(I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway last weekend, and I have a lot of thoughts. Assume that there will be spoilers below.)
Unbeknownst to most modern readers, Samuel Clemens spent most of his final decade on earth obsessing and writing about a small religious movement that seemed to be taking the world by storm: Christian Science. In a series of articles that were published in book form in 1907 under the title Christian Science and in an unfinished short story that Clemens thought of as a sequel to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and called, I shit you not, “The Secret History of Eddypus, World Empire,” the pre-eminent American satirist had a heaping ball of fun at the expense of Mary Baker Eddy’s followers but also just at people in general.
Finding it at best unfunny and at worst incoherent, most scholarly readers tend to set this particular part of Twain’s opus aside and back away very slowly. Without understanding the complex debates about religion and religious freedom in which the writer was engaging, these texts remain nearly incomprehensible to the twenty-first century reader. Granted, many of Clemens’s contemporaries thought so too. While his critique of Eddy was uncompromising, Twain refused to conform to the prevailing public narratives about Christian Science. Having tried just about every form of non-traditional medical treatment available during his lifetime, dared to take seriously their claims about spiritual healing (as did William James). Likewise, he rejected the positivist narrative that linked religion as a whole to ignorance that could simply be combated with secular knowledge and instead linked Christian Science to recursive historical cycles of human fallibility in a way that implicated both religion and (small “s”) science.
The point is that though religion in general offers plenty of fodder for ridicule, good religious satire is really, really hard, a comedic problem that even one of the most successful humorists in American history struggled to render intelligible to his audience in a way that was both funny and honest. And that is why what Trey Parker and Matt Stone manage to accomplish in The Book of Mormon is perhaps nothing short of miraculous and why it is one of the most poignant and insightful things I have ever seen on Broadway in addition to being really, really funny.
Recognizing hat when it comes to the truth claims of the Latter Day Saints, they are dealing with low-hanging fruit, Parker and Stone take what could have been a succession of easy jokes and instead reflect on issues of faith and religious exceptionalism through a story that treats the spiritual and material struggles of all of its characters as both comedic and entirely serious and real. And that’s why, I think, it has managed to capture the imaginations of both religious and non-religious people in spite of its epic profanity (the refrain of one song is literally just “Fuck You, God” over and over and over again, and at one point, Jesus has a boner) in ways that Bill Maher just never will.
The protagonist of The Book of Mormon is Elder Price, a Mormon golden boy from Salt Lake City who thinks of himself as a protagonist in every possible way. About to embark on his two year mission, he sees the experience as an opportunity to continue proving himself worthy to God by being awesome. The people he is allegedly going to help and his companion, Elder Cunningham, are merely supporting players in the ongoing drama of his life. Naturally, the script he has written for himself gets disrupted when it turns out that Elder Cunningham is a nerdy beta male with a compulsive lying problem and that they are being assigned, not to Orlando, but to an impoverished Ugandan village where 80% of the population has HIV and a warlord who shoots people in the face and demands that all women be circumcised.
Trained to believe that his sacred texts offer answers to all of life’s possible problems, Elder Price is unprepared for the fact that nothing he has to say about a dude who dug up some golden plates in upstate New York has is even remotely relevant to the bleak circumstances of these people’s lives. And he is equally disillusioned by the fact that his Mormon brethren have nothing to offer him in the face of his doubt but the recommendation to “Turn it Off” (in my opinion, the funniest number in the entire musical), just as they do with pesky problems like being attracted to other men and being forced to contemplate their own mortality.
Elder Price’s subsequent melt down essentially ushers him out of the limelight, and his character development happens in the background as other characters start to come to the front. One of these is Nabalungi, the daughter of the village leader, who thinks that maybe these white guys and their weird religion will offer them a path toward a better life. The other is Elder Cunningham, who due to his partner’s hasty exist, is in a position to play missionary to the villagers. The problem is that he has never read The Book of Mormon and gives in to the impulse to start making shit up when someone asks him why, exactly, God thinks FGM is bad. What results is a village full of converts to a weird religion that is a hybrid that is part Joseph Smith, part JRR Tolkein, and part George Lucas in a kind of absurdist redux of the LDS origin story. But, of course, because that religion is tailored for them, it is actually relevant to their immediate circumstances.
But what is remarkable is that while there is plenty of absurdity to be had, the text never treats any of these characters–from the impossibly naive Elder Price to the increasingly megalomaniacal Elder Cunningham to the benighted Nabalungi and her family–as contemptible. They are presented sympathetically with inner lives worthy of taking seriously. There are extremely thorny issues of race, gender, and the consequences of imperialism, but Parker and Stone manage to convey the horrors of, say, rape, while also making jokes about it. It is a particularly vertiginous kind of balancing act that feels like it could come crashing to earth at any second but somehow never does precisely because they manage to remember that these are people who deserve our empathy. So, you can have a song in which a group of Mormon teenagers, elated by the number of baptisms they have racked up (though they have no idea why), sing “We Are Africa” with all of the gross ethnocentrism and exceptionalism that implies, and yet they are never exactly villainous. Likewise, when Elder Price returns to sing “I Believe” in the moment where he re-commits to his inherited vision of Mormonism just before his final fall, he can say a bunch of weird stuff (“I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”) without becoming an object of ridicule.
And the same goes for the Ugandans who, to the surprise of both the Mormons and Nabalungi, interpreted pretty much everything Elder Cunningham said in the light of myth and metaphor. Her disillusionment and anger with the fact that she was lied to is real and justified, but her community has transformed the message into something so much bigger than their dubious prophet. The play essentially takes the Jamesian position that what matters about religion isn’t its truth claims but the affective resources it gives both to the individual and the collective to rise above circumstances, resist oppression, make ethical choices, and form interpersonal bonds. The Ugandans, along with the Mormon missionaries who have been soundly rebuked by the Mission President, create a new religious community that, like the original Latter Day Saints, exists outside of institutional structures and remains intensely meaningful despite the improbability of its origins.
This is a height of comedy and profundity that something like Religulous will just never be able to attain. Because what works about this musical, like what works about most comedy that has to do with religion, is that its sense of the ridiculous is mingled with genuine affection both for the Mormons and for the Broadway tropes it satirizes.