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The first point I'd like to make about the musical is the various reactions it has received due to its concentrated treatment of the Mormon faith. Based on an episode of South Park where the Mormon faith is described in song, including a chorus calling it "dumb," the Book of Mormon primarily follows Elder Price on his missionary trip. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are comedians and the musical follows the comedic and often offensive style of their TV show and movies. Though the show has received much praise including Tony awards and nominations, there has been much backlash from the Mormon community that the show paints their faith as something to laugh at, and not seriously consider as a legitimate faith. I have previously written about the Mormon faith and how it complicated Mitt Romney's run for presidency. Part of its problem is its youth where "ancient upstate New York" is a biblical location and the Garden of Eden is located in Missouri. The relative "all-American" prophet is something foreign and different from the traditional Middle Eastern locations.
The backlash that it has received overestimates the exclusivity of Stone and Parker's critique. What the Book of Mormon does is present the Mormon faith as similar to other faiths, not distinct. When one considers the equally occult and supernatural forces that define other religions, laughing at the Mormon faith means that people are laughing at all faiths. In the song "I Believe" Elder Price sings about all the things that he believes in as a part of his faith. The first two lines are quite Christian in nature: "I believe that the Lord God created the universe" and "I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sins." Not until line three is a marked changed expressed where he sings, "I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America" that elicits much laughter from the audience. The chorus notes that "I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes." In a sense, this is a critique of all religions that just believe the doctrines put forth by their faith. Is it any less funny or unbelievable for their to be a Christian version that statements "I believe that Christ turned water into wine"? Or "I believe that Mary gave a virgin birth?" Or "I believe that Christ resurrected after being crucified?"
This song touches on the key component of all religions: faith. There is little to no evidence of all of these supernatural and religious occurrences, so for Mormon doctrine is equally as legitimate and believable as all other faiths. Even if the audience does not catch onto the criticism, the Book of Mormon expertly causes everyone to consider the beliefs that they hold as true and examine why their faith holds weight, if any, over others. The Book of Mormon also expresses other similarities to faiths such as missionary trips, studying the Bible, guilt over sinning, and uncertainties about its teachings. As an atheist, it was clear to me upon watching the show that this was a critique of all religions, their systems of beliefs, and the arbitrary hierarchy and discrimination directed towards Mormonism.
Perhaps the Mormon Church understood the great potential in the play as an avenue to reach new members. In the playbill for Book of Mormon, the Church took out three full page advertisements. The first is a white male noting "I read the book." The second is a Latina female with the text, "the book is always better." The final page is a black male who notes, "you've seen the play, now read the book." All three advertisements contain three methods to learn more information: a QVC, website address, and instructions to text "BOOK" to 33733. The faces of the individuals are highlighted to reveal their diversity and the power of the individual to find more information. The play centers around the "Book" of Mormon, so the advertisements push viewers to explore the book through its original text instead of simply through the play version. For the first advertisement, having read the book is a point of pride, a way for savvy-going theater-goers can engage with the play more fully. The advertisements take advantage of a captive audience that is engaging, perhaps for the first time, with the Mormon faith and gives them the opportunity to learn more.
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