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Broadway’s hottest new musical is the Book of Mormon, and in the wake of its triumph at the Tony Awards, the temperature continues to rise – as it should. There are many reasons to like the play, but the most interesting is that it figures how to laugh with religion, not at it.
Faith needs to be able to laugh at itself, and so do the faithful. That happens far too rarely, and when it does, the net effect is largely positive for both the faith and the faithful who can do so. The Book of Mormon’s Tony Awards could be a triumph not only for a particular play, but for faith in general, if believers actually have enough faith in the faiths they follow to laugh at what they love even as they continue to love it.
This play pokes fun at elements of LDS practice and satirizes the experiences of some of its members, but it does so without hostility. To be sure, the play is foul-mouthed, occasionally inaccurate in terms of doctrine, and all the other things you would expect from a play brought to the stage through the combined efforts of the guys who brought us South Park and Avenue Q. But like South Park has done for years, the play also takes religion seriously, appreciating how it shapes many people’s lives and provides a sense of purpose and community. And as Avenue Q did with Sesame Street, it pokes fun at some of the motifs and practices of a particular cultural phenomenon, but it does so in a way that also reminds us of how compelling and convincing those motifs and practices can be.
Nobody should confuse seeing The Book of Mormon, the musical, with serious instruction in the actual Book of Mormon. But who does that? One is a musical and the other is a sacred text for 15 million people. If that’s a distinction one cannot make, then both the play and the book are beyond their intellectual capacity.
The show takes seriously the compelling nature of faith, and takes just as seriously the challenges associated with totalizing faith which makes little room for questions, doubt and the seeking new forms of religious connection. If that’s uncomfortable for some, so be it, but creating that discomfort is not the same as mocking faith, especially when it’s done in the context of a cheery musical which leaves most of the audience, including as reported by many Mormons who have seen the show, feeling pretty good as they depart the theater. Now if they could just put some tickets on sale, I could to take my kids to see the show!