The absurd transcendence of the religious musical

A while back we had a conversation about the mediocrity of so much of what passes for Christian creative culture. Comes now The Book of Mormon, a new musical from, among others, the creators of South Park and Avenue Q. It sure doesn’t sound like it’s for the squeamish, but from the reviews I’ve seen so far, it uses the collision of a profane reality with a purist religion to convey the transcendent meaningfulness of a simple faith believing. Thus that bastion of east coast godlessness, the New York Times:

This show makes specific use of the teachings of the Mormon Church and especially of the ecclesiastical history from which the play takes its title. Church founders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young appear in illustrative sequences, as does Jesus and an angel named Moroni. When delivered in musical-comedy style, these vignettes float into the high altitudes of absurdity.

But a major point of “The Book of Mormon” is that when looked at from a certain angle, all the forms of mythology and ritual that allow us to walk through the shadows of daily life and death are, on some level, absurd; that’s what makes them so valiant and glorious. And by the way, that includes the religion of the musical, which lends ecstatic shape and symmetry to a world that often feels overwhelmingly formless.

Robert Smith at NPR had a similar reaction:

And make no mistake: AIDS jokes are just the beginning of the provocations. There are jokes about cancer, domestic violence, child rape. There’s a running gag about female circumcision, and another about maggots. There’s a big dance number set in a Mormon hell, complete with Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran and two forbidden cups of Starbucks coffee.

After that list I don’t expect you to believe me, but in the end the least offensive part of the musical might just be the way it treats the Mormon faith.

Elna Baker, a Mormon writer and comedian in New York City, laughed through the whole thing.

“The South Park team and Bobby Lopez did an amazing job of picking a checklist of all these things that are very particular to Mormon beliefs, and they nailed every single one of them,” she says.

They skewer the story of Joseph Smith digging up the Golden Plates. There is a shout-out to the current president of the church, Thomas S. Monson. They take a couple of potshots at the Mormon doctrine that kept blacks out of the priesthood until 1978.

“There’s a line where they say, ‘I believe that God lives on a planet named Kolob,’ ” Baker says. “That is an actual Mormon belief. We do believe that. But taken out of context — or in context — you do not want anyone to know you actually believe it.”

But here’s where the sweetness comes in. The Mormons in the musical embrace every quirk of their faith. It makes them stronger, and in the end the audience that laughed at them is won over.

Even though one of the performers insists that The Book of Mormon is fundamentally a “pro-faith show,” I doubt many orthodox Mormons will find this terribly compelling. Then again, that may well take the measure of the success of art that explores the allure of religion: that it takes audiences out of their comfort zone in a way that nevertheless fundamentally takes seriously the irrational dimension of religious belief, no less real or meaningful for exceeding the limits of the purely rational. Faith, recall, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. And irreverence is not the same as blasphemy.

This kind of thing probably wouldn’t - probably couldn’t - come from orthodox believers, any more than it would appeal to them. It takes the sometimes crook-eye faith of the irreverent, or the non-conforming, or the outcast to go there. Or maybe it just takes somebody who has ceased to care about the opprobrium of - or rejection by - the faithful that inevitably comes when people insist that, in matters of the spirit, the transcendent and the absurd are not always so very far apart.

At any rate, I’ve always thought a warts-and-all musical about the way absurdity and transcendence intermingle on and off the southern gospel stage would, in the right hands and handled rightly, be a glorious thing to behold. Can somebody get on that please?

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  1. irishlad wrote:


  2. JM wrote:

    So, let me see if I’m getting this right: the NYT and NPR seem to agree that although a specific church (albeit a church some would call a cult) is having its’ basic identity, doctrine and sacraments publicly mocked and derided in this “work of art”, that’s acceptable because the members of the church, portrayed in the musical are so sincere in their belief. And their genuine dedication to their belief system raises the musical, as it shows the member’s nobility and whole-hearted belief.

    And, then, if I’m still getting this right, Doug suggests that it takes a person lacking faith to show a true reflection of what faith can mean and do.

    No thanks, Doug…you lost me when you tried to support your points by referencing those pillars of objectivity, the New York Times and National Public Radio. Besides which, I do not accept that the ends justifies the means. Coarseness, vulgarity, sacrilege and blasphemy can never be deemed acceptable…particularly to launch a scathing attack on anyone’s religious values. Perhaps this causes me to be thought of as a prude or unenlightened; but after 25 years in the halls of higher education, I’m a little spent in allowing the “educated and cultured” to dictate the terms of engagement in these skirmishes between modern society and Christian piety. Feel free to continue to rake muck…and please allow your readers to respond by shining our light in a darkened world.

  3. NG wrote:

    Never mind religious musicals, what we need in North America are government ministers demanding Southern Gospel Music like this fellow in Irishlad’s home country.

  4. NG wrote:

    USA Today (Elysa Gardner) ended review by saying: “Regardles of your spiritual inclinations — or lack thereof — you’re likely to leave The Book of Mormom a little happier for the experience.”

    Full review at:

  5. Hector Luna wrote:

    the creators of South Park have always been equal opportunist offenders towards race, religion, sexism, sexual orientation, politics, and everything else our natural world and culture have to offer us. debauchery? yes. but smart, creative, and relevant. i’ve seen numerous documentaries on “evangelicals” that were disturbing, yet funny and predominantly truthful. I don’t know if there was a revival in my heart, but there was a sense of “is this really what I believe and practice?”

    A Southern gospel musical would be a goldmine. We all love it or grew up on it, but we also see the the aspects that aren’t so thrilling, and somewhat embarrassing, cheesy, and unprofessional.

    Saw this the other day, this applies in the sphere of parody. A modern day worship service…

  6. Irishlad wrote:

    #3 He’s getting crucified for it. :(

  7. Irishlad wrote:

    Anyone suggest a title for our new Sg musical please?

  8. Ode wrote:

    5 , Hector Luna- Excellent points, i agree. Promoting religious music in a play has been a common, well-working practice since before humans learned to use toilet paper. It worked for them, it will for us. If done right, it would be great promo for the genre.Laughing at selves is a great tool to add humanity and humbleness to it.

    Little humor, inspiration, great music - should be excellent.The only thing - better make it a musical *movie*,not a play, if I understand the majority of fanbase good enough…

  9. Ode wrote:

    7, Irishlad, I can tell you what would work for Israelis -something like “Living Waters: Champagne taste on beer budget.” For quality white gospel is indeed, dirt cheap/increadibly high quality in comparison to.

    But I don’t know US/western people mentality very well yet So my sacrilegious (is that the right word?I kick faithless, bigoted religionists in the sack) mouthy self just suggests to take some popular musical of all times and re-adjust…

    Gentlemen prefer Suits
    Some like it Mild
    Willie Gaither and the Gospel Factory
    The Blackwood Brothers Picture Show
    Sunday morning Fever
    Kiss me, Kirk
    Hello, Vestal!
    Sound of Gospel Music
    The Phantom of the NQC
    Guys and Rolls

  10. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    Don’t get me wrong, because I think the South Park guys are brilliant satirists…but how exactly does a Broadway musical about Mormonism have any relevance to “Christian creative culture?” These are nonbelievers writing and producing a parody musical about other nonbelievers.

    I fail to see the connection.

  11. Irishlad wrote:

    #9 Ode :)
    #10 Look,you’re right,they’re just taking the piss.

  12. cdguy wrote:

    #9 Ode — I love your list. I may start writing one of these. lol

  13. Soli Deo Gloria wrote:

    For the record, I vote for Guys and Rolls because it works on so many levels…

  14. Irishlad wrote:

    Kiss me ,Kirk/Hairpiece bahahahahahaha.

  15. Ode wrote:

    :) Thanks for kind word, gentlemen. CDguy - beshah tova,good luck,may you start in good hour / God bless you with Shakespearean inspiration!
    I guess all names are covered.”Grease” fits, but sounds like an direct insult when applied to SG. I dont want to give old gals aneurisms.

    maybe add lotsa dancing pieces?LOL The love of “Dancing With Starts” is most hot and profound among deprived “we cant dance-so we watch!” SBs. (Hope they don’t apply the same logic to justify watching porn :)!

    If musical ever becomes reality - lets hope lovely silverheads know that at their age, every day on the right side of the sod is a good one, lose their idiosyncrasies and enjoy the show!

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