The Book of Mormon Musical: Practical Religion for Modern Times?

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One of my favorite things to do when I visit New York or London is to see the shows. We get an occasional traveling production in Salt Lake City, but for sheer quantity, there are no places in the world like New York and London. However, there hasn’t been anything on Broadway that I’ve been very interested in for some time now. So recently, it has been with great interest that I’ve read reviews of the Book of Mormon musical. Of course, I have been interested not only because it has been called the “savior” of Broadway, or because of all the awards it has won. I have also been interested to see reports that a number of Mormons have seen and enjoyed the show. Some Mormons have been quoted as saying that that there is enough to be offended at, but that the message is “sweet.” This might lead one to believe that, despite its offensive presentation, the core message is a positive one. However, as I have heard the show described, it has not seemed to warrant the glowing admiration that it has been receiving. I have been willing to admit that it might have good music with funny jokes. But in my judgment, not only is the show shockingly profane, but the ultimate message of the show is less-than-redeeming.

I have not felt that I could speak with authority against the message of the musical without first-hand information. So now I have listened to (although not seen) the musical. Having done so, I wonder if there is anything so profane and vulgar that has ever played on Broadway. Critics seem to acknowledge the highly offensive nature of the musical, but dismiss it on the basis that it was written by the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Since we should expect them to be vulgar and profane, it’s no big deal.

Putting aside the sheer offensiveness of the lyrics, I found the music itself to be unimaginative and cliché. Some may say that its cliché feel is just part of the satire; that partly, the point of the show is to make fun of Broadway musicals. Fair enough. However, that’s been done before, and much more effectively, in Spamalot. In short, there was very little in the way of unique artistry that can be found here. I’ll admit that it has some catchy tunes. So does Lady GaGa. Both may be long remembered, not for their catchy tunes or even for their messages, but for the way in which they offended modern sensibilities, which is what I think Parker and Stone were going for.

What that leaves is the story. The main thrust of its claims about Mormonism is that Joseph Smith made it all up, and that his message does not apply to the modern world. It portrays Mormons as naïve and simplistic. Of course, Mormons are also a cheerful, polite, and well-meaning bunch, and as such, are basically harmless. But the only way for them to truly do good in the modern world is to change their story so it applies to current problems, which should be fine since their scriptures were made up in the first place. This is all very appealing to the audience and to theater critics. They are made to feel superior to the delusional Mormons, while at the same time, feel good about themselves for acknowledging that it is important to help relieve suffering in the world. They don’t have to feel bad about lampooning the Mormons since the show acknowledges that Mormons are nice people, and since it is just satire, after all.

Many Mormon reviews of the show tend to whitewash the truly disgusting aspects and try to find a positive spin, perhaps to demonstrate how open-minded and hip we Mormons are. Mormons who have given positive reviews argue that the show preaches a positive message of practical religion. However, putting aside the discussions of raping babies, raping frogs, and raping God himself (or herself?), the central theme of the musical is not about service to the poor and downtrodden. It is about how making up a wacky religion can be great so long as it accomplishes humanitarian ends, like reducing incidences of AIDS and female circumcision.

At the end of the show, it is not the Book of Mormon that is being preached and changing the lives of the Ugandans, it is the Book of Arnold, the new scripture made up by one of the show’s Mormon missionaries, Elder Arnold Cunningham. The new church members do not provide clean drinking water, vaccinations, and wheelchairs to Africans, as Mormons have done in real life. They do not testify of the eternal saving power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Instead, they go door to door passing out the Book of Arnold. The practical advice that changes lives comes from a story about how Joseph Smith was about to rape a baby to cure his AIDS, when God appeared to him and told him to rape a frog instead. He later meets Brigham Young, who was cursed by God for circumcising his daughter. The curse was that his nose was turned into a clitoris. Joseph Smith heals Brigham by rubbing the frog on his nose. We are supposed to believe that this message is more crucial and more pertinent to the lives of the Ugandans than the messages that are actually in the Book of Mormon.

When you push past the vulgarity and lampooning of the sacred, the message is that even if you manufacture a religion, and even if that religion has preposterous foundational stories, so long as it addresses modern problems and motivates people to be nice to each other, religion is A-okay.  Stone and Parker obviously don’t believe that a fable about raping frogs really has the power to change lives, but what does? While they profess to like Mormons and think that Mormons are really nice people, what makes Mormons that way? Is the real Book of Mormon actually irrelevant to modern day problems?

It is true that the Book of Mormon says nothing about vaccinations, clean drinking water and wheelchairs. Yet, somehow Mormons feel motivated to give of their time, talents, money, and even risk their lives, to go to such places as Africa to serve people whom they have never met. What Stone and Parker apparently fail to grasp is that this motivation actually comes from what is in the Book of Mormon. There is no need for a modern-day revision. The primary reason that Mormons are the way they are is that they have accepted the central messages of the Book of Mormon, that Jesus Christ is our savior and that His church is on the Earth today. The atonement of Jesus Christ has the power to change people’s hearts. The Book of Mormon contains little, if any, practical advice on dealing with modern problems. Yet, as people accept the message of the Book of Mormon, they gain power that helps them to patiently and even cheerfully cope with the trials of life.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker make an effort, and rightly so, to highlight the power that comes from the fact that Mormons believe strongly in their religion. However, they seem oblivious to the fact that this power comes from strong beliefs in things that are true. And despite what the Book of Mormon Musical may lead people to believe, the messages that are actually in the Book of Mormon are a powerful source of good in the world today. That power comes from being based in timeless facts not timely fantasies.

35 thoughts on “The Book of Mormon Musical: Practical Religion for Modern Times?

  1. Craig

    Sure I really don’t care about the musical and I make
    it a policy not to be offended by ignorance. But, I
    would love to see Mssrs. Trey and Stone write a
    similar “treatment” of the Quran. I doubt they have
    the courage. I don’t want to see Islamobashing,
    I just want to see people live up to their internal
    creeds, across the board. No one is worried about
    a fundamentalist Mormon driving his bomb laden truck
    into the theater.

  2. cinepro

    Trey Parker and Matt Stone have taken countless jabs at militant Islam on South Park, with one show that was an absolute takedown. It was the powers-that-be at Comedy Central that flinched, not Parker and Stone. They have also had sharply barbed episodes about Catholics and Scientologists. And just in case you thought they just hate religion in general, they also had a two part episode that was a pretty scathing mockery of atheism.

    So while it’s fair to complain about their vulgarity and mocking tone in general, it’s totally off-base to accuse them of not being equal-opportunity offenders.

  3. Mike

    I will not be going to the Book of Mormon Musical. When we were kids and something we were talking about or doing was questionable, Mom would say, “Is that virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy?” If it didn’t fit Mom’s 13th Article of Faith smell test, it didn’t belong in our house or our minds. This musical pretty obviously fails the test, and being “broadminded” is overrated.

  4. Brandon

    Listening to the music is not enough. Without seeing the show, you have no context for any of it.

    You cannot pass judgement without first-hand knowledge, as you stated…and yet that is exactly what you have done here.

  5. Allen Wyatt

    Without seeing the show you cannot pass judgment? Wow. That seems pretty broad, don’t you think?

  6. Dave

    “You cannot pass judgement without first-hand knowledge”

    If what you posit was true, it’d be impossible for me to know that drinking battery acid would kill me unless I tried it personally. Ridiculous.

    Of course you can pass judgment without first-hand knowledge, by relying on the judgment of people wiser or perhaps more experienced. Just like I choose to do with Mr. Densley’s review of “The Book of Mormon Musical.” He says it’s trash (as have many others), and I believe him.

  7. Ron Beron

    When my wife and I were watching the Tony’s last night she commented that the energy and excitement being generated over this form of pornography was akin to those people in the Book of Mormon where Lehi states in his vision:”And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
    And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.”

  8. James

    There is a sense in which one shouldn’t judge a thing before they’ve seen/read it. Consider the many uninformed opinions about the Book of Mormon!

    But I don’t think one needs to see the BoM musical to conclude that it is incredibly vulgar.

  9. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    Not having seen the musical, I would agree that I do not have a sufficient basis to comment on the choreography, the costumes, the set design, or the acting. I have therefore refrained from doing so. However, having heard the music, I feel justified in sharing my opinion on the quality of the music, the content of the lyrics, and the message that the lyrics communicate.

  10. Tevya

    I disagree with cinepro on the grounds that they never made a broadway musical about any of those other belief systems. And you’re forgetting that they already made an NC-17 rated movie about Mormons: Orgazmo. With that track record it would appear that they have some particular issue with us Mormons, and wont rest until they’ve completely marginalized our entire religion, and therefore all of us who believe in it.

    If I remember right, its the book Feakenomics that details how the man who started the Stetson hat company got the writers of the Superman radio drama to have Superman fight the KKK in several episodes of the show, including using their various oaths, passwords, dress, and practices in the drama. Both the goal and the actual result were to marginalize the KKK. It was very successful, as grown men were ashamed of their affiliation when they saw their own children playing Superman as he mocked and disarmed the evil Klansmen.

    While we have nothing in common with the KKK, I fear Parker and Stone have some vendetta against us, and are employing similar methods. Orgazmo & The Book of Mormon Musical are my evidence.

  11. Willem

    Why be surprised about this broadway show when this cult religion gives the writers so much weird detail to work with,remember the barn full of gold plates ,smith face in the hat reading that s**t with help of a stone,well i could go on and on but im sure most open minded people will agree its a scam a major fraud, but lots of fun.

  12. Sean

    Willem? Please shut up. Open minded in the definition of modern culture: Be open minded in the sense that WE want you to. Shut out everything else.

  13. Brian K

    Steve- I really like your review. I think it gives a very good perspective and helped me think a little deeper about the plays content. I listened to it as well, and although I thought that the vulgarity was unnecessary and offensive, I thought the music and songs were really good.
    Although I don’t agree with the play, I think some of the ideas that they were making fun of where interesting. For example in “Turn it off.” I know that this is not always Members response to questions and doubts, but it has been said to me in responses to honest questions. Although I think I understand what people are saying when they say we just can’t let it bother us, I think it can be a damaging idea. I assume you would agree, because of your work with dealing with criticisms intellectually, which I applaud you for. Also I laughed at the song “Mostly me” for I remember being at the MTC wanting to change the world, and although I never would have said I will do it on my own, I was ready to try.
    At first when I was reading your review I admit I thought that you were just being closed minded, but I actually do think you made some good points that I need to think about.

  14. Amara

    Well said. Well Written. Maybe it’s time for us Mormons to be a little less “harmless.”
    Open-mindedness Shmopen-mindedness. Truth is all we should be mindful of. Steve has spoken the truth.

  15. Mags05

    The soundtrack is but one component of the show. Without actually seeing it, you have no context to review it in its entirety. I applaud you for being upfront about the fact that you haven’t actually seen it (as most people criticizing it don’t admit to this), but sorry — you cannot review a theatrical piece that you haven’t even seen.

    And please — there’s a huge difference between art (which is very subjective and nuanced) and drinking battery acid (pretty much black and white).

    If you don’t want to see the show, then don’t (perfectly understandable — and if you can’t handle vulgar language then definitely don’t see it). But understand that you’re not getting the full picture of what it’s about, either. And reviewing something that you haven’t even seen is silly. And to all of the rest of you who are deciding not to see a show based upon a “review” of someone who hasn’t even seen it…I’m speechless. Like I said, see the show or don’t and make your own decision about whether or not you feel it’s “offensive” or not. But the key words there are “make your own decision”. After all, isn’t that why God gave us each our own individual brains? So we have the ability to think for ourselves?

  16. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    Mags05:

    I don’t think that the soundtrack to a musical is so incidental to the show as a whole, that commentary on the soundtrack is useless. Of course, not even a review by a person who has seen the show is necessarily going to help us know exactly how we will react to seeing it ourselves. We always decide whether or not to see a show based upon limited information. And sometimes, it is possible to conclude you don’t want to see a show based upon very limited information. For example, if there were a new show on Broadway, and all I knew about it was that the entire production is performed in the nude, I would not need any more information to know that I would not be going to that show.

    Your comment reminds me of a story Dallin Oaks told about his son who wondered why it wasn’t a good idea to try alcohol or tobacco to see what it was like. Elder Oaks explained that it was not necessary to taste manure to decide that he did not want to eat it. Similarly, if someone told me they had not tasted something, but that it smelled like manure, I would not need any more information to know that I did not want to eat it myself.

    With respect to the Book of Mormon Musical, my review doesn’t prevent anyone from seeing it if they want to. But from my perspective, it doesn’t smell good.

  17. Allen Wyatt

    Brandon and Mags05 said almost the same thing–that you cannot review the show based on the music; you have to see art in context.

    It seems odd that anyone would assert that you cannot judge a musical by the music that serves as the centerpiece of the musical. If The Book of Mormon were a drama, I might be inclined to agree with the assertion of context. However, the argument can be made that the music IS the context of a Broadway musical.

    For instance, could someone judge Cats by the music that is its centerpiece? Or how about Oklahoma? Or any number of other musicals? The whole point is that music–good or bad–forms the contextual framework for any artistic endeavor that positions itself as a musical.

    If the same suggestion were applied to other genres, one might suggest that you couldn’t negatively pan Lady GaGa or (gasp!) Justin Bieber based upon their music. You have to see them in concert, so as to view them in context, before you can make a determination as to whether you like their efforts or not. Silliness, to be sure.

    -Allen

  18. Mags05

    Which is my point exactly. If you listen to the soundtrack, or hear something about the show, that makes you *think* you won’t like it….then by all means don’t spend the time and money to go see it. Understood, and that is your decision. But to post a “review” of the show after merely listening to the soundtrack…bc you feel that is enough to provide first-hand information about the message of the musical — is short sighted. You don’t have first-hand information, nor are you getting the message of the musical…plain and simple.

    And Allen — nope, sorry. Gaga and Bieber…are musicians. You purchase them for their music (altho, yes, a large draw for Gaga is her, um… interesting… outfits). Book of Mormon is not an opera, so there’s considerable dialogue and story happening in between those songs. And even if it WAS an opera….you’re missing characters, reactions, interactions, expressions, scenery, costumes, themes, mood, sound, lighting, etc. etc. To Steve’s point (as well as what I also said above) — you can figure out certain things from the soundtrack….like if it’s riddled with profanity, for example. In that case (if that’s something that offends you), of course it makes sense to listen to it and think, “ok…probably doesn’t make sense for me to see this”. But to make the leap from listening to the soundtrack to having first-hand information and knowing the overall message of the show? Absolutely not.

    And since we seem to be going with eating analogies, let me try this one….this reminds me of when I was a kid, and me (trying to) tell my mother that I didn’t like brussel sprouts…or lima beans….or okra — without even trying them. Didn’t fly with her, she wasn’t buying it. I still had to try them before I was allowed to proclaim I didn’t like them.

  19. SteveDensleyJr Post author

    Mags05: I certainly hope you won’t be forcing your children to watch the Book of Mormon Musical (or even listen to the soundtrack) before they are allowed to say that it is not the kind of entertainment they want to experience.

  20. Allen Wyatt

    Interestingly enough, seems that John Mark Reynolds (professor of philosophy at Biola) makes many of the same points in this remarkable review of The Book of Mormon.

  21. Pingback: The Anti-Book of Mormon Musical « Gently Hew Stone

  22. Kristen

    Well done. I saw the show in March and I’m very impressed with how spot on you are in your review having only listened to the soundtrack. If you ever see the show you’ll realize you won’t have to change a word of what you’ve written.

  23. Ruth

    Do all of us read the same scriptures?? Doesn’t a scripture say to “avoid the very appearance of evil? That scripture includes “broadmindedness”. Good satire does not have to be degrading and vulgar, let alone about someone else’s religion. Get off the fence justifiers, unless you LIKE the barbs between you legs! These fellows were (and are) out to make the Church look ridiculous and you call it simple “satire”? Since when did our leaders suggest that we accept, ignore, and even condone making fun of any church and it’s leaders with outspoken vulgarity? Call it simply “satire” if you like, but, I call it vile and deliberate slander! Sometimes “funny” isn’t very funny if filth and stupidity replaces respect for others.

  24. John

    I am not going to see or listen to this show I cannot be spiritual before going in to the show, then watching vulgarity for two hours and then taking up where I left off again at the front door.
    “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly”comes to mind.
    I just can’t turn it on and off like that!I dont know anyone that can.

  25. Ruth

    Thanks John, as for me, I don’t want to know anyone who can.
    But then, some people can wear that “cloak” just fine. They seem to enjoy being everything to everybody and they call it “intellect”. However, true intellect includes wisdom and discernment, not just “worldly” acceptance. Most worldly productions depict the character of the authors and this production is no exception. How sad that they had nothing better to do than to display their characters while they proceeded to disgace someone else’s religion. One does not have to be L.D.S. to be offended by this film!

  26. Scott

    The BoM Musical is an attack on the Mormon Church fueled by homosexuals angry about Prop 8. It’s intent is to marginalize the church and prevent its involvement in future debate on gay marriage. It would appear it has been successful.

  27. Ruth

    For sure it is an attack on the LDS Church for that reason but, as for “success”, that depends upon how one measures success. At least the LDS Church didn’t waffle. They simply stood up for what they teach. At least the LDS people don’t go into a homosexual library and steal every first volume of every set of books that they can get away with. They left a gold engraved “Gay and Lesbian Society Of Utah” card in the second volumes! They were successful at that also! Non LDS people use that library also! Stealing and vulgarity will only bring “worldly” success.

  28. Ruth

    Oops, my error! On my July 7th entry I mistakenly called the Book of Mormon Musical a “film”! I meant performance! I had just been watching a worthwhile film. Sorry about that!

  29. Scott

    What I meant when I said the political efforts of the homosexuals have been successful is that ever since Prop 8 the Church has refrained from active promotion of a ballot measure, or open involvement in any state’s legislative actions to legalize gay marriage. True, we haven’t backed down, but we’ve gone from an offensive battle to a seige mentality, only on defense. Not to say that I disagree, because we really got beat up in the press and by entertainers. But our tactics have clearly changed.

  30. Lloyd

    Doctrine and Covenants 109:25 That no weapon
    formed against them shall prosper; that he
    who diggeth a pit for them shall fall
    into the same himself;

  31. Ruth

    Scott & Lloyd, I agree with you and I believe that what you have said is true. I also believe that eventually it will be a losing “worldly” battle as people are free to choose but, at least, the LDS church is trying to state their sincere purpose. As I understand it, their aim is not to judge gays or lesbians nor to condone their persecution, but they do expect all of their members to keep the same commandments. Why then did they take the stand they did? Because ideology has a way of changing the doctrine in people’s minds and the LDS leader’s job is to keep the doctrine pure. When it starts affecting the church it is their business. As I understand it, win or lose, it is their job to influence whoever will listen.

  32. Tim

    The irony behind all of this criticism is that many people, most of which who would have never given it a moments thought, are being introduced to the Book of Mormon as scripture. Even if the musical is filled with crude and sacrilegious scenes, phrases and thoughts, the thrust of the production shows seems to celebrate our religion/any religion as long as it is practiced in faith. It isn’t a coincidence that the church has launched a massive advertising campaign in NY, and that the hotels in the area cannot keep up with the demand for copies of The Book of Mormons. The questions I ask if the following – will this production cause the faithful Mormons to fall away? I would venture from not very likely to no way. The second question is – will this production, cause folks to read the Book of Mormon, or, at least acknowledge its existence and message? That is a definite yes. So, although not the ideal medium, it is doing something that can be wonderful. I have a hard time getting upset about that.

  33. Ruth

    Good point Tim. It is true that “There must needs be opposition in all things”, but one hates to see anyone led astray by lies and the LDS Church smeared by filth and vulgarity for all the wrong reasons. However,if people don’t discern and question such things they probably don’t care about religion anyway. As you say, there are people who will want to know for sure that this type of “smut” is not true and will probably be relieved to find out that it is not.

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