Introduction and Explanation
EDIT: The following was based on a listening of the cast recording. After writing this, I learned there were some details from the stage production which clarified the story, and took it some different directions than I deduced from the cast recording alone. While I recognize I made some story errors, I still stand behind the general sentiment and thoughts behind this post.
Without condoning, recommending, or defending the presentation of the more offensive language and material in the Book of Mormon Broadway musical, I felt it would be useful to offer a presentation of the actual underlying story behind the production, which I listened to through NPR’s free streaming presentation of the complete cast recording online.
There are a great many who, quite justifiably, would not be able – or willing – to submit themselves to the expressions of profanity and blasphemy presented, even with a full knowledge of the context. I don’t blame them. I even would agree with them, and would not, under any circumstances, try to convince someone to listen to or watch this who I know would feel deeply uncomfortable with it.
As such, I cannot in good conscience offer an open endorsement to listen to or watch this production.
However – I cannot also in good conscience offer an open and sweeping condemnation of the creators, and the message underlying the (intentionally) provocative and profane lyrics.
While the production certainly uses some of the absurdities of Mormon culture as its pawns (many aspects where, frankly, we recognize, and it’s generally okay for us among ourselves to laugh about, but suddenly becomes offensive when others point it out), the underlying message actually appears to be that they feel Joseph Smith got it right, and they’d like to see more Prophets – and Mormons – like him.
Yes, this critique is coming from atheist writers that don’t believe in divine inspiration.
And while certainly written from that perspective (one where there is no divine anything), what’s fascinating is that the story actually still also holds up quite nicely when divine inspiration is admitted and assumed and read into it.
It’s a message that is relevant for the religious and the non-religious – but, frankly, it’s most likely a great majority of the most sincere and devout won’t expose themselves to it.
This would certainly include my wife, my parents, and my in-laws. I certainly won’t be playing it for them, or my toddler daughter to sing and dance to – no matter how catchy the music is. (and it is fantastically – and dangerously – catchy)
And again, I don’t blame them for an instant for not wanting to see it. In many ways, I sort of envy that degree of sensitivity. And for sure, the presentation certainly provokes rather than invites.
And that’s why I’m going to share the story – stripped from the ‘mechanics’ of the admittedly shocking and offensive profanity.
The Story of the Book of Mormon Musical
Elder Price, and Elder Cunningham are assigned as Mission Companions to serve in Uganda. Elder Price is overconfident and cocky, but disappointed he’s not going where he wants to go – Sunny Orlando. Elder Cunningham, who idolized Elder Price, is not confident at all, but is excited. He plans to let Elder Price do his thing, and hopes that Elder Price’s success in the companionship as a whole will lead to his parents being proud of him for once.
They both arrive in the Mission Field, but are shocked to find out that the Africans hate God, and blame Him for the horrible things going on around them – AIDS, rape, diseases, warlord brutality, and genital mutilation. They have seen religion, and it simply hasn’t worked for them. As it’s been presented to them, it didn’t appear to address their concerns. It only addressed the concerns of those sharing the message.
Not realizing that they’re falling into the mistake of many who have come before, the Elders happily share the Narrative of the Restoration, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon. But when a villager voices his concern of (and perhaps a plea of help for?) his horrible physical condition, (“I have maggots in my scrotum!”), Elder Price doesn’t know what to do, and cavalierly continues with the story. Elder Cunningham watches in awe as Elder Price Does His Thing, content with his role as Number 2.
Most of the Africans then conclude that these missionaries are just one more set of the same old type of missionaries that had come in talking about God – nice stories, with nothing practical and new to offer to address and halt their suffering. The presentation of the message appears to them that God has nothing to say about their individual conditions. Thus, he probably doesn’t care. This is why they hate Him.
Yet there are some few who still hold a glimmer of hope that these young happy men might have something – anything – that can help them. They have brought Hope, even though it is not understood how the hope will be actualized.
Elder Price and Elder Cunningham both get very discouraged – but they handle it in very different ways. Elder Price loses his faith, and decides to jump ship, and head to Orlando. Elder Cunningham looks deep inside himself, and recognizes he does have something to offer – he just needs to “Man Up”, and act. He has faith. He just needs to actively express it.
It is then that, making a decision, Elder Cunningham – in the words of President Monson- “closed the manual and opened [their] eyes and [their] ears and [their] hearts to the glory of God”
As he’s teaching the Gospel Story, he teaches true and relevant principles he has a conviction of, and inserts them into the narrative. Yes, he knows that God is very much against raping babies. But the story he’s telling doesn’t explicitly say so – so he makes it say so, and “likens” the story to do it.
And suddenly, the natives take note. The Word of God is speaking to them.
As Elder Cunningham begins to do this, he’s conflicted. Is it lying? He knows he’s teaching a highly relevant and inspired Truth, but he’s altering the Sacred Story to do it. Is that legitimate?
He keeps going. He addresses AIDS, infant rape, genital mutilation, and issues of sanitation leading to disease.
And now, instead of just being another irrelevant Missionary, Elder Cunningham is viewed and revered as a prophet in his own right. He is changing lives. He is making a difference.
Why? Because he “taught people, not lessons.” – all the while teaching what he was convinced was the Truth, and would truly help those he was sent to serve.
As time passed, the relevant truths Elder Cunningham focused on become more and more integrated into the Ritual Narrative of the Restoration by those new generations of converts who shared it.
While there is a degree of underlying continuity with the Original Story – it still follows the basic narrative, and the names of individuals remain the same - many of the details have been altered in such a way certainly not intended – and in many ways unrecognizable – by those who would have originally told the story. You might call it the ACT – The Arnold Cunningham Translation of the scriptural story.
In short, the story increases in details of doctrinal accuracy, and becomes far more practically relevant…but sacrifices are made in details of historicity.
Standing on the outside watching from the audience, the story told appears to be absurd. The way the playwrights presented it was absolutely intended to emphasize the ridiculousness of the story. In their minds, the new story is far more ridiculous than the Original Story.
Yet it is understood that this adaptation was a good thing. It cannot be doubted that the adapted story changed lives, and made the world a better place.
My Attempt At A Faith Promoting Application
In a bizarre way, the message of the play corresponds with Bishop Burton’s comments at the last general conference:
The commitment of Church leaders to relieve human suffering was as certain as it was irrevocable. President Grant wanted “a system that would … reach out and take care of the people no matter what the cost.” He said he would even go so far as to “close the seminaries, shut down missionary work for a period of time, or even close the temples, but they would not let the people go hungry.”
Gospel means ‘Good News’. I strongly believe that the current doctrines and scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when properly applied and presented, are very relevant. The problem comes when the emphasis is on the Story of the Future Hope while ignoring the current temporal needs. When Happiness in a Future Eternal Life is taught without knowing how to assist with happiness in one’s current Life.
The Church as a unit is very good at seeking out – and seeing to – temporal needs. It has a powerful humanitarian wing. Many members are very quick to act to serve – I myself just last week participated in disaster relief in Cullman, Alabama, which had seen homes, land, business and churches devastated by Tornados.
To me, this is a huge, essential part of the Gospel.
In the Musical, Elder Price didn’t see that. He saw the framework story as being the Gospel, and acceptance of the story as being the end result. When this didn’t work, he had a crisis of faith, because to him, The Gospel Didn’t Work.
Elder Cunningham knew that the Gospel needed to be actually good news, and it needed to be put into practice. Elder Cunningham deeply pondered and looked deep inside, and faithfully adapted the framework story to teach the True and Living Gospel. His desire was to bless lives. He had a paradigm shift, and he learned what the Gospel really meant, and became a powerful minister of the Gospel.
It started by looking inside, and perhaps singing the well-known Hymn:
Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?
Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?
If not, I have failed indeed.
Has anyone’s burden been lighter today
Because I was willing to share?
Have the sick and the weary been helped on their way?
When they needed my help was I there?
His Song “Man Up” was in many ways a version of the Chorus, a reaction to realizing the answer of the above was ‘No’
Then wake up and do something more
Than dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.
What he did do could be in reaction to and an internalization of the counsel in the following stanza:
There are chances for work all around just now,
Opportunities right in our way.
Do not let them pass by, saying, “Sometime I’ll try,”
But go and do something today.
’Tis noble of man to work and to give;
Love’s labor has merit alone.
Only he who does something helps others to live.
To God each good work will be known.
The caution and warning I personally find presented to us Mormons in the musical itself is to make sure that we share and live the Entirety of the Gospel, and strive to care about, and learn about, the actual present needs around us.
For the most part, there really is no need to change the standard framework story as we have it. We have powerful knowledge and practical implementation. We just need to make sure we recognize that praxis as being an essential part of the Gospel itself – and not just “something else we also do sometimes”. – and make sure we are actively preaching the Gospel of practical compassion and God’s real and living Love in the now - in addition to simply reciting a cool story about Gold Plates in New York.