Offensensitivity and the Book of Mormon Musical–Who Offends Who?

Offensensitivity and the Book of Mormon Musical–Who Offends Who?


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.

13 thoughts on “Offensensitivity and the Book of Mormon Musical–Who Offends Who?

  1. I think you’re trying very hard to find something admirable in the muck that is this musical. There doesn’t have to be an anti-Mormon element for this to be unworthy of our time and attention and your overworked efforts to promote it as something useful and beneficial. It really isn’t possible to leave the profanity “completely aside,” or the blasphemy, either. Those elements color everything about this production. With so much else to read and watch and participate in, why insist on finding something of value in this piece of — yes — dreck, even admitting that it isn’t anti-Mormon?

  2. Which is why, as I thought I made clear in my first post, I don’t encourage or endorse the viewing of this by those who would be offended by it. I just wish people wouldn’t scream and moan about how offended we all should be. I do recognize that it may be “unworthy of…time and attention” for many. Which is why I stripped the story of its most on-the-surface offensiveness (the profanity), so it could be viewed without that rhetoric.

    I wrote these posts because I found much reactionary rhetoric from offended Mormons to do us more harmful publicity than the musical actually does, or sets out to do.

  3. Those M-Star types get a little worked up about things sometimes, don’t they?

    No one can really offer an informed opinion about the show unless they have seen it. But I doubt most active Mormons are going to want to see the show. So I don’t see how we’re going to get much helpful discussion about the show in LDS circles.

  4. I listened to all the music on NPR, and was pretty surprised at how offended I was. I was revolted by the language,by the casual racism towards Ugandans, and use of rape of children as a key joke/plot element. It was disturbing. I expected those things to bother me. What surprised me was that I also took offense at the apostasy of the core characters from Mormonism to a “frog raping” church with the “Prophet Cunningham”. I was offended at this not by the originators of the material, but because all the LDS people I’d read reviews from had ultimately failed to mention this. It caught me off guard that something many were calling “sweet”, ultimately was not in the end representative of my faith. I guess I was just disappointed that the best we can get is “lies make a great placebo!”.

    The first three songs were great though…

  5. Matt W, you said:

    I was offended at this not by the originators of the material, but because all the LDS people I’d read reviews from had ultimately failed to mention this.

    What I did say was:

    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.

    You are right that I didn’t mention the actual details of the changes.

    The absurd and outlandish symbols aside, what was done by Cunningham was to adapt the story and ordinances to new circumstances and situations. While some will certainly find even the comparison offensive, this is what many of us believe Joseph did – through inspiration – with the JST of the Bible. I don’t think the original hebrew writers of Genesis (and most modern Jews) would recognize the story as we teach it today, and find it to be teaching something very different, and presenting an overarching Plan of Salvation and introducing Baptism and Priesthood into the story. Yet the early Saints – and us today – find the characters and narrative far more relevant today. To those who first told those tales, we might as well be having Adam raping a frog, and have Moses (now having visions of Jesus Christ and learning of a premortal life) with a clitoris on his head. The characters and story and meaning would have been that different.

    The idea or meaning of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and even Baptism are absurd and crazy sounding to someone who has no cultural connection with Christianity. Dunking in Water for Salvation? Eating Bread and Water to represent eating the Flesh and Blood of a tortured God? They are inherently – and independently – absurd. But we have a sacred meaning associated with them. They are part of acting out a sacred narrative that has very deep meaning. For us, they often become natural and mundane. But on their own, they are inherently absurd. The sacraments and story of the New Latter-day Saints in the musical are designed to be radical and absurd and outlandish on their own to outsiders. It’s exactly how we look to outsiders from our traditions. – it’s a perspective we often lose.

    And yes, the first three songs are great. I can actually hear some Missionaries I served with having sung “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” in all sincerity.

  6. I hadn’t read your review when I made my previous comment. I was actually thinking of Kevin Barney, DKL, and Ken Jenning’s Reviews.

    I appreciate your charitable response to the play, but I am just stating my “raw” response to the music as I went through it. It is offensive to be called “radical and absurd and outlandish”. It may be true we need to be reminded we are these things, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Sometimes, beings the “radical and absurd and outlandish” is pretty lonely, and that feels compounded when your fellow travelers don’t seem to feel the same ache you do. So the world is against you, and then, suddenly your friends are against you as well.

    That is all I was trying to express.

    I am a big fan of Stephen Finlan’s “evolutionary theory of revelation”. I’ll have to do a post about it.

  7. Matt:

    It may be partially because I am a convert. I was Baptized a little over 7 years ago, coming from being the son of an Evangelical Pentecostal preacher. Many aspects of Mormonism were bizarre and outlandish when I first encountered them – and this was from me coming from a tradition where speaking in tongues was the norm! However, in time, I embraces them, found their place in the Sacred Story, and now appreciate them in a whole new way. Yet I still remember when they were radical and absurd and outlandish to me.

    That picture of the protester above is one I took, very shortly after having joined the Church. It was at the Hill Cumorah pageant, and the very first time I had been part of anything that was being protested. I found it funny. Others I was with were offended, and angry.

    I know people very close to me to would suffer the same ache you do. I have inadvertently offended others I love because I showed them something I found to be a harmless satirical critique…and they took it seriously and to heart, and were offended. And it was written by a Mormon, to Mormons, without any profanity at all! And perhaps, as you say, that is why it hurt them the most. It was an ‘insider’ – someone who should be safe.

    Also, I’d be very interested on that post on “evolutionary theory of revelation.”!

    Thanks, Matt, for your insights.

  8. It really isn’t possible to leave the profanity “completely aside,” or the blasphemy, either.

    I don’t know about that. I’m reminded of a story told about David O. McKay, wherein (and it’s entirely possible I’ve got some of the details here wrong, it’s been a long time since I remember hearing the story) he was attending or participating in a parade, and at some point in the parade, there were some young women who weren’t wearing very many articles of clothing (bathing suits, possibly?) and another GA standing next to him expressed his disapproval of how the young women were dressed. President McKay responded simply that all he saw were some beautiful young women. No judgment expressed, just a comment that would seem to indicate that he had learned to see people for who they are and not how they are dressed.

    Now, you could say that blasphemy and scantily-dressed women (but obviously legal) are two different things, and I’d have a hard time arguing against that, but finding something positive in “the muck” seems to be easy enough to do for a lot of people, some of them being active members of the Church. I haven’t seen the show, haven’t listened to the soundtrack, so what I do know about it is just filtered from what others have had to say about it. In the end, it’s just a story (with singing and dancing galore), and it’s up to the audience member to take from it what he will.

  9. “Warning! Mormons and sports nuts, you have 5 days to repent before the end of the world! That gives you just enough time to watch the game on Friday!”

    Thanks, dltayman for your thoughts and the link to my blog post. For the most part I am optimistic about the possibility of civil disagreement, but every once in a while I run into someone who has had a really bad reaction to something I wrote. That can be a painful experience for all parties, but maybe we shouldn’t shy away from such things. That, after all, is how we grow and learn to coexist respectfully in a pluralistic society.

  10. I am puzzled by the concept that one can’t have an informed opinion unless he has seen the show.

    I get the feeling some members think it is cool to see the show.

  11. Chris:

    Isn’t that protest banner the best?
    As should be clear from my post, I respect your work. I obviously do not agree with all of your conclusions, but the papers (and online posts) I’ve read from you are very insightful, and extremely civil.

    For the record, I don’t agree with the concept that one can’t have an informed opinion unless they’ve seen it. It’s a key reason I’ve wrote my initial review – to give an additional perspective for those who most likely wouldn’t be watching/listening to it (I didn’t present a link to the NPR stream on purpose.

    Also, for the record, I just asked my wife, who is a returned missionary who did have an Elder Price-like companion, if she’d be interested in hearing the fun opening profanity-and-blasphemy-free song, “Hello!”. She declined. Has no interest whatsoever in any aspect of the musical. She certainly doesn’t think it’s ‘cool.’ I have no desire whatsoever to try to convince her otherwise, or get her to ‘give in’. She has no interest. And that’s perfectly fine with me. I don’t think she’s less ‘cool’, or ‘weaker’ or whatever for not wanting anything to do with it. This woman is better than me in so many ways, and this may even be one of them. However, of interest is that she has rolled her eyes at other Mormons she has seen posting loudly offended posts about the very idea of a Book of Mormon musical on facebook. To her, it’s not worth her attention either seeing, or complaining about. And I absolutely respect that.

  12. dltaymon. I’m a convert too. I’ll be 13 years this October. Catholic background though. I was actually very surprised that it disappointed me so much, as I thought I’d really enjoy it. Anyway, I’ll get to the post and let you know.

  13. I found [the protest sign] funny. Others I was with were offended, and angry.

    I’m offended that Mormons appear to be only an afterthought on the sign. 🙂

Leave a Reply