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?Email this Post