It may not be what you think.
By Terry Tempest Williams
I’m talking about The Book of Mormon, the award-winning musical written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of television’s South Park, with composer Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, now playing at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York City.
As a Mormon, albeit an unorthodox one, I was skeptical. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints seems to be an easy target these days, with its polygamist past associated with the prurient trials of Warren Jeffs or the popularity of Big Love. But within two minutes of the musical’s first number—“Hello!” with Mormon missionaries ringing doorbells—I became its biggest fan. My husband, Brooke, who is Brigham Young’s great-great-grandson, was also charmed. Immediately, we saw our brothers, our cousins, friends, and neighbors who did exactly that—rang doorbells and proselytized from Florida to Brazil to New Zealand to Japan.
I can’t wait to see the play again.
And evidently, this is exactly what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is banking on. The Mormon Church has just launched a $1 million ad campaign focusing on the Big Apple, with a very large loop-video directly in view of those entering and exiting the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to catch the attention of theater-going crowds in Times Square. The tried and true adage, “What do you know about the Mormon Church and would you like to know more?” is now newly relevant, as the church is ready to cash in on the runaway success of this “miracle” musical.
The only things Parker and Stone got wrong from my perspective are pretty mundane compared to all they got right. Mormon missionaries now go to the Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah, for two weeks (it used to be two months), not three months as they say in the musical. And I have never heard a Mormon say, “Praise Christ.”
During the first act, I sat in real discomfort, not because I was offended but because I was haunted. What was humor to Parker and Stone was my faith. I grew up in a traditional Mormon household. There is much to praise in the name of community. If you ever doubt who you are, you simply go to a family reunion. You see yourself replicated over four generations. I knew five of my great-grandparents. It is a living history predicated not just on belief but land. We call it Zion. We have our own Jordan River.
In 1847, when Brigham Young looked over the vast salt desert with a shimmering Great Salt Lake on the horizon, he said, “This is the place.” My family still believes this. Six generations of mine have settled in Salt Lake City. My grandmother Lettie Romney Dixon and George Romney (Mitt’s father) were cousins. Both were born in Colonia Dublán, the Mormon colonies in Mexico, where members of the faith could practice polygamy without persecution. Because of the Mexican Revolution, my family was forced back to the United States. That makes Mitt Romney and me cousins once removed.
The prologue opens with a description of the theological foundations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints being based on “the golden plates” written by an ancient prophet named Mormon and unearthed by an eighteen-year-old named Joseph Smith. When it mentioned that these sacred texts were buried in a hillside in upstate New York, the audience guffawed with laughter. I recognized this statement as the truth of my people.
It was a bittersweet experience. Jesus Christ coming to America did not seem odd to me as I sat in my seat at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Yet, it appeared as fantasy to the rest of the theatergoers around me. And when, the song “Turn It Off” became an all-manle revue reminiscent of a Busby Berkeley production, I was struck by how true the lyrics were to the ethos of my LDS community, even within myself.
Elder McKinley, one of the missionaries in the play, sings:
I’ve got a feeling
That you could be feeling
A whole lot better than you feel today.
You say you’ve got a problem
well that’s no problem
It’s supereasy not to feel that way!
When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head
Don’t feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead!
Turn it off like a light switch
just go click!
It’s a cool little Mormon trick!
We do it all the time
When you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t feel right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light
and turn ’em off.
I appreciated the lens I was being given to view my religious culture—even my own conditioned psyche—by two very astute social critics.
I knew I came from a religion with a rich and imaginative history. Visions are not just reserved for teenage prophets. The Mormon God is a personal god and a responsive one. And we are told when we are married with our partner for “time and all eternity” that we will become gods and goddesses of our own planets. Creation is a foundational tenet of the theology, be it children or future worlds.
It was literary critic and religious scholar Harold Bloom who called Mormonism “an American religion.” He said, “Whatever his lapses, Joseph Smith was an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history.”
I remember hearing Bloom speak to a standing-room-only crowd in Salt Lake City discussing his book The American Religion. He spoke about Smith’s charismatic leadership. He said Smith was destined to become either President of the United States or prophet of a new religion. He chose the latter.
The second act of the musical was hysterical because it cut so close to the bloody bone of satire. When the character Nabulungi, brilliantly played by Nikki M. James (who won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical), is singing from her hut in Uganda, “I’m on my way—Soon life won’t be so shitty—Now salvation has a name: Salt Lake City,” I thought I was going to die. Having spent a fair amount of time in Africa, the laughter came with an edge.
For readers who have not yet seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I will not spoil the delights that are to come. But it really is remarkable how Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone—along with the extraordinary cast and entire collaborative team—create such a bright and biting, sword-slicing, soul-reviving, and humane piece of art that in the end celebrates our humanity. It is a transcendent piece of theater, and this review comes from a member of the very culture it’s satirizing.
We are storytelling creatures. We are told a story and then we tell our own.
Truth has little to do with it. What matters is that the great mysteries are explained to us through myth and metaphor. “The only book that matters” is the one we adhere to as sacred text. We are given a cultural template through story as to how we might live within a moral framework and take care of one another in community.
I left the Eugene O’Neill Theatre feeling I had been fed by a coyote. Trickster Theater. I was proud of my cultural heritage, embarrassed by it, heartbroken and inspired by our hunger to not only be told a story but be transformed by it. This is where I place my faith—the power of a story well told lies in empathy. We are not alone.
I wonder if Mitt Romney has seen this musical? He should. Because on so many levels, the Mormon Church is a stand-in for conservative America, a colonizing America, an America naïve as do-gooders, and at the same time, aggressive in its fundamentalist religion of capitalism at all costs. In the musical, Mormon missionaries head to Uganda. In America, we are proselytizing democracy in the midst of wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. In the musical, violence occurs when there is no listening. In America’s foreign policy, violence is also occurring because there is little listening. Why are we are surprised when our motives and mission are not only misunderstood but misinterpreted with disastrous results?
More than fourteen million Mormons accept The Book of Mormon as truth. More than fourteen million Americans may one day see The Book of Mormon, the musical, and recognize this story as the truth of our times, as our increasingly conservative nation confronts and combats a global consciousness.
Great art is transformative because it inspires us to be our highest and deepest selves. It reminds us what it means to be human. We are both shadow and light.
Great art becomes spiritual when it reminds us what binds us together rather than what separates us. The Book of Mormon, the musical, is transcendent because at a time when politics divides us so clearly, we see how powerfully art can bring us together in the midst of political violence.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of “The Open Space of Democracy” and, most recently, “Finding Beauty in a Broken World.” She is the recipient of the 2010 David R. Brower Conservation Award for activism.