The profound truths of the Book of Mormon

A few weeks ago — after more than two years of loving the album — I finally got to see God’s favorite musical performed live! I love all of the songs, and in particular, I think that the song You and Me (But Mostly Me) is my #1 favorite Broadway show tune of all time. It’s not just clever and funny — I love it because it so perfectly captures my own Mormon experience. I’m happy to enjoy the abstract beauty of music, but I really love songs that express real emotions — songs I can sing with my whole heart.

In this case, as I’ve said:

it was listening to “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” that made my whole youth and childhood pass before my eyes. Standing there, happy to supportively sing “my best friend…” while somebody Awesome! sings his heart out about serving God. [..] I completely agree with Holly’s assessment that this would be perfect sung as a duet between a young LDS guy and his fiancee. I don’t think that’s reading anything into it that’s not there. Hierarchy colors so much about Mormon interpersonal relationships. And the (officially unequal) partnership between missionaries sets the model for marriage.

One point that is pure genius is the fact that their unequal relationship isn’t quite the central focus of the song. The leader’s earnest desire to do something great for mankind and God is as central (if not moreso). And the fact it’s tied in with his own ego is winked at. [...]

focusing the song on his grand dream — that is exactly the right way to illustrate it. There are probably songs where the subordinate sings about his/her feelings about being in someone’s shadow. But that’s wrong. As soon as you shine the spotlight on the subordinate’s feelings, then s/he’s now in the spotlight — and you’ve completely missed the boat on portraying what it’s like in the shadow.

And I loved seeing the visual, where — as soon as Elder Price went into his heartfelt song about how he’ll do something incredible — a backdrop was added to highlight him, and Elder Cunningham had to awkwardly go around it in order to be visible on the stage and continue singing his admiration for his best friend. ;)

Many people had a similar reaction to the song “Turn it off”. The tremendous pressure not to simply act happy but to be happy (no matter what) can train people to turn off feelings “that just don’t seem right” — and those people felt the song really validated their experiences.

As a wise person once said: “The Book of Mormon musical is not without error, but it seems to me that a person can get closer to Mormons by studying it than by just about any other work about Mormons.”

This post so far has been essentially review, but I have a few new points I’d like to discuss that weren’t covered in the earlier posts I’ve read and written. I don’t promise to avoid spoilers, so don’t read this if you don’t want the musical spoiled for you (and there’s something to be said for that — there are some really funny surprises!)

Spooky Mormon Hell Dream

We’ve talked about how it’s true that Mormons are often plagued by irrational guilt over minor offenses, but my initial objection to this song was even more basic: As soon as I read the song titles, my first thought was, “O M Gosh, don’t they know that Mormons don’t believe in Hell?”

Buuuuut… Mormons do believe that Satan literally exists and is a real being with demonic fallen-spirit minions that try to harm and tempt the faithful. Mormons don’t believe in Hell in the sense that they don’t believe that the less-saved will be tortured for eternity (they’ll simply be less rewarded and prevented from progressing). But “Hell” is in the scriptures, and it actually does have meaning for Mormons. Look it up in your LDS Bible Dictionary, and you’ll see that Hell is the name of the realm of Satan, and it is also used as a word for the spirit prison where the spirits of unrighteous dead people await the day of judgement. If they’d had someone use the term “Spirit Prison” in reference to the dream at some point in the play, the impression of inaccuracy would evaporate.

Like most Mormon Theology, the concept of Spirit Prison is kind of vague, so there’s a lot of room for speculation, but being trapped in a place with Lucifer and demons and the spirits of dead evil people basically captures the essence of it.

Can you leave your mission?

I vaguely remember reading a complaint on a faithful LDS blog that the musical gives the impression that you can request to be transferred to another mission if you’re not happy with the one you got. There’s definitely something to that complaint — like why’d they have Elder Price say, “We don’t really have final say over where we get sent.”…? They don’t have any say at all.

But missionaries having breakdowns and/or running away from their missions (like Elder Price did in the play) really happens. I don’t think the play has the responsibility to take the audience aside and explain, “If Elder Price had succeeded in getting to the Mission President to request a transfer to Orlando, he wouldn’t have gotten it — Mormon missions don’t work that way.” It’s a story, not a documentary.

The making of a prophet

One of the principal themes of the story is essentially a response to C. S. Lewis’s trilemma about what Jesus must have been: “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord.” The obvious problem with the trilemma is that those aren’t the only possibilities — I can think of two others that are more likely than those three.

In Jesus’ case, everything we know about him was filtered through a few decades of the game of telephone before being written down — and in particular we have only tales written by his followers. Even if nobody intentionally lied, it’s just the way that memory works that — as the group increasingly moves towards the belief that their founder was a messiah, and maybe even a God — that colors the way they remember the things he did and said. This principle is illustrated in the way Joseph Smith was elevated by his followers to almost divine stature shortly after his death (see Praise to the Man), and it was also hilariously illustrated in The Life of Brian, where Brian’s followers attach profound meaning to every random thing Brian does once they’ve decided he’s the messiah. I don’t think that we have sufficient evidence to conclusively state that the historical Jesus claimed divinity during his lifetime.

The fifth possibility (in the now quintelemma) is illustrated by Elder Cunningham in the play. He understands that he’s “making things up again, kind of” and that he’s “taking the holy word and adding fiction.” But he feels that it’s justified as he sees that his teachings are helping people. His ego is a part of it, but he’s not a cynical, lying con-man. Instead he begins to believe that he’s called and inspired to help people by teaching them his new doctrines. As I recall, this is essentially the portrait Fawn Brodie painted of Joseph Smith in her groundbreaking work No Man Knows My History. In a recent podcast, my brother described Joseph Smith’s motivation in much the same way, as an explanation for why it’s reasonable to venerate the Book of Mormon as a holy book even though Joseph Smith was aware that he was making it up. The same scenario might also apply to the historical Jesus, though, really, so little is conclusively known about what he actually taught that we can’t do much more than speculate about him and make educated guesses based on what we know about religious leaders that we have more information about.

Tomorrow is a Latter Day!

After Elder Price gets tired of Elder Cunningham constantly chirping “Tomorrow is a latter day!” he explains to Elder Cunningham that the term “Latter-day” refers to the afterlife.

Wrong. In terms of inaccuracy, that ranks right up there with having the Mission President randomly interject “Praise Christ” in discussion. The term “Latter-day” refers to the millennialist belief that we are living in the last days before the second coming of Jesus.

But, if you’ve been following General Conference, you probably know that the CoJCoL-dS has been toning down the millennialist rhetoric. So maybe it’s helpful to come up with an alternative interpretation. Plus, I thought the whole “Tomorrow is a latter day!” thing was cute and clever.

Also, I think this one is probably more a case of artistic license (changing their fictional version of Mormonism to fit the story) than it was an error. The “wrong” line was included as a setup for a very nice line in the finale:

What happens when we’re dead?
We shouldn’t think that far ahead!
The only latter day that matters is tomorrow.

Who gets to be a Mormon?

In the play, after the Mission President learns that the missionaries in Uganda have been teaching a bunch of new, made-up doctrines, he closes up the mission, sends the mishies home, and tells the new converts that they’re not Latter-day Saints.

Could that really happen?

Yes, it could. If a part of a mission goes rogue and forms a new sub-sect of Mormonism, the mission can be reorganized (in such a way that the offending parties are excommunicated). The story is unrealistic in the sense that LDS missions are generally in close contact with headquarters in Salt Lake, so there’s little chance of a sub-sect forming. But if an isolated zone started teaching all new doctrines like in the musical, the Mission President (after conferring with headquarters) would close it up, send the mishies home, and excommunicate the ringleaders.

On a more “everyday experience” level, the incident in the story highlights a profound truth about being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The leadership hierarchy gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. They can and do kick people out, and there is a strong cultural belief that you have no right to consider yourself “Mormon” if you don’t believe in the divine authority of the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

People (like me!) fight against the idea that the hierarchy of the CoJCoL-dS gets to decide who’s “Mormon” and who’s not. The CoJCoL-dS doesn’t own the term “Mormon” and they’re not even the only “Mormon church” — they’re simply the biggest, most visible one. But the idea is really ingrained, so if you’re a non-believer, it’s very hard to identify as any kind of Mormon except “ex-Mormon” or “post-Mormon.” That’s why I love the lines leading up to the finale. After the Mission President has told the missionaries and their converts that they’re not Latter-day Saints, Elder Price explains:

We are still Latter-day Saints. All of us. Even if we changed a few things, or break the rules, or have complete doubt that God exists… We can still work together to make this our paradise planet.

And we can! :D

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12 Comments

  1. 1
    Holly says:

    What a terrific analysis and review! I will have to read and think about this more carefully before I respond in any detail, but I wanted to thank you for mentioning this:

    As a wise person once said: “The Book of Mormon musical is not without error, but it seems to me that a person can get closer to Mormons by studying it than by just about any other work about Mormons.”

    I read that and thought, “That’s awesome! I wish I had sad that!” I was delighted to click on the link and discover that I had. :-)

       0 likes

  2. 2
    chanson says:

    @1 lol, and thanks!

       0 likes

  3. 3
    Donna Banta says:

    Terrific review/commentary.

    I loved watching the evolution of Elder Price. He starts out determined to save the world, is disappointed when he can’t, tries to leave, and then is guilted into staying by a scary dream that ends with his disgusted declaration, “I can’t believe Jesus called me a d*&k.” He rededicates himself in a disastrous testimony bearing experience and then gives up again, drowning his sorrows at a coffee bar before he has his final epiphany as you describe above. It really is how it works for many of us.

       1 likes

  4. 4
    Holly says:

    The fifth possibility (in the now quintelemma) is illustrated by Elder Cunningham in the play. He understands that he’s “making things up again, kind of” and that he’s “taking the holy word and adding fiction.” But he feels that it’s justified as he sees that his teachings are helping people. His ego is a part of it, but he’s not a cynical, lying con-man. Instead he begins to believe that he’s called and inspired to help people by teaching them his new doctrines.

    Supposedly this is what’s going on with a guy named Christopher Marc Nemelka. I found out about him when I discovered the big fancy headstone someone paid to have installed for him in the SLC cemetery–and he’s not even dead! It’s in the southwest region of the cemetery, in an area with members of the family of Hyrum Smith (or monuments to members buried elsewhere), whose reincarnation he claims to be.

    Here’s a youtube clip showing the dedication of the headstone and showing what Nemelka is supposedly about. it’s pretty boring, but if you listen to it all, you get to laugh at what Nemelka touts as “proof” of his claims–it’s so murky I can’t even really say what it is.

    Anyway, I know someone who interviewed Nemelka. Eventually Nemelka grew embarrassed by the questions he was being asked and the answers it required him to give, and he said something like, “Look, this is completely off the record, but what I’m really doing is trying to offer people a better story than the destructive one in Mormonism. I know my story sound nuts to most people and I don’t really expect to convince very many, but the people who believe me need me.”

       0 likes

  5. 5
    Holly says:

    re: the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream–yeah, it sorta doesn’t quite work for me, either, but the way I quiet my objections is simply by reminding myself that dreams are often bizarre and illogical, and that it purports to be a SPOOKY Mormon hell dream, not a theologically accurate one. :-)

       1 likes

  6. 6
    chanson says:

    @3 I loved that too!!!

    Nabulungi also has a very familiar faith journey: She starts out believing in what she’s being taught, and feels hurt and betrayed when she discovers that it’s not true. Then, when she tells the others about what she’s learned, instead of agreeing with her, they basically tell her that she was the foolish one for believing the teachings were supposed to be literally true in the first place…

    Unrelated

       2 likes

  7. 7
    chanson says:

    @4 Right — it’s not such a far-fetched interpretation of a prophet’s mindset, as your real-life example illustrates.

    And, as you would expect, people from the Mormon tradition have an unusually high rate of claiming to be prophets and writing their own scriptures. Growing up on the Joseph Smith story, it’s hard to avoid wanting to “do something incredible and be Joseph Smith again”!

    (I think Daymon Smith once posted a list of such scriptures, but I’m not having any luck googling it at the moment.)

    @5 Right, that too. The Mormon tradition has enough devil and hell imagery to prompt such a dream. And Elder Price never suggests that he’s afraid he’s really going to hell. Even during the dream, he’s just upset about being trapped in this spooky dream.

       1 likes

  8. 8
    chanson says:

    Following up on my last comment, here are the two posts listing off modern Mormon-inspired scriptures:

    Man, I knew the post-Joseph Smith Mormon output was prolific, but this is just absurd: officially global, and almost all done in the last two decades. There’s now many thousands of “scripture” attributed to Mormons (LDS or not).

    Also, the “Unrelated” @6 was supposed to be continued with the following unrelated spoiler:

    One visual gag that was a fun surprise that I didn’t get from the album alone was the thing about the “golden plates.” In the first part of the musical, the golden plates prop used in the historical flashbacks looked just like the usual artist’s rendition of the golden plates (from JS’s description). But in the Africans’ version they’re dinner plates. ;)

       0 likes

  9. 9
    Holly says:

    One visual gag

    I liked all the lights on jesus, or when the lights go out a la the clapper in “Turn It Off,” only to come back on and reveal the guys in pink sequined vests.

       0 likes

  10. 10
    chanson says:

    @9 Yeah, I liked that one too. :D

       0 likes

  11. 11
    chanson says:

    OMG, the perfect illustration for “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

       1 likes

  12. 12
    Holly says:

    that’s great!

       0 likes

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