Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Jack Mormon on "The Book of Mormon"

I am a lover of Broadway musicals.  I really mean this, I like musicals far more than any straight man should!  And, as a formerly active Mormon (and by active I mean BYU-graduating, mission-serving active), I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  The show comes from some wickedly warped minds (and I mean that in the most complementary way possible) – the guys behind South Park and the musical “Avenue Q.”  And, as a fan of both of those shows, I was curious to see what they would do with (and to) the religion of my youth.

I have not seen the show yet, but I did immediately download the soundtrack when it became available on iTunes last week. I have since listened to it several times and read the synopsis in the accompanying booklet, so I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the content.

First it is, somewhat surprisingly, not an “anti-Mormon” musical at all.  In a very real sense, the story is just a story that happens to be about Mormon missionaries. 

Second, it’s amazing to me how well these guys nailed Mormons and the Mormon culture. Yes, it’s a parody of the Mormon culture, but it’s an affectionate parody, and it’s so right on it clearly shows that they have actually gotten to know Mormons in a way that very few non-Mormons ever do or can. Because Mormonism, for all its goofiness, has an internal coherence that makes it very convincing to its adherents. You can mock the church’s doctrine and history (it’s easy to do), but you can’t do it this effectively unless you really understand that internal coherence and why so many people find it so compelling.

A perfect example of this is the song “turn it off,” in which a group of missionaries sings about the way the church teaches you to set aside thoughts or ideas or feelings that don’t fit the prescribed model. That’s a “Mormon trick,” (as the song says) that is really accurate. I can’t remember how many times I was counseled to put aside those pesky doubts I had about the church by some Mormon elder or Bishop.  “Just put them aside,” they’d say, “and bring them back out some day when you’re more spiritual and you’ll find they no longer bother you.”  As the song says: “Turn it off, like a light bulb...”

While I’m sure mainstream Mormons are going to hate this thing, they really shouldn’t.  The musical’s treatment of Mormon missionaries and Mormons in general is very gentle.  And once you get past the very raunchy lyrics of many of the songs, there are several that could actually become popular among church members.  If the Church were smart, it would do a little tut-tutting about the language and about the fun the author’s have with Mormon doctrine and then embrace it as a means to engage others about what they really believe.

But they won’t.  Because the Mormon Church has an incredible chip on its shoulder and looks at anything that isn’t totally positive as totally negative. Like I say, that’s too bad. Because the thing is damned enjoyable!

Here's Turn it Off, from The Book of Mormon


  1. I married into the faith sideways...I think you're exactly right. I also think some folks are going to buy CDs and be shocked, thinking it was Church-approved. Hey, if they only watch Fox News, they only have themselves to blame. What did you think of the movie 'God's Army'?

  2. I haven't seen God's Army. What do you think about it?