While in my last post I felt it important to emphasize what I saw as a key message of the Book of Mormon musical that would be important, applicable, and beneficial to all believing Latter-day Saints, I fully recognize that the Musical is not at all intended to be an endorsement of the truth claims of Mormonism, or religions in general.
But does that mean it’s, as is proclaimed over at Millennial Star, actually vitriolic “Anti-Mormon Dreck?” – or even mean spirited at all? And if not, discussions about profanity completely aside for the time being, is there still something in there for Mormons to be genuinely offended about?
The term Anti-Mormon has become very loaded. Generally, it conjures the concept of angry shouting street preachers, spouting polemical half-Truths (and outright fabrications) designed to scare people away from even looking at Mormonism – or to get current adherents to run as far as they can away from it. To Anti-Mormons, Mormonism is spiritually and temporally harmful. To Anti-Mormons, Mormonism is proclaimed as a moral and eternal Evil, and they will do anything – even morally questionable things – to get you away. In many cases, these Anti-Mormons have their own religious agenda they want you to join instead. They’re all ready to show why their God is bigger than the Mormon God. Or anyone who disagrees with them in general.
And yes, there are those who fit into those categories. I’ve read their books. I’ve seen them on the street corners.
But then there are other honest, non-believing critics, who, for academic curiosity, have a desire to explain Mormonism in naturalistic terms. These are often confused with the polemic and often vitriol-spitting “Anti-Mormon” writers.
Non-believing critic Chris Smith, for example, wrote a very interesting post over at his blog Mild Manner Musings asking the question and exploring the possibilities of how an honest academic critic can engage in scholarship that disagrees with believing Mormon claims without causing personal contention. His desire is not to offend, it’s to explore and understand. But he recognizes that the very nature of his position is offensive to others.
Until recently, the popular non-believing view of Joseph Smith has been the wicked libido-driven powermonger out to steal souls away from Christianity. This is generally the view espoused by Evangelical publications on the topic, which present Mormonism as a wicked and evil deception.
However, more and more, however, as Mormon Studies becomes a legitimate scholastic field, the voices of more even handed critics have attempted to present Joseph in the best possible light – albeit from a non-believers perspective.
Is it really possible to appreciate – and even respect Joseph (and followers of the Church he founded) – without believing he was a True Prophet? Until recently, a survey of the literature would have provided a strong negative.
A key voice for an alternative perspective is Dan Vogel, a name that while praised by believing scholars for his publication of a series of Early Mormon Documents, can often be heard being cursed in the next breath for his “Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet”, a psychobiography attempting to present naturalistic explanations and motivations for Joseph’s production of the Book of Mormon, and further elements of his prophetic career.
Vogel has been a key voice in popularizing the view of Joseph as a “Pious Fraud” – a man who was willing to use a little deception in order to fulfill what he believed was the Greater Good of God, and to bring hope and peace and unity to a confused and scattered people.
As a brief cursory view of my summary of the Book of Mormon Musical will reveal, this is exactly (in terms of a plain reading) the role Elder Arnold Cunningham is presented as playing – that of a Pious Fraud. This is most clearly demonstrated in the masterful song, “You’re Making Things Up Again”, wherein Arnold begins to alter the Sacred Story, and to craft new “Revelations” in order to address the concerns and needs of the people around him.
What’s interesting is that instead of being presented as a wicked, conniving deceiver, Arnold Cunningham is the clear Protagonist of the story. He’s the Hero. We love Arnold Cunningham. We praise the great good he did, even as we are amazed that his followers believe the crazy story he concocted.
Arnold is portrayed as a direct parallel to Joseph Smith, who is actually presented in very positive light. Even in the tongue-and-cheek presentation of Joseph’s Story in “All American Prophet”, Joseph is presented as a devout, good intentioned guy. In most of the areas where aspects of Joseph’s character are usually assaulted by “Anti-Mormon” writers, the play is silent. There are no accusations of Joseph being a conniving money digger. There are no intimations that Joseph was a dirty sex-fiend – in fact, there’s a surprising complete lack of reference to Polygamy at all – a very easy (and perhaps too obvious?) target.
It goes without saying that this view isn’t going to be enthusiastically embraced (or praised) by devout and believing members. Many even view it as condescending, a version of the standard non-believing but respectful explanations of Jesus, “He was a good man, who taught good things” – a knowing pat-on-the-head, viewed to be given with an air of intellectual superiority. And with some of the critics, that may even be the case.
But what’s important to understand is that this is the conclusion reached by scholars who for some reason or other have not had reason to believe in the supernatural claims of Mormonism – but they recognize something fascinating and powerful, and perhaps even mysterious about Smith.
Many Mormons will decry the integrity of these critics, and assume they must not really want to know the truth, or that if they did pray to know the truth, they must not have done it with “real intent”, or must be willfully ignoring the divine witness given to them.
And again, while I’m sure there are some who fit into that description, I don’t believe they’re the majority. And most would find this explanation by the religious believers to be condescending, a knowing pat-on-the-head, viewed to be given with an air of spiritual superiority. And with some of the believers, that may even be the case.
So in this case, why shouldn’t the critics be offended? Wouldn’t they have the right?
I like to believe those who have different convictions concerning religious claims and points of view can be civil and enter into dialogue without needing to get angry or offended at the other’s position. But it does take effort. In many cases, serious effort.
We, as believers, need to understand that “just believing” isn’t something that someone can simply turn on or off. That “stop trying to prove this wrong, and just believe!” does presuppose a degree of superiority, and assume that the individual isn’t really honest. It is a direct value judgment.
And critics and non-believers should realize that “wake up and smell the delusion” doesn’t tend to be effective or productive either.
But I also firmly believe we can disagree – and present reasons for our disagreement – without needing to assume the worst and most patronizing of the Other Side, and to demonize them and pronounce them as ignorant.
In fact, I think there are great things that each side can learn, with benefit, from the other.
In fact, that, I think, is another key take-home message of the Book of Mormon Musical.
Or you can just get offended.
Hey, we all do it. We’re human after all.