Soliciting Essays for a Critical Collection on the BOM Musical

The official reaction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to The Book of Mormon, the musical from Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, consists of a single sentence: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

But the musical has done much more than merely attempt to entertain people for an evening: it regularly brings audiences to their feet in a wild ovation at its end, and it earned a whopping 14 Tony nominations, winning in nine of the categories it was nominated in, including “Best Musical.”

What is going on in this show? In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James states, “a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate.” Certainly the individuals in the BOM musical struggle with the crises of their fate; are any of the characters “great-souled”? What “revelations” are contained within the musical itself?

We seek essays of 4,000 to 6,000 words from a variety of disciplines for a critical anthology exploring this new musical phenomenon. Please send a 500-word abstract to by November 1.

Sunstone 2012 Preview

Comments on Andrew’s recent Why are Ex-Mormons So Angry (and other questions)? Part II thread discuss a possible MSP presence at Sunstone 2012, and wonder when it will be.

It’s scheduled for July 25-28 at the Olpin Student Union Building of the University of Utah campus. After quite a few years of being held over the first weekend in August, it was changed to the last week of July, so as not to coincide with the Outdoor Retailers Convention, which sucks up almost all the available hotel rooms and parking spaces in Salt Lake City. Plus if you show up to 2012’s symposium a day or two early, you can enjoy all the Pioneer Day shindigs, and who wouldn’t be down with that?

The theme will be “Mormons and Mormonism as a Political Force,” and yes, I thought of it. That’s right: the person the bloggernacle thinks is single-handedly ruining Sunstone came up with the themes for both 2011 and 2012.

I knew there would be plenty of people who saw immediately the vast possibilities of this theme — after all, pretty much every panel ever presented at Sunstone could be shaped to fit and support i t– but I was surprised by the men (and they were invariably men – perhaps because women who go to Sunstone are already familiar with the whole “the personal is political” argument) who reacted with irritation at how “narrow” the topic was. So I wrote this to explain its broader application:

Think beyond senators, governors, and candidates for president. Ask yourself: how do Mormons deliberately try to shape the social fabric that covers us all? How do they cooperate among themselves and with others to get what they want? What is the political and social fallout when Mormons organize, canvass, and vote in order to make an entire state or country “choose the right”? How do Mormons exemplify the feminist adage that “the personal is political”? In short, how do Mormons exercise, submit to, challenge, and understand power? (And can you really be both Republican and a good Mormon?)

Check out page 46 of the 2011 final program for an awesome illustration of a power fist sporting a CTR ring. Wouldn’t it be cool to have that on a t-shirt with the slogan “It’s personal. It’s political. It’s Mormon. Its Sunstone 2012.”?

To be clear: sessions need not fit the theme to be accepted. There are always a few requisite panels on polygamy no matter what the theme is. But it’s sort of cool to have a conversation about a particular topic, and to see how Sunstone can help shape and expand the discourse happening about it.

No official call for proposals has been issued yet, which means there’s also no deadline, but it will probably be around April of 2012. Mary Ellen has a folder for early submissions, and you can send her something right now if you want — I already did. :-)


Preview of Sunstone 2011 Utah Symposium

The Sunstone 2011 Utah Symposium convenes August 3-6 in the Shepherd Student Union of Weber State University in Ogden.*; the theme is “Mormon Artifacts and Material Culture.” (Yeah,that theme isa good one. I’ve liked it ever since I thought of it at last year’s symposium and suggested it to the symposium director, and I’m glad she went with it. I also like the theme for 2012, which I came up with as well: “Mormons and Mormonism as a Political Force,” which has the distinct virtue ofcovering just about EVERYTHING you can possibly think of.)

There are many sessions related to the theme, including

  • Games Mormons Play
  • Practicing Stewardship in a Consumer Culture
  • Mormonism and the Prosperity Gospel
  • “Prophet” as Artifact and Material Culture
  • Embodying Gender: How Mormon Material Culture Reflects and Shapes Gender Perceptions
  • From Diversity to Unity: The Transition of LDS Meetinghouses from Beautiful to Functional
  • Jon McNaughton, Mormon Artist/Right-Wing Propagandist
  • Basketball Under the Steeple: The Strange Design of Mormon Chapels
  • Redefining Kinship: Ancestor Worship in Mormon Culture
  • Habits of Being: Mormon Women and Inherited Material Culture
  • “I Am a Mormon” and “I Am a Scientologist”: Recent Marketing Efforts in Mormonism and Scientology
  • Mark Hofmann: 25 Years Later
  • Joseph and Emma Smith’s Nauvoo Mansion House: History and Mystery
  • The Changing Message of Kirtland Temple Tours 1830-2011
  • Made-Up Missionaries, Fake Faith, and Concocted Conversions: The Alchemy of The Book of Mormon Musical

There are also some sessions focusing on Mormon theology and belief that should prove interesting:

  • Dare We Question Scripture? (this devotional is presented by Dale E. Luffman, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in the Community of Christ. Based on what Ive heard from Dr. Luffman–who is identified as “Dale” rather than “Elder Luffman on the CofC website–I strongly suspect his answer will be yes. Imagine Packer saying such a thing.)
  • Theologizing in the Presence of Burning Children: Mormon Theology and the Absurd
  • Material Improvement: Explicit Statements on the Matter of Heavenly Mother
  • Do They Still Teach That?
  • Very Careless in his Utterances: Editing, Correcting, and Censoring Conference Addresses

And then there are sessions that aren’t quite on theme but still sound terrific:

  • Mormonism, Desire and Popular Romance: Constructions of Gender, Relationships, and Power
  • Long-Haired Preachers Come out Every Night: Mormonism’s Role in the Joe Hill Case
  • Millennial Mentality and Religious Relevance
  • Passive Aggression among Latter-day Saints: Evidence from the Wasatch Front
  • The Mormon Sex-Ed Project: Creating a Gospel-Based Resource for Healthy Sexuality
  • Mormon Wikipedia Content
  • Why Mormonism Can Abide Gay Marriage
  • Pursuing Truth Through Fiction:The Assassination of Governor Boggs,a Historical Novel

as well as a few of the requisite sessions on Joseph Smith, polygamy, etc.

The plenaries should be especially good this year. Thursday evening is dedicated to comedy; the session is titled “Parody Never Faileth: The Role of Humor, Satire, and Kitsch in Mormon Culture” and will include a slide show from the LOLDamuz for anyone unfortunate enough to not already know this thread.

Wednesday night is the Smith-Pettit lecture, an event that is always free and open to the public and must involve a speaker who is not Mormon. This year’s speaker is Dr. Colleen McDannell, who will speak on “Creating a Religious World of Things.” (Dr. McDannell’s book Material Christianityhas a chapter on garments that is really informative, insightful and useful.)

Saturday night’s banquet should be excellent. The topic is “Treasures of Earth on Heaven: The Impact of Mormonism’s Missing, Repudiated, Rebuilt, and Museum-Sequestered Artifacts.” Here’s the abstract:

A supremely important artifact to early Christians was the cross; slivers of it were cherished as the most valuable of relics. Over time, this object has been repudiated by Utah-based Latter-day Saints, who mark their most sacred buildings with a statue of Moroni rather than the symbol of the cross.

Arguably the most important artifact of Mormonism, the object on which its existence rests, is missing. We do not have the Golden Plates, and only a dozen men claimed having seen them (a servant woman who claimed Moroni showed her the plates was never taken seriously). Valuable because of their material, their age, and their content, the Golden Plates have been replaced by a mass-produced book valuable because of its content. Additional artifacts key to the Book of Mormons translation, the Urim and Thummim, are also missing.

Other artifacts and aspects of Mormon material culture were lost or abandoned as the Saints migrated from place to place. In recent years, however, some of these historical edifices have been rebuilt. A temple was constructed on the site of the first Nauvoo Temple; its exterior matches the original, though the interior does not. Historic Kirtland is a meticulous reconstruction of a community that includes a sawmill, a store, a schoolhouse, and an inn. And while some Latter-day Saints retain and cherish family heirlooms and personal items so imbued with spiritual significancepeep stones, or handkerchiefs or canes blessed with the power to healthat they become religious artifacts, such items are increasingly sequestered in museums.

What do these missing, rebuilt, repudiated, or sequestered artifacts mean to a people profoundly interested in documenting and preserving their material culture? How is meaning created by these objects? How do we understand the various meanings when the objects we’ve created are damaged by moth or rust, or stolen by thieves? How does meaning shift when those objects are lost and replaced by something elseleather-bound and gilt-edged Books of Mormon replacing the Golden Plates, for instance, or a modern LDS temple built on the site of a much older and very different building? How do these treasures of heaven on earth help us understand both heaven and earth?

Dr. McDannell will moderate the discussion. Dr. Luffman will discuss the absence ofGold Plates; Allen Roberts(a senior pinrcipal architect with CRSA and one of the original founders of SUNSTONE) will discus recreated Mormon buildings; D. Michael Quinn will discuss personal artifacts and items with religious significance that end up in museums, sequestered away from the uses that made them valuable; Michael G. Reed, who has a book forthcoming on the topic,will discuss the cross as a repudiated artifact in Mormon iconography.

There are also workshops available on Wednesday on topics ranging from “Losing Our Religion: Mormonism’s Vanishing Christology” to “A Crisis of Faith and Attachment Injuries in an LDS Marriages” to “Our Rich Meetinghouse Heritage: An Ogden Tour of LDS Architecture.”

Pre-registration ends July 29th. If you can’t attend the entire symposium, you can buy a ticket for one day or even one session. Please come!



*Yes, this is the first time the symposium has been held in Ogden. Sunstone’s traditional venue double-booked its space, and Sunstone was forced to move. Despite the difficulty of finding a new space on fairly short notice, there are some very nice things about the Weber location, including free childcare and wifi throughout the entire conference space, plus really cheap accommodations thanks to the availability of dorm rooms. I hear the 20-somethings are planning to party well into each and every night.

BOM: The Most Correct of Any Musical?

Joseph Smith famously declared that “The Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth,” which was not to say that it was without error, but simply that “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

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. As Invictus Pilgrim notes, it’s “ironic that others outside the Church are opening up windows into our collective soul so that we can examine ourselves as a people, culture, religion and church.”

On our respective personal blogs, Chanson and I had a conversation recently about things the BOM musical got absolutely right. This conversation was prompted in part by a comment I made here about the extent to which Matt Stone and Trey Parker have done their homework:

Parker and Stone have talked about doing and obviously indeed do a great deal of research and fact-checking about Mormon doctrines, attitudes and behaviors. Their interest is in portraying Mormons accuratelyincluding their contradictions, such as their arrogant nicenessinstead of reinforcing the basic tenets of the faith and avoiding raising difficult questions. So its not surprising that their portrait of Mormons is faithful and accurate as opposed to faith-promoting and proper.

The conversation was furthered by J. Max Wilson’s outraged response on Millennial Star to the soundtrack–he dismissed it as anti-Mormon dreck, and part of what made him angriest is that the soundtrack did not present Mormons in the flattering, faith-promoting light he thinks they should be shown in.

For instance, he objected to the fact that “the elders in the songs talk about bringing people to the church, but not about Christ or the Atonement at all.” But that is of course an attitude Mormon children are explicitly taught to hold through the well-known Primary song “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission.”

I hope they call me on a mission
When I have grown a foot or two
I hope by then I will be ready
To teach and preach and work as missionaries do

I hope that I can share the gospel
With those who want to know the truth
I want to be a missionary
And serve and help the Lord while I am in my youth

Check out these two videos to see just how much Christ factors in to a typical missionary’s experience of a mission–or an LDS depiction of such.

The second video is earnest rather than humorous, but its focus is also entirely on the missionaries themselves, their development, their character. There is not a single reference in either video, either by word or image (aside from the word “Lord” in the lyrics to “I Hope They Call”,” which is used interchangeably for God and Jesus in Mormondom) to Christ and the atonement.

If Mormons don’t refer to Christ and the atonement in their own songs and depictions of missionary life, it’s hardly appropriate to expect others to do so.

Wilson particularly objected to “Baptize Me,” which he writes is “one of the most offensive songs [and] actually had no profanity at all. In it the missionary and a woman they have been teaching sing about baptism using terminology meant toexplicitlyinvoke the idiom of a first sexual encounter.”

Chanson notes, “Teen girls with crushes on the mishies are a well-known component of the mission experience. But the fact that they’re portraying something real doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not it’s ‘anti-Mormon.'”

OK, the show gets some things wrong. There’s a moment at the beginning of Joseph Smith American Moses where the mission president (dressed in a horrible dung-colored suit with a pin-stripe plaid forming huge boxes on his pants–a really nice touch, because it marks him as so different from the elders) interjects “Praise Christ” into the conversation, something no properly acculturated Mormon would ever say. (What do we interject when we want to show religious agreement, by the way? “Oh, how special”? I honestly can’t think of anything right now.) It’s an odd moment that jars every time it comes up. But such moments are frankly rare.

S0–Chanson and I both feel that the soundtrack nails Mormon experience in many ways, and offers us a lot of insights into our culture and thought. Anyone else care to add to the list of things the show gets right?