone involved in the writing of the story actually knows any Mormon missionaries: I suspect not.

The arc involving Price is much, much more believable, and thus much more cutting: the idea that a 19-year old kid could have wholly unrealistic assessments of his own level of understanding and could thus have a crisis of faith when things go wrong – well, that’s pretty much universal right there.

The high points of the show center on the believable: Price’s self absorption is shown in a wonderful song near the opening (interestingly, the program does not list the song names, so these are the best I can do) about “you and I can do amazing things, but mostly me”; a song about suppression of unwanted feelings (“turn it off” led by the obviously closeted-gay character); and Nabulungi’s song about dreaming of a paradise on earth called “Salt Lak-uh Citee”. It would be remiss to ignore the choreographic high point: “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – basically take a child’s conception of hell and make it hilarious.

Now, in the matters of religious doctrine, the authors sometimes play it straight: “I Believe” (an excellent song, by the way) uses straight-up LDS doctrine more or less accurately, and presents it to comic effect via juxtaposition of the universal and the particular: “I believe … in God above / I believe … that two tribes of Hebrews migrated to America in canoes.” Now, this was something which gave Sarah some discomfort, because once you start holding up religious beliefs to ridicule, where do you stop? Once you’re laughing at LDS belief that (for example) the highest level of heaven is being granted your own planet, why wouldn’t you laugh at the idea that (for example) God gave the Jews a bunch of commandments? Sarah asked the legitimate question: “would a play like this making fun of Judaism be considered Anti-Semitic?” To this I answer: no, because Mel Brooks already did this in the History of the World, Part I – “I bring you these 15 (crash) 10, 10 commandments!” However, picking on the Mormons in this way is not exactly what I’d call a profile in courage – the LDS church is a pretty mellow opponent: they might write a strongly worded letter to the editor, or discourage their members from seeing a show. That’s not exactly much of a fatwa.

I see this as part of the larger trend in modern society toward general mockery of religious faith – there is a pernicious kind of intolerant cynicism in modern culture, and it uses mockery and sarcasm as its primary weapons. One of the offhand things I found interesting in William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience was an injunction to avoid sarcasm – I spent some time thinking about that, and have come to believe that sarcasm is like an acid, which is extremely powerful and useful in specific circumstances, but always destructive and easily uncontrolled. The sarcastic streak throughout Book of Mormon is vicious and out of control, and that weakens the whole structure. I suspect that like Avenue Q this will be a limited run engagement without much revival staying power – the evergreen themes of growth and self-discovery get lost in the sarcasm and are like a baptism where you don’t let the convert come up for air.

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I have found favor in the eyes of God

Sarah and I experienced something tonight, and I found it moving in a spiritually profound manner.

We went to hear the most recent of the Dumbarton Concert series, which in this case was Andrius Zlabys performing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I and Adam Neiman performing Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28. I had expected to hear all of the Bach, and then all of the Chopin, but in this case, the program was structured as alternating pieces according to the ordering Chopin used.

The sheer beauty of the pieces brought tears to my eyes multiple times – Bach’s no. 24 in b minor and his no. 16 in g minor were particularly striking: I heard in Zlabys’ performance the hints of walking basslines such as would be fully at home in a modern jazz band, and the edifice Bach created has formed the basis of pretty much all of western music. Chopin’s no. 15 in D-flat major does a phenomenal job of capturing the emotion of a single line of music – he reveals depths formerly hidden, and it is sheer joy.

I hear their passionate music / Read the words that touch my heart
I gaze at their feverish pictures / The secrets that set them apart
When I feel the powerful visions / Their fire has made alive
I wish I had that instinct / I wish I had that drive
Rush, Mission

Hearing these excellent performances of some of the finest works ever written for keyboard instruments, I realized that, like Salieri, I have the ability to appreciate genius in composition without being one myself; unlike Salieri, I see this as a sign that God has favored me in showing me beauty. I will never create a work which is their equal; however, I can appreciate the things that they have done and allow it to inform and uplift me – my eyes when closed see the majesty of the works of God which He shows to me via their work. And thus, I feel the blessing of the Holy One, Blessed is He.