“I love this show. It has a beautiful heart.” – Baz Bamigboye, The London Daily Mail
Last month controversial musical The Book of Mormon won nine coveted Tony Awards, including Best Musical. With lyrics and libretto written by Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame, The Book of Mormon has been branded as the “The Best Musical of this Century” by Ben Brantley, New York Times. With a slightly more heretical hue, Peter Marks of the Washington Post added, “Matt and Trey: Where have you been all my life? The Book of Mormon deserves worship,” reinforcing the popularity and influence of this controversial musical. Despite the deep hurt and offense suffered by the Mormon community, wider popular culture seems to see something of deep significance and importance in this musical that should not be ignored.
What is this “heart,” and how could an explicit attack on an organised religion possibly be thought of with such deep affection?
As a theologian working with musical theatre I was intrigued by The Book of Mormon. Sensing that it is all too easy to be frightened of offensive art, I believe that rather than branding a musical such as this as heretical or theologically insignificant, we are called to engage with it seriously. I have not, therefore, chosen to condemn this musical theologically but rather to focus on one of the many positive themes it has to offer us. Having no connection to the Mormon tradition, I will be looking at how this musical is significant to the whole Christian tradition and what the larger Christian community can glean from it.
Self-proclaimed golden-boy of Mormonism Elder Kevin Price is a clear attempt of the writer’s use of the egocentric zealot stereotype for the sake of entertainment. Hoping that his mission will take him to Disneyland and horrified to find himself in Africa, Price’s selfishness provides an unsavoury representation of Christianity. His claim that he is going to do something that “blows God’s frickin’ mind” (“You and Me (But Mostly Me)”) may amuse certain audience members but it disappoints and concerns the Christian viewer. Price is set up for a fall, and misunderstanding God’s will, flees when the African community does not convert immediately.
Nevertheless all is not lost and Price undergoes a transformation that does not lead to atheism but to a deeper understanding of Christianity. Finally Price finds his true strength in God once he leaves his mission, expressed through the rousing musical number “I Believe.” It is at this stage, when reflecting on his faith and experience, that Price realises his great error, abandons his self-reliance and turns to God for guidance and assurance. Certainly this song embraces elements of the fantastical, as well as unduly attacking aspects of Mormonism for comedic effect but for those of us immune to expletives surely this is where the “heart” of The Book of Mormon lies.
This creedal statement positively asserts essential truths of the Christian faith without falling to mere mockery. Had the authors intended to create another musical number attacking theistic belief they certainly failed. Through this positive assertion of belief, Elder Price gains some of the respects of the audience that he failed to earn from the outset and to a certain extent can be seen as inspirational. For those approaching The Book of Mormon from a position of faith, the accusatory tone of “and a Mormon just believes” is diminished through an understanding of religious experience and commitment. Here we see a character who has fallen to the sin of pride but has repented and reformed before fulfilling his religious commitment to mission.
Many of us will recognise the character of Elder Price from our own religious communities and understand the dangers that lie behind his downfalls. Through criticising the religious zealot, The Book of Mormon not only informs how Christianity can be perceived but asks individual Christians if they share the sinful traits of this character. I believe that there are many other important issues raised by this musical, but for now I will leave you with Elder Price and suggest that you take care not to shy away from this provocative and fascinating musical. Just remember to tread carefully: do not believe all that it tells you and be sure to investigate the response from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.