Apparently, like pretty much all human-created entities, Mormonism is not necessarily perfect. Trey Parker and Matt Stone (yes, the dudes who made South Park) point this fact out in their Broadway premiere — Book of Mormon — and the result is as cognitively and emotionally provocative as you can get.
For my wife Kathy and my 15th wedding anniversary last year, we were fortunate (due to awesome in-laws Bob and Gill, who watched the kids — Megan and Andrew!) to spend a day in the city and to see this high-profile show.
So Kathy and I both like silly stuff — and it looked like Book of Mormon — a clear roast of Mormonism created by the creators of South Park — simply had to fit the bill. So we walked across mid-town from our posh hotel (and no, we don’t always stay in posh hotels!) and found our seats in the theatre — and awaited entertainment.
My first impressions of the show were pretty straightforward — I was continuously entertained — but I was also (not too happily) continuously offended. As I get older, I guess I find more and more things offensive — I can’t help it! And I really tend to dislike humor and commentary that primarily denigrates individuals or groups. I’m kind of a dork that way.
Well Book of Mormon is ALL offense. Individuals are denigrated, groups are denigrated, treasured beliefs of millions are painted as beyond ridiculous, sexuality is exploited for a bunch of cheap laughs at the expense of others, etc. This was South Park on Broadway — with the ability to use any language they wanted. So none of this was surprising.
But I was also somewhat educated. The show is partly the story of how Joseph Smith and his disciples discovered and created Mormonism. And how they found religious persecution in all corners — ultimately needing to leave several states — until they found their homeland of Salt Lake City, Utah. Many of the supernatural elements of the early Mormon’s story presented in the show (e.g., the gold plates found by (presumably) Joseph Smith that held the book of Mormon inscribed upon them — placed (presumably) by early Israelites who lived in upstate New York) actually match the documented history of the Mormons. We learned a lot. Largely, we learned that a small group who espoused beliefs based on a miraculous supernatural story — with details only observed by a few — could lead to the widescale creation of a major new human belief system and culture. That’s sort of educational, when you think about it.
The main plot of the story (and I won’t give too much away — you must see it for yourself!) pertains to some young Mormon missionaries who can only convert a poor, uneducated local population by “bending the truth” a bit (adding in ewoks, Darth Vader, inappropriate relationships with frogs, and various other details that are not in the actual Book of Mormon).
Long-story-short, this group of renegade missionaries comes to pull the community, which had been in shambles, together — getting them to “see the light” (which was a pretty distorted light!) and getting them to develop a clear set of moral codes and beneficial and cooperative social relationships.
Until this final section, I had this thing totally written off as a sophisticated forum for telling bad jokes. But you know, Parker and Stone are way smarter than that. And in the end, they convinced me that their genius-level understanding of the human condition revealed a deep and genuine understanding regarding the evolutionary function of religion across all walks of humanity.
According to evoluitionist David Sloan Wilson (2002, 2007), religion, which characterizes any and all human societies that have been studied, has two important dimensions. The “vertical” dimension addresses the supernatural — the “what’s up there” dimension of religion. This is the stuff that religious folks are asked to accept based on faith. Supernatural deities, splitting of seas, reincarnation, and the like. Sometimes, the content of this dimension may seem strange to frame as possible. In fact, almost by definition, elements of the vertical dimension of any religion are impossible to reconcile with observable data. So here you have the “Hellfire exists, because we as Mormons believe it — it’s in our books and we learn about it at church” — this kind of thing.
For David, the vertical dimension of religion pertains to the “proximate” causes of religion -in other words, the immediate factors that make people religious. These include things like belief in a positive afterlife, belief in an all-powerful and good god, etc. These are things that encourage people to “do the right thing.”
However, for David, the ultimate function of religion pertains to social control. He calls this the “horizontal dimension” of religion (as it extends across people). Religions have extensive codes about human behavior and social relations. Respect your mother, don’t kill, don’t trespass on your neighbors, be kind to strangers, treat others as you would treat yourself or your own family, share your materials with others in need, etc.
Why are successful religions successful? Because they are good at fostering this ultimate, horizontal dimension of religion. And the stuff of the vertical dimension is great at enhancing the horizontal dimensions. Basically, David’s theory suggests that religious groups that had social rules which led to better in-group harmony and within-group altruism were naturally selected to exist in the future relative to other religious groups that were not as good at effecting these outcomes.
And any good religious scholar would have to agree that Mormonism is a winner — or at least a success story. It leads to extraordinary within-group altruism (requiring, for instance, all working Mormons to give back a percentage of their earnings to the church) and it has an aggressive plan for expansion (the two-year mission that most young Mormon adults go on to help spread the word of the Book of Mormon). And Mormonism, as explicated well in the Broadway show, has a top-notch vertical dimension — with as much in the way of supernatural as pretty much any religion.
Along with poking fun at Mormonism (intensely) — Book of Mormon goes full-throttle in all directions. Sexuality, sexual orientation, race, men, women, children, Africa, Orlando, and more — pretty much any modern cultural entity or category was well-roasted in this performance.
Yes, it was funny. But wasn’t it offensive? Isn’t it just wrong to make up a story about the founding father of a major religion as someone who had carnal relations with frogs?
I was actually offended through most of the show. I said to myself, “these people are just denigrating Mormonism — and that’s easy to do — Mormon origin stories don’t add up very well — so they’re an easy target … cheap shots …” “Further, Mormonism is actually a great example of the evolution of a successful religion — but these South Park guys seem to have no clue about this.” etc. So I mostly sat there partly frustrated and offended — but laughing — because the jokes were just funny.
Then something miraculous happened. (Queue up Whoville Christmas-Morning music right about now …) During the last 1/4 of the show, there was a major shift in the plot and in the broader message. It was like being in Whoville on Christmas morning (well, that may be pushing it …). The renegade Mormons worked with the local population and they used the ridiculous, highly bastardized version of the Book of Mormon as a basis for a new society — one that was inclusive, cooperative, and open to the inclusion of outsiders.
It was amazing to me! Parker and Stone totally nailed it. It was through the ridiculous nonsense in the revised version of the Book, filled with totally warped and highly supernatural stories, that a feeling of coming together and working toward common goals among the people emerged. And this is, according to Wilson (2002), exactly how religions take shape – and this all speaks precisely about the evolutionary functions of religion from the perspective that Wilson (2002) demarcates in Darwin’s Cathedral.
In my mind, right before my eyes, this show went from a cheap (if sophisticated) slam on religion to a nuanced and well-crafted comment on the true factors that underlie both the origins and functions of religion.
And one of the main functions of any religion, of course, is to provide a strong context for pairbonding and the raising of children. So, you see, nothing would have been more appropriate for Kathy and my 15th wedding anniversary!
According to the show’s website, Book of Mormon was composed by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, The Book of Mormon is an old-style musical with a modern sensibility.
Don’t miss it!
Book of Mormon (Broadway play) official website: http://ppc.broadway.com/shows/book-mormon/
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.