Many years ago, while at university, I was taking great pleasure in mocking the ridiculousness of the Church of Scientology. My friend, listening to this gleeful blether, said something I will never forget: “Hannah, don’t you realise I find what you believe about Jesus no less odd than what you’re describing about Scientology?”
This was not so much a slap in the face as a conversational bucket of cold water: who am I to mock someone else’s religion when even St Paul recognises that Christianity can appear absurd to others? But my self-righteousness only goes so far and as a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the writers of South Park, the lure of seeing the Book of Mormon was just too strong to resist.
If you’re not already aware of it, the Book of Mormon is a musical that takes the Mormon faith and gives it the slick, satirical and scatological treatment characteristic of these two writers. It’s so well written and researched that the play demonstrates a certain kind of respect for the religion it’s sending up; I learned more about Mormonism in two hours than from the whole first season of Big Love.
It’s also yet another of those plays which, like Jerry Springer the Opera, has garnered criticism for being rude about religion. However, unlike Jerry Springer, which evoked picketing and protests by offended Christians, the Mormon church seems to have embraced the PR potential: “You’ve seen the play, now read the book!”
My colleagues were concerned because they worried I might be offended. On the contrary: I cried, I laughed and I emerged thoroughly challenged to live my faith. This was not your typical prophetic experience: there are a lot of f-words, s-words and even the occasional c-bomb. But the tunes are catchy and the production is first-rate.
The Book of Mormon holds a mirror up to the practice of religion – not faith, but religion – that is not flattering. And therefore, rather than just mocking the simple-mindedness of people who choose to follow a creed, it also presents some uncomfortable truths about how the practice of religion can obscure a living faith.
For example, scripture does not explicitly tackle issues like female genital mutilation or treatment for AIDS, but scripturally grey areas shouldn’t condone positions that are inhumane or lack compassion. Surely? At least, not if you want the fruits of your ministry to advocate sexual and physical abuse, to name but two.
Perhaps I’m too liberal for my own good. Perhaps I should instead be incensed about how Africans were represented, which incidentally I think was another sly swipe at how some Westerners perceive African countries and the so-called developing world.
Despite all this, the message I got from the Book of Mormon was that only once you stopped worrying about whether your religion would get you to heaven, would you be free to fully embrace and enjoy your faith.
Go see it, I dare you.