Saw “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway last night! Between the laughs, horror, and sweetly poignant moments, it got me thinking: what is religion for? Yes, the show is hilarious, brilliant, shocking, and incredibly well performed and produced. That we got tickets at all is its own small miracle… or another example of my husband’s capacity to amaze.
I have no doubt that Mormons from sea to shining sea are fielding new questions inspired by the award-winning hit about their faith — its origins and beliefs — from neighbors, friends, and strangers, too. (The church is addressing such curiosity officially with its “I’m a Mormon campaign.”)
It’s also a story of bumbling prophets and priests who sometimes do great good despite themselves… and despite the strictures of their received traditions. Within its withering critique of religion, Mormonism in particular, the show also demonstrates the power of faith to transform the lives of its believers — not by miraculous divine intervention but through the initiative and power of the people themselves. Such transformation exceeds Marx’s “opiate of the masses” to inspire adherents to make concrete changes, to stand up for justice and equity, for example, and against senseless brutality.
Do the details of a religion matter, if the effect is positive in these ways? This is not a rhetorical question. I happen to think that the details do matter; but it’s worth our asking how and why, and maybe returning again to articulating what those details are exactly, anyway. (I’m reminded of a piece toward the show’s end where the Ugandans note the existence and importance of metaphor.)
I doubt the show will bring new members to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and it’s easy to understand how some Mormons would be deeply offended by it. (For a Mormon’s thoughtful and positive review, check out Jana Riess’.) But “The Book of Mormon” does, in its playfully back-handed way, show how ancient sacred stories can find new meaning in modern circumstances, meanings that transcend the peculiarities and absurdities of the texts to be decidedly relevant. That doesn’t happen, however, without earnest thought, some wrestling, and maybe also a good dose of fun. Meanwhile, I’m eager to ask my Mormon friends what they think.