This past week NPR (Terry Gross Fresh Air) played a selection of tunes from the new Broadway smash hit The Book of Mormon, by the creators of the irreverent TV series South Park - (Trey Parker and Matt Stone -- with musical assistance from Robert Lopez). The digital cast recording is already number ten on iTunes, after being released on May 17th. It will be available as a DVD on June 7th.
The creators categorize The Book of Mormon as a religious satire musical and deny that any Mormon-bashing occurs. I would disagree. However their attack on religious fundamentalism is disguised in the form of chirpy upbeat Rogers and Hammerstein style music and dance numbers, which sends the message home without being overtly offensive. Critics seem to especially like the way The Book of Mormon pokes fun at the Broadway musical as an art form. In fact some have compared it to The Producers, the musical (and later movie) about a gung ho producer determined to stage an upbeat musical about Adolph Hitler called Springtime for Hitler.
My favorite song is a tap dance number called "Turn it Off," which I believe perfectly captures the essence of Mormonism and all fundamentalist religions. It conveys the expectation that believers will deal with all personal, family and social problems and all unpleasant feelings by shutting them out of conscious awareness. In psychology the process itself is referred to as"repression," while the end result of repressing unpleasant thoughts and feelings is called "denial."
This is the chorus: "Turn it off like a light switch. Just go click. It's a cool little Mormon trick. Turn it off. We do it all the time. The first three verses concern a Mormon missionary shutting out recollections of his drunken father beating his mom, a second missionary refusing to think about his sister's death by cancer and a third struggling with feelings of latent homosexuality.
The Doctrine of Feigning Happiness
The plot of The Book of Mormon concerns two Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, where there are forced to confront the immense misery of population struggling with poverty, famine, AIDS and a ruthless dictator -- circumstances that none of their missionary training has prepared them to deal with. They quickly learn the people they are working with have no chance of overcoming such extreme misery by feigning happiness, as Mormon doctrine teaches.
Instead of "Turn it Off," the Ugandans sing a zippy little number when bad things happen called "Hasa Dega Eebowai" -- English translation "f*ck you, God." Unable to cope, one of the missionaries obtains a transfer to Orlando. While the other manages to convert a number of Ugandans by weaving teachings from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings into conventional Mormon doctrine. Understandably, he comes under heavy criticism from church leaders when they find out. Here the authors play up the irony of expecting converts to believe the equally fantastical teachings invented by Joseph Smith (found in the actual Book of Mormon) -- including the claim that God created the first human being in Missouri and that Native Americans are really a lost tribe of Israel that somehow migrated to the New World.
Denial Comes in Secular Flavors
Unfortunately reliance on repression and denial to cope with daily life isn't limited to Mormons or to religious fundamentalists. Repression and denial clearly come in secular flavors. The current "positive thinking" fad -- a mind-training technique focused on quashing all negative thoughts to focus exclusively on optimistic ones -- is an excellent example.
Thanks to the transformation of news reporting into the mass distraction known as "infotainment," Americans are continually confronted with the expectation that they repress, deny and self-distract, rather than acknowledging or confronting the global crises -- climate change, food and water shortages, mass unemployment and homelessness -- that threaten the very survival of our children and grandchildren.
In this sense, The Book of Mormon isn't satirizing Mormonism or religion so much as "Americanism," at least as it appears to an industrialized world where everyone else is marching in the streets.