After seeing Cats
I thought that I had seen all of the musicals that I wanted to see (with maybe the exception of Jesus Christ Superstar, though I don’t really have any huge desire to see Phantom on the Opera, though some Gilbert and Sullivan might be a goer). However, one day last year I discovered that they were advertising The Book of Mormon on the trams, and a part of me suspected that it was coming to Melbourne. Well, it was, but ironically they had started advertising the musical a year in advance, which quite surprised me because I didn’t expect that it would need such a long period of advertising, that is until I asked a friend who pointed out that the show is incredibly popular, and you simply can’t walk into the theatre and buy your tickets because the shows end up being booked months in advance. As it turned out this was the case here in Australia – well, not quite, but the show that I saw had sold out.
One thing that I should point out is that this is not your typical musical. If you are familiar with the works of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in particular South Park, then you will basically be prepared for what is to come in The Book of Mormon. An anecdote I was told was that in New York an elderly couple decided to go and see it because it had won a Tony award, and any musical that won a Tony must be good. You can probably imagine their shock when the expletives started coming out thick and fast. However, the story ended up well because they decided to stay until the end and ended up quite enjoying it.
When I was thinking about writing this I wanted to make a statement as to how I am not bagging the Mormon religion, until I realised that I don’t actually need to apologise. Stone and Parker aren’t at all apologetic in the way that this musical turned out, and its popularity goes to show: one can be offensive, and yet still succeed. In a sense what this musical does is that it brings in a group of people who normally wouldn’t see a musical, simply because it was produced by the creators of South Park. However, it has the potential to then open up the audience to the possibility of actually going and seeing other musicals as well.
I think about my own life and how I have developed as a human. When I was a teenager I would have never thought of going and seeing a play, nor going to an art gallery simply to look at pictures. However, these many years later, I find myself regularly attending Stage on Screen, and traveling halfway around the world to see a performance of Shakespeare. In fact in 2013 I traveled to London simply so I could see Les Miserables, namely because if I didn’t, and the performance ended, I would forever regret it. It reminds me of another friend who told me how he was also changing. He said that when he was younger all he drank was beer, and would never even think of drinking wine, however he had suddenly found himself putting aside the beer for the wine. Mind you, he was also Irish, so there is a big class distinction between drinkers of beer and drinkers of wine. In a sense, like me, he had realised that with education he had found that he had become cultured.
Anyway, without further ado, I shall give you a brief synopsis of the musical, and then look at some of the themes: Organised Religion, Cross Cultural Evangelism, and a question of faith.
The book of Mormon is about two Mormons, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who have finished their training and are preparing to go on their two years of mission work. Price is the star pupil and has this dream of going to Orlando, however Cunningham is the one who has simply scrapped through and has a tendency of making things up. When the destinations are read out, and the missionaries are paired, they discover that they aren’t going to Orlando but rather heading out to Uganda, in the heart of Africa. In a way this is a shock to the system as Price had his heart set on Orlando, and the fact that it is a playground in Florida. However Cunningham, who looks up to Price, sees it as a dream come true.
When they arrive, not surprisingly, they discover that they are in what is effectively a hell hole. The people live in poverty, are ravaged by disease and violence, and the other Mormons there have had absolutely no luck whatsoever. However Cunningham, who is a little ignorant, decides that he will give it ago, especially since one of the villagers is really keen on hearing what they have to say. However, Price, the one who is best placed to share the message, decides to head back home, so Cunningham is left to do this best. The problem is that he quickly discovers that the message that he has been taught simply does not gel with the locals, so he decides to do something that he has been warned not to do – make stuff up, and suddenly discovers that the Africans are flocking to him to be baptised.
The news of their success quickly reaches Mormon Headquarters and they decide to send the President to Africa to see first hand the success. However, Cunningham quickly realises that he has done something naughty so does his best to keep the converts out of sight. That, unfortunately, is easier said than done, and the converts come out to perform a play that they had produced in honour of the Mormons and the story of Joseph Smith, which turns out to be my favourite song of the show – Joseph Smith, American Moses. To say that the President is horrified is an understatement, but this is where Stone and Parker’s moral comes to the fore (and that is one of the problems with their work – they tend to end it on some rather blunt moralising).
An American Religion
Parker and Stone give us a good idea of the background of the religion, and to suggest that they make it sound a little ridiculous is quite an understatement. Mind you, growing up in around Christians, there was always this idea that Mormonism was somewhat ridiculous. Actually, a friend of mine suggested that the reason Mormonism came about was that the United States was never mentioned in the Bible, and as such Joseph Smith decided that to make it more American, that he would add another volume that included the United States. Honestly, I don’t know what happened that day, and really don’t want to speculate.
The story goes that two Jewish tribes traveled to the United States and established a colony. Over the centuries they warred against each other, however the Angel Mormon appeared and gave them a new testament to encourage them to live in peace. These were the golden tablets that are referred to. However, they eventually died out (and the tablets were handed down to another named Moroni), and the plates were buried, which centuries later were uncovered by Joseph Smith. Apparently he had a vision where the angel Moroni appeared and told him where the tablets where, however he couldn’t show them to anybody so had to copy them down (using a special pair of glasses that he had to give back afterwards).
Smith then attempted to establish his religion where he was said to have found the tablets, but due to huge opposition ended up traveling across the United States to establish a colony in Utah, though he didn’t survive the journey. The journey itself was rough, and they faced opposition not only as they traveled, but also when they attempted to establish themselves in Utah, which eventually led to the Mormon Wars. However, they survived and are said to be one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
This is where the problems begin to arise. Parker and Stone constantly refer to Mormonism as being an American religion. Even Joseph Smith is protrayed as this handsome Aryan male which is reflective of the true American. In fact there is a point where Cunningham is reading directly from the book and discovers that is says that some of the Jews were cursed with black skin, which doesn’t go down all that well when you are preaching to Africans. They even raised the issue that it wasn’t until recently, when one of the Presidents had another vision, that African-Americans were actually allowed to join the faith.
I have written a previous post on Cross Cultural Evangelism
, however I will probably touch on a number of things here as well, since this seems to be one of the themes of the play. Unlike Christianity, which began in the Middle East and has spread across the world, and broken down cultural boundaries, Mormonism seems to have a lot of difficultly in this regards. This probably has a lot to do with it being an American Religion. The thing is that the religion arose in the United States, and came about during a time of White Supremacy. Sure, many have claimed that Christianity is also White Man’s religion, but the thing is that this is because we have adapted it to our culture.
What Cunningham did to deal with the cultural differences is that he changed the stories, which was needed due to the strict nature of Mormonism, however this is not always the case with religions. Take Buddhism for instance, which managed to insert itself into both Indian and Chinese cultures. Also, the fact that Christianity has grown so fast, and continues to grow in places such as China and India is also a testament to that – and nobody has changed anything. However, the problem is that Christianity is still seen as ‘White Man’s Religion’, namely because it was brought to the region by White Men who expect people to follow it the way that white men do.
Before I continue, I’ll share another anecdote. When I was in France I was wandering along the shopping Mall in Amiens and saw a Mormon attempting to approach people to talk to them, however all he was doing was asking them if they spoke English. Seriously, this simply does not work like that – he is in France, they speak French, and they actually get quite offended, and rightfully so, if you come along and start demanding that they speak English. The thing with Missionaries is that they don’t go out into the world to force people to speak English, but rather to share a message, and in that way they should make an attempt, and a pretty good one at that, of learning the local language (as well as translating the Bible into said language, and even going as far as creating a written language if there isn’t one). I still remember meeting some missionaries in Greece who didn’t seem to think that it was necessary to know how to speak Greek.
So, thus I come to my next topic, and that is the idea of origanised religion. In fact one of the things that I have come to learn in my years wandering around the planet is that people don’t necessarily hate religion, nor do they necessarily hate God – they hate origanised religion. The thing is that it is the boogey man of faith, and rightfully so, where the church ceases to be a community and begins to be a corporate structure, and the problem with corporate structures is that they become inflexible. One pastor suggested that the thing with Christianity is that there is an inflexible core, but you need to be willing to be flexible around the edges so as to meet people where they are at.
The thing is that organised religion is inflexible to the point that it is either their way or the highway. In a way the whole bloody mess that came out from the Reformation was simply due to the church refusing to be flexible with regards to their doctrine, and this is understandable – the people at the top had a lot of power – religion is power – and that by not only allowing people to read the Bible in their own language, but to also have direct access to God, undermined this. We see this in the Gospels where Jesus is regularly chastising the church leaders of his day – they were barring access to God, and dishing out salvation how they saw fit.
The one thing that people desire is certainty, and certainty after death. In fact people want to be saved, even though they say otherwise. Death is the great unknown, and what organised religion does is that it entraps people by offering one aspect of what they need to do to be saved – and it is always a question of what they have to do. Once they have the power of people’s salvation, they can then imprison them, and in effect control them. However, they fear change, and they fear it a lot, which is why you see these culture wars being waged across not just the United States, but Australia as well.
So What is Religion?
I have heard time and time again that the difference between Christianity and Religion is that religion is what we must do and Christianity is what has been done. Yes, that is true in essence because the core of the Christian message is that Christ died for our sins, meaning that somebody else has suffered the punished which is due to us. Our sins burden us down and create a barrier between us and God, however Christ’s death has broken down that barrier meaning that we do not have to earn salvation, because under our own steam salvation simply cannot be earnt – we simply are not good enough because even one sin is enough to create that barrier.
However, I still think that that definition is nothing more than semantics. Whether they like it or not Christianity is still a religion. I remember sitting at the University Tavern with a group of friends trying to explain that and they simply laughed – why, because in their mind Christianity is a religion. The thing is that a religion answers three basic questions of existence: where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going when we die, and in the end Christianity gives a pretty good answer to those questions. In fact, in my opinion, it is the only religion that gives a satisfactory answer to those three questions.
This is where the point of the Book of Mormon comes to the fore. You see, Price and Cunningham went to Africa to preach Mormonism, but it because pretty obvious that is wasn’t going to work, so Cunningham changed the story. All of a sudden the people responded, and responded in bulk. The crux was that it didn’t matter what they believed, but rather that they believed in something, and what Cunningham did was that he gave them something to believe in. This is one of the flaws of the modern Evangelical movement. We aren’t giving them something to believe in, but rather giving them something to believe that maybe, just maybe, life will be better on this Earth.
The Africans realised that life wasn’t going to be better, but what Elder Cunningham did was that he gave them something to make life a bit more tolerable. They were never going to leave their village, and they were going to suffer the ravages of living in poverty – The Book of Mormon did a brilliant job in exploring the problems facing the Africans. The thing was that Mormonism in that form simply did not address the issue of the Aids epidemic, violent warlords, or grinding poverty. However, the message the Cunningham gave them was a message of hope, to rise above this, and to actually have faith that while life may never get any better, but it is is a journey, and a journey that we can take either living in despair and fear, or living in contentment and being able to appreciate what we do have, not what we don’t.
Bok of Mormon – A Question of Faith by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
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