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?
Regarding “Baptize Me” — one of the guys on the Reddit expressed this point way better than I did:
perfect. Factor in the whole MOM thing, of people planning to spend eternity having sex with someone they don’t desire sexually, and this new “Ask Mormon Girl” query from a young Mormon woman overwhelmed with guilt because she’s really, really aroused by her fiance, and you start think that maybe the BOM(M) depiction of Mormon dysfunctionality is actually too mild and forgiving.
Anyone else care to add to the list of things the show gets right?
Here’s something else they got right: the pervasiveness of cognitive dissonance among Mormons. Belief in the Church’s truth claims is “as fragile as a moonbeam” according to David O. McKay. The musical shows how much effort is spent denying contrary evidence. I think this is a fundamental aspect of the LDS experience and certainly something I related to when I heard the soundtrack.
I had never heard this.
You’d think a conviction of God’s perfect truth would be a little more unassailable.
But at least that’s a good response for people who suggest that anyone who disagrees with the church’s claims still somehow knows in their hearts that everything they’re arguing against is “true.”
The “praise Christ” thing kind of jumped out at me as well, but they actually got a whole lot of the terminology right. Saying “Heavenly Father” for God (as you noted), and — after easing people in with the (incorrect) term “mission brother” they switch to “companion.”
They also got a lot of more substantial points right. I loved the way — in “I Believe” — they have Elder Price paraphrase a famous quote from Nephi (and a couple of other scriptures that Mormons in particular love). They didn’t have to do that if they didn’t care about accuracy.
(Side note: It makes me hope that “hasa diga eebowai” is a real translation and not just nonsense syllables…)
They correctly showed that leaving your mission companion alone is a very big deal. I know some other film (Latter Days?) drew complaints from Mormon blogs for showing the companions going their separate ways without giving it a second thought.
Even though missionaries don’t all line up and get assigned locations and companions in the MTC, this musical correctly shows that that they don’t choose who they serve with and where they’ll go — and often hope for certain destinations, but feel expected to be thrilled by whichever call they get.
Like I said, I could go on like this all day. Whether or not this is the most correct musical, it is absolutely my all-time favorite musical!! (And that’s just hearing the songs!)
Too many things to list, really. Many of the characters and their motivations were archetypes and therefore don’t represent EVERYone but are certainly patterns that I recognized:
*The missionary who has never read the BOM, but is only going on a mission to gain acceptance from his parents
*The arrogant, cocksure missionary who has prepared all his life to be the mission hero… ’cause the way a mission is marketed to youth it really is all about them.
*The emphasis on baptisms. Did you see the scoreboard in the missionary apt? Who didn’t have that on their mission?
*The attraction of the local girls. My first companion eloped (read my blog). I had girls flirt with me, like spreading their legs as I was teaching them, etc… Families taking the discussion so that we’d meet their 17 year old daughter. About 10 % of the missionaries were unaffected (gay like me) and for the rest it was a significant part of their mission experience.
*The investigators hearing something entirely different than what we were teaching and our message being so utterly out of place for their lives.
*The play that the new Ugandan members put on was genius. Watching the M Pres watch it captured that same uncomfortable emotion we’d feel when we brought one of our investigators to Fast and Testimony meeting and one of the members would get up and spout some esoteric, weird LDS doctrine (but true). It’s the same experience but in reverse.
*Turn it off = put it on the shelf
*Spooky Mormon Hell Dream – I served in the MTC while attending BYU and almost all the missionaries obsess over past sins and trivial infractions like that. OK, so Mormons don’t actually believe in that kind of hell, but allowing some artistic license, that number was spot on.
* Mormon muppet-like characters…that many Mormons are Orlando-like showy, happy, glossy on the surface is exactly what made Parker and Stone recognize them as the perfect characters for a Broadway musical. And anyone who has ever known a Mormon gets that part of the play if nothing else.
*Clueless – I love how the missionaries in the show sometimes say things so blatantly offensive and out of place that it ends up being loveable… And they have no idea they are doing it. I tried to explain to my nephew once why the “Apostasy” was offensive to someone in another religion. He didn’t get it just like Elder Price doesn’t get why the warlord reacts the way he does (Hehe).
I could go on….
Parker and Stone specifically talked about that in their NPR interview, how the whole Mormon attitude is like Disney and a Broadway musical. And I could do nothing but smile and nod and know that they get it. I wrote about loving that aspect of Mormonism myself, growing up.
Sorry about the videos embeds. As a new blogger here, I’m having trouble making them work, and I lose them every time I change even text. I noticed a misspelling I needed to correct, and as a result lost the videos and can’t restore them. In case you want to check them out, here are links:
#1 I Hope They Call Me on a Mission http://youtu.be/VlnxipOf9WY
#2 Missionary Medley http://youtu.be/5O2EQgHECl4
#3 Baptize Me http://youtu.be/LUZizkPCjfs
Hadn’t quite thought of this, but it’s a good way of framing the issue. Nice.
Do you think the scripture crawl from the D&C at the end of the second video got it right when it said, ” …he that thrustest in his sickle with is might … bringeth slavation to his soul”?
I realize what’s intended but could the ironic reference to allowing oneself to become enslaved be a bit too much on point?
Actually the “praise Jesus” thing is pretty prominent in the BofM, particularly in the Ammon story. And it wasn’t that many years ago when most missionaries read the BofM for the first time on their mission.
First, much of the story hinges on the fact that Elder Cunningham has never read the BOM and can’t bring himself to do it even as a missionary because it’s just too deadly dull.
Second, it’s a middle-aged mission prez who says “Praise Christ,” and he would not have been reading the BOM for the first time before getting shipped to Uganda.
Finally, plenty of things are written in LDS scripture that are not part of our standard script for expressing or discussing our own faith.
We all know that Mormons do not interject “praise Christ” into our conversations and haven’t for at least 50 years, and that is the salient point.
Even if Mormons wouldn’t typically interject “Praise Christ” (and I can’t think of a Mormon alternative either), there was other terminology they got right (in addition to the ones mentioned earlier):
* References to Satan and Lucifer as a personified being. The line “Satan’s got a hold of France!” always makes me chuckle — a very Mormon sentiment!
* Even though the musical is loaded with profanity, the Mormons never use any. Instead there are realistic uses of words like “dangit!” “by gosh!” “freakin'” (for super emphasis), and fun retro words like “nifty”
Some more Mormon cultural points they got right:
* It’s the All-American religion (as much as they try and try to shake it)
* The young people secretly dream of becoming a prophet like Joseph Smith — very realistic IMHO.
* In “I Believe” — he describes how if you ask in faith God will let you know, “You’ll know it’s all true, you’ll just feel it.”
Also note: I understand that in “I Believe” Elder Price is bravely risking his own safety while passionately singing about his faith and about how his faith is driving him to action. If a faithful Mormon were to put a similar song in a Mormon-approved faith-promoting piece, it would come off as embarrassing propaganda. But in this warts-and-all portrait, it works — you can feel the passion of his faith.
In general, I can see why people have a more positive attitude towards Mormons after watching this musical. The Mormons aren’t portrayed as perfect (or even perfectly-trying-despite-weakness), and they aren’t portrayed as one-note villains either. They’re not portrayed as having something exceptional that sets them apart from all people. They’re sympathetic, they’re realistic (despite comic exaggeration), and they’re very human.
The point is, or at least my point is, that it is a good assumption that Parker and Stone actually read the BofM and drew from it. The religious practices (and Church government) in the BofM don’t resemble Church practices at all today. Yes, of course, in the day of somber telepromt speeches “praise Christ” grates on the ears of today’s LDS, but I wonder why it doesn’t when they read the BofM. And that causes me to think Church members don’t read the BofM, they read into it, in the same way they reject the musical’s portrayal of their culture.
That moonbeam reference is fascinating, MoHo. I looked it up and found the reference:
Testimony isn’t something you have today, and you are going to have always. A testimony is fragile. It is as hard to hold as a moonbeam. It is something you have to recapture every day of your life.
( Church News, July 15, 1972, 4. )
It’s the last quote on the bottom of the page.
Well, OK. At one point the show included a mention of Abinadi.
But a good show has a good dramaturge, who will engage in fact-checking and get rid of things that interfere with the willing suspension of disbelief, and that moment does. It drags you out of the world the show creates, and makes you go, “Oh, fact-check failure.” Admittedly, not to the point that your pleasure in the show is ruined, but it goes against what that character would actually do.
Moreover, the show is about how refusing to be faithful to religious texts opens up more possibility for meaning and truth than religious orthodoxy does. So by trying to root this odd, jarring moment in the Book of Mormon, you’re missing a major point of the show.
there are no fuck frogs in the Book of Mormon, but the point is not that there are, but that the character Arnold Cunningham, confronted with a man who wants to rape a baby, might invent one.
There might be people who say “praise Jesus” in the Book of Mormon, but the point is, confronted with a play about the organization of the church, no LDS mission president would say, “Praise Christ.”
It’s about artistic and psychological authenticity, not religious orthodoxy.
I like that observation a lot. I also love that the song, although a solo, has a lot of backup singing. (I LOVE when the chorus echoes “Black people!”) As I observed in a radio interview about show, in a religion where you’re told that the angels might read your journal, it makes perfect sense to have an invisible choir back you up while you fervently sing your testimony.
that is a wonderful insight.
Regarding their portrait of Mormons as human rather than exceptional:
I was thinking about this because of our recent discussion about the value of trying to portray a specific milieu accurately. As I said here, I believe the adage that often the best art achieves universality by rendering with great fidelity a specific milieu.
Then it hit me that that was the point about Stephen Carter’s memoir that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He didn’t try to portray Mormons or Mormonism as perfect, but he did seem to want to portray the Mormon experience as exceptional — like some of his stories are experiences that you just won’t have if you haven’t held the true priesthood. And that puts distance between the story and the audience.
Then, a couple days later, I was reading an old Sunstone and found that Johnny Townsend had said almost exactly the same thing about Mormon lit in general:
I was struck by the coincidence, so I immediately shot him off an email, and he agreed with me that this is a big part of why the Book of Mormon musical is so fantastic.
Yes, yes, yes! I can’t be enthusiastic enough about your point.
Can you give me a citation for the Sunstone article, Chanson? I’ll want to use that statement from Johnny myself.
One reason I am such a fan of the BOM(M) is that it’s the first thing I’ve ever seen that’s really, truly about me and my experience as a missionary. But that hasn’t stopped me from searching for close approximations. I have a fascination with combat memoir, because that’s the closest thing I can find to what it felt like to be a missionary: volunteering for an enterprise you think will help make the world a better place, and then you discover to your horror that it’s actually all about conformity and destruction.
I think it’s in the NPR interview you link to, chanson, that Parker and Stone call “Hasa Diga Eebowai” a “welcome to Vietnam” number. That made me sit up and say, “Ah!” because it showed me that they really do get what a foreign mission can mean in terms of a very young adult’s psychological development.
Frankly, his whole interview had me going “Yes, yes, yes!” It’s from the December 2010 issue. (OK, so I exaggerated a bit calling it old — really I meant I’d received it several months ago, but didn’t bother reading it until after I’d read the following issue.)
Yes, it is. It’s a fantastic interview — my only complaint is that I had so many more questions I wanted to ask them!!
Re #15– Thanks, Hellmut, for looking up the reference. For the record, I misattributed it. It was actually said by Harold B. Lee, not David O. McKay.
Re #18– I thought of Johnny Townsend, too, in connection with this discussion. I recently read his book of short stories called Mormon Underwear. His humorous, offbeat interpretation of Mormon culture reminds me in a way of the BOM musical.
“I have a fascination with combat memoir, because thats the closest thing I can find to what it felt like to be a missionary: volunteering for an enterprise you think will help make the world a better place, and then you discover to your horror that its actually all about conformity and destruction.”
Wow, Holly! That is so freakin’ insightful.
Listening to this musical has been a way for me to pass a little bit of “cultural Mormonism” along to my kids. They’ve picked up on how the songs fit together in a story, and last night Nico asked me to explain how the story works and how all of the songs fit into it.
It turns out they weren’t aware of even the most rudimentary points like (1) Grandma’s church is called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (2) its members are called “Mormons” (2) Mommy (me) was raised in this church — that when I was a kid, our Sunday family activity wasn’t hiking in the woods, it was going to church. Every Sunday.
re: Johnny Townsend–yes, I’ve thought of him as well in this discussion. I just wrote an interview with him–we’ll see if my editor likes it.
@23 I’ve liked how the soundtrack has allowed me to discuss Mormonism with all sorts of friends who never were open to conversations about it before. It sort of creates this huge missionary opportunity–except without the goal of anyone converting. 🙂
Speaking of insightful lines (Like “Listen to that fat white guy”), I love the line where Moroni says “We were Jews, but with Christ we were All-American!” I can hardly imagine a better one-sentence summary of the Book of Mormon (unless one somehow managed to also mention all the battles…).
I love the end of “American Moses” where the Mormons arrive in Salt Lake City and Jesus commands them to make big Mormon families — then they happily dance and sing “Fuck your woman, fuck your man — it is all part of God’s plan.” They’re joking, but it’s funny because it’s accurate. According to [Mormon] God’s plan everyone must physically, heterosexually reproduce.
I also like the line where Elder Cunningham says “Come on, Hobbits!” Just because. 😉
My kids love the end bit where the Africans become missionaries. They’re particularly partial to “Hello, you have a lovely mud-hut, and if you’ll just put down that gun, I’ll show you– Oh, OK, I’ll leave.” and “Hello, I’m Elder Butt-fucking-naked.”
Some might think I’m a bad mom for encouraging eight-and-nine-year-old kids to listen to something so full of profanity and adult topics. But they don’t pick up on stuff that’s over their heads (like the references to FGM), they just get that General Butt-fucking-naked is a villain (who “turns nice” in the end, to use kid terminology), And they understand that the people have a lot of horrible problems, but they’re also doing some things that make their problems worse (which Elder Cunningham convinces them to stop doing, by making up stories).
As for the profanity, the show actually reinforces their experience. When the Africans sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” one of the guys says to them “Excuse me, sir, but you should really not be saying that!” That’s another one of my kids’ favorite lines.
Is Johnny Cochran (sp) really villified in mormonism? He is mentioned in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think most mormons have an opinion about him, at least most wouldn’t say he was in hell- the same place as Hitler or Stalin or Mao….
I think that’s simply meant to be a joke — and not necessarily a Mormon-specific joke.
They have Elder Price follow up by saying, “You think that’s bad, I broke Rule seventy-two” — then Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahlmer, and Johnny Cochran all audibly gasp! — “I left my companion, I’m way worse than you!” Clearly they don’t mean that a Mormon would really weight their respective crimes in this way. 😉
I’m with your boys, Chanson–I also love the “Oh, OK, I’ll leave” line.
I wondered how that line would play just on the soundtrack. When EC says it, there are a group of hobbits chastising him for lying–just as his dad and Joseph Smith have done moments earlier.
I was sorry to learn,via this video, that “Hasa Diga Eebowai” is made-up nonsense and means “fuck you, God” only in BOM-musical-ese.
But the video shows one thing the musical gets right that you can’t discern from the soundtrack: the Mormon smile. My first impression of Mormon guy I ended up dating was to be scared and wonder how I’d picked up a stalker because when I first met him he was smiling precisely the smile Elder Price has glued to his face when the curtains open.
And while I think most Mormons know, intellectually, their sins are not as bad as Hitler’s or Jeffrey Dahmer’s, emotionally things are very different. I don’t think I’m the only Mormon overwhelmed by remorse and shame for what I eventually realized were trivial infractions. Devout believers often feel disproportionate guilt and don’t always have a realistic sense of the weight of sins. Someone I know initially asserted that getting shit-faced drunk when his wife was away would be just as bad as cheating on her. He quickly admitted that probably wasn’t true, but the initial statement was completely sincere.
That’s part of why it’s funny on the sound-track. It’s obvious from context that his dad and Joseph Smith aren’t really there, and he’s debating his own imaginary specters. But in the soundtrack alone you can’t see who else is there, so it’s funny to discover that there’s a chorus of Hobbits chastising him too (and Yoda).
There’s one other thing I was wondering about that you can’t see from the songs alone:
When Elder Cunningham is baptizing the female lead (who — as far as I can tell — is not named aloud in any of the songs), and he says “I hold you like this,” does he raise his right arm to the square?
I don’t remember, and I have been trying to. It was hard to see–they did something to create a pond or something where the baptism could happen…. but there’s no prayer, and that’s when the baptizer raises his hand. I think that when the rest of the villagers are baptized in a scene without any dialogue, there was more going on in terms of actions and pantomime. But I can’t say for sure.
I do remember that no one being baptized was dressed entirely in white–instead, they wore white dresses with embroidery or some such thing. Only the elders wore nothing but white.
Oh. The female lead is named Nabulungi. One of the jokes is that Elder Cunningham can’t remember her name and calls her Noxzema, Neosporin, Neutrogena and Nala.
“When Elder Cunningham is baptizing the female lead (who as far as I can tell is not named aloud in any of the songs), and he says I hold you like this, does he raise his right arm to the square?”
The scene shows the whole village being baptized and as far as I remember it’s accurate. All the missionaries do it at the same time. It’s actually quite moving. I remember thinking, “This is exactly what a baptism feels like.”
That may be accurate. I can’t find the reference, but I remember reading a discussion on some Bloggernacle blog about whether white clothes are mandatory, and some commenter used the example that converts in Africa aren’t required to wear white for baptism, as an example to demonstrate that wearing all white is not technically mandatory.
@32 — That’s cool!
That posture is the thing the visually signals “baptism” to me. I didn’t know what it was called when I was Mormon (because I stopped believing as a teen), but I remember a painting of John the Baptist raising his arm to the square as he baptized Jesus. It was only later that I learned that that was just a Mormon thing, lol.
I’m surprised no one’s mentioned “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” which I found both amusing and poignant. Parker and Stone (and Lopez) got that one right too: it’s a hymn of sorts to the Gathering of Zion (and bears more than a passing resemblance to “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors).
Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Somewhere That’s Green
SLK — Good catch!
So many of the songs in that musical are hilarious riffs on famous Broadway songs and genres!
I agree that it’s a good take on the attraction of gathering in Zion — finding a better home in America was absolutely one of the selling points for some of the early Mormon pioneers who converted in Europe.
And the song has general human relevance as well. As an expat, I totally relate to loving your new country without really understanding the culture — and projecting your own cultural assumptions on the parts you haven’t learned yet… 😉
I don’t see the “hymn to the gathering of zion” aspect of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” at all. Those hymns invariably stress work and industry and struggle, not the lack thereof. They’re also very differently musically–“Shall the Youth of Zion Falter?” or “Firm as the Mountains Around Us” are marches of sorts. And that’s also just not how the song functions in the play. It’s the only song that is absolutely a solo: Nabulungi’s is the only voice on that entire song, and she’s completely alone on stage while she sings it. I don’t think that happens in a single other number. Sal Tlay Ka Siti” more in the vein of “Somewhere Over the Rainbox”–a song of profound longing for never-neverland.
Chanson – hilarious riffs indeed. I keep hearing more of them, including (most recently) a musical nod to Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Very Model of a Modern Major-General” in “Two By Two,” which I thought was dead-on appropriate. 🙂
As for general human relevance, yes. I think Parker or Stone made a point of saying in some interview that this was one of their aims for the show as a whole.
Holly – point taken, and you’re right about the “hymn” thing. I should probably have avoided using that word. 🙂 But this:
…is exactly what I was trying to say. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is another good example, like “Somewhere That’s Green,” of that longing which is sort of how I feel about the whole idea of “Zion,” as Utopia (or Never-Neverland). 🙂
Just noticed when SLK in SF quoted me that I actually wrote “Rainbox,” a word that doesn’t really exist, but should.
SLK @38 — I didn’t notice the connection with Very Model of a Modern Major-General either!
I read somewhere that “Man Up” is a riff on rock-operas like Rent. I had always wanted to see Rent, and now I’d like to even more — I think “Man Up” is hilarious!!! OTOH, I re-watched “Hakuna Matata” recently (because “Hasa Diga Eebowai” directly references it), and (to me) it was almost kind of sad how uninteresting “Hakuna Matata” is compared to the brilliant and clever “Hasa Diga Eebowai”.