Musicals and the Church’s Work in Africa

I find it interesting that the new Broadway show THE BOOK OF MORMON throws a freshfaced missionary into Uganda, where the setting is supposed to show the ludicrousness of mormon faith and idealism when confronted with the hellish realities of man’s cruelties to man.

The reality is that Mormons are already in Uganda, and we’re doing just fine, thanks.

The Church has a new microsite in the LDS Newsroom on its presence in Africa, focusing on its humanitarian operations and on the growth of calculations. There are more than 7,000 members in Uganda, and local clean water initiatives sponsored by the Church have brought clean water to almost a million people (very interesting infographic here). It would be an overstatement to say that the Church is flourishing wildly, but it would be a similar mistake to assume, as have Parker and Stone, that sub-Saharan Africa presents an easy way to counter the naivete and optimism of Latter-day Saints. God hasn’t forgotten Africa.

What, then, should mormons — who are mostly wealthy westerners — say when told that their faith and hope come because they do not understand the world? It is true that we know nothing of brutal war inflicted by child soldiers, AIDS, famine, rape, and real evil, outside of what we read in magazines or see on the internet. It is also true that the foundations of mormonism, namely the first vision, the publication of the Book of Mormon and our polygamist past, require an enormous amount of faith to believe wholesale and do not naturally stand up to secular criticism. Does this mean that mormonism is ridiculous and that our religion should be disbanded? Does it mean that our relentless cheer and optimism are the relatively innocuous products of a delusion — one that (as Krakauer has hinted) is equally apt to produce violence and discord?

I don’t think atheists should be expected to understand or accept the foundations of mormonism. I do greatly appreciate the social warmth that Stone and Parker have for mormons on a cultural level; they have consistently said that mormons are the nicest people they know, which is high praise indeed, and on a socio-cultural level mormons seem to espouse the spirit of giving, cooperation and friendliness that the South Park creators relentlessly teach through mockery on their show. The recent Slate interview with the creators of the show get a little more into detail on this point:

“At the end of the day, if the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?” Stone says. Some atheists believe that truth is the highest good, and that crackpot religious stories need to be debunked. “I’m not quite sure,” says Stone. “I’m not sure the veracity of the stories is that important.” Perhaps it’s the stories’ absurdity that makes the belief of millions all the more inspiring. As Robert Lopez, the show’s composer, put it: “It renews your faith to see the miracle that all these people believe in this shit.”

That may be as good as we should ever expect.

Comments

  1. We have a family friend who is presently serving in Uganda. A different world, to be sure. But one forgotten by God? Of course not.

    I especially appreciate the perspective you cite that we don’t expect non-believers to understand us (nor should we expect them to tell our story the way we would). I remember years ago contemplating the struggle of a non-LDS person trying to report nearly anything about the church “objectively” (since the faithful will more likely assume “objectivity” is with a positive spin); I know I’d struggle to do the same with a faith to which I do not adhere.

  2. Er, not that I would have expected the piece in question to be an objective telling of anything…

  3. Paul, I guess objectivity is in the eyes of the beholder. Secularism is more scientifically objective, one supposes. When people say that a given press article, musical, etc. isn’t “objective” they usually mean that it doesn’t tell the story about the subject matter the way an insider would like. Ironically what they desire is the opposite of objectivity. I appreciate this a little, I think, so I don’t begrudge the South Park guys their perspective — and honestly we could learn a lot from them.

  4. I’m kind of a fan of these guys, and I actually think they’ve done the church some good through their depictions of mormons.

    But Stone’s quotes seems to contradict his show (though I haven’t yet seen it). He seems to be saying it’s fine for wealthy Americans to take comfort in their fairy tales, but not to export them to others who could use them for comfort or refuge.

  5. Steve, you’ve said what I meant (but did not say as well).

    Though I also would not ever expect a piece of musical theatre to be objective. First, I would expect it to be entertaining (else why would anyone attend?), and then I’d expect it to reflect the bias of its authors.

  6. I’m gonna guess the South Park boys didn’t know how well the church was represented in Uganda, but that Uganda (in Africa, no less) represented a far enough place from the white-ish Mormon culture to show conflict within the musical story. I say “in Africa, no less” because, I don’t know about anyone else, but on my mission in “Christian” Romania, I kept being asked why I wasn’t in Africa. I’m tempted to see the musical when it comes out. I’ll see what the reviews say first.

  7. I wish I had something to say, but I haven’t seen the musical yet and thus have a hard time commenting on the actual content of the play.

  8. True story: a former roomate of my daughter’s was serving a mission in Florida about five years ago. This sister missionary met, taught, and facilitated the baptism of a young woman who became intrigued with the church after one of the episodes of South Park that engaged some of the Latter-day Saint story.

  9. I have a hard time seeing the South Park Mormon episodes as bad. Most are pretty dang funny.

    http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:southparkstudios.com:152270:ProbablyTags: SOUTHPARKmore…

    Speaker: Hello, newcomers, and welcome. Can everybody hear me? [taps the mic a few times] Hello? Can everybuh-? Okay. [the crowd quiets down] Uh, I’m the hell director. Uh, it looks like we have about 8,615 of you newbies today, and for those of you who are a little confused, uh, you are dead, and this is hell, so, abandon all hope and uh yada yada yada. Uh, we are now going to start the orientation process, which will last about-
    Man 4: Hey, wait a minute, I shouldn’t be here. I wa a totally strict and devout Protestant! I thought we went to heaven!
    Hell Director: Yes, well I’m afraid you were wrong.
    Soldier: I was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. Uh, you picked the wrong religion as well.
    Man 5: Well, who was right? Who gets into heaven?
    Hell Director: I’m afraid it was the Mormons. Yes, the Mormons were the correct answer.
    Crowd: [disappointed] Awww.
    Hell Director: So now I’d like to quickly introduce your new ruler and master for eternity, Satan!

  10. I had a conversation with a brother-in-law not too long ago about poverty in Africa. I had just returned from a month long gig in Kenya and he wanted my take on why “Africa” was so poor (I say “Africa” because for whatever reason we tend to speak of an emtire continent as if it were one country). I am certainly no expert and had little insight to share with him but I was shoked by his response. He said the only way these countries are ever going to progress is if they accept the gospel. Once they accept the gospel, they’ll stop being poor. I remember hearing similar arguments in institute and seminary. I think this is terribly simplistic and naive. It ignores the realities of AIDS, disease, environment, corruption, and just bad luck. Sorry, but missionaries and book of mormons are not the answer to all human suffering.

    It’s easy for us mormons to think we understand the world. Many of us have spent 18 months living in the jungle teaching people about jesus, and we’ve seen great things happen. But for that entire time we saw the world through one very focused, church-colored lense. Maybe that didn’t give us as much perspective as we thought it did.

  11. Wow. Really long comment. Apologies

  12. “Sorry, but missionaries and book of mormons are not the answer to all human suffering.”

    Yes, your brother-in-law is an idiot. however, that is not the Church’s approach to third world poverty.

  13. I am as likely to watch this musical as I am to start listening to conservative talk radio.

  14. S.P. Bailey says:

    Stone and Parker are boring. Far more clever people than them (Wallace Stegner, Harold Bloom) have offered the same faint praise: Mormons are “nice” but gullible, “interesting” but dumb. I’m ok with them not believing our story, but … how to put this like a super cheerful but mindless caricature: to hell with all of them and their glib condescension.

  15. Celestialbound says:

    Steve Evans says “I don’t think atheists should be expected to understand or accept the foundations of mormonism.”

    How would Mr. Evans or others defend and/or modify the statement when considering atheists who were once former members? I’m curious because I would agree with the main idea of the statement, that the mainstream anti-theists don’t have a significant grasp of LDS culture and/or doctrine. But, ex members who are now atheists would have a possibility of having a very strong grasp of those things.

    As I visited this site via a forum link and don’t follow the blog, I would politely request an email with a link back here if this post generates any conversation.

    Thanks!

  16. Celestialbound says:

    Nvm. Just saw the notify button under the comment box. /facepalm

  17. Mark Brown says:

    That may be as good as we should ever expect.

    Steve, I think that is right, and I also think that is probably a good thing. In general, it would be good for us to develop a better ability to detach and see ourselves as others do, if only for the purpose of improving our outreach efforts. It is a sign of maturity to be able to accept feedback, even if we think the feedback is inaccurate, and even if it takes the form of a semi-friendly hard poke in the ribs. Stone and Parker and other secularists are not enemies, they people who are doing us the favor of telling us what they honestly think.

    I do object to Krakauer’s suggestion that our religion encourages Lafferty-style delusions. You don’t have to be a Mormon to be a nut, just ask the 9/11 truthers. A demographer with a lot of time on his hands and a taste for irony ought to survey the people who are waiting in line to get a chuckle out of angels and gold plates. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that many of them believe a few things that would make me roll my eyes.

    There are fantastic, unsubstantiated beliefs, and then there is objective, observable reality. In this conversation, one of those realities is that there are now 813,898 Ugandans who are drinking clean water because of the efforts and financial contributions of LDS people. The real question is why are religious people who believe in resurrection and angels so adept at also producing this reality?

  18. Thanks for this, Steve.

  19. If you have seen any of the previews of the musical you will know that “Mormons” are just the catch all for anything remotely “Godly”. They go too far and they are too crude in this attempt to entertain, at all cost! The message is disheartening, but not toward the Mormon’s. The church is just the conduit for blasting all that is sacred! All Christians, Jews, Muslims, anyone that revers God in any way will find their crude attempt to entertain, offensive. We have broad shoulders and we can easily manage to shake off the offense to our religion and some of it’s foundations but the offense to our God, will be unsettling!

  20. I have a special place in my heart for Ugandan LDS folks. One of the best elders on my mission in Africa was a 28 year old chartered accountant from Uganda. If I was to guess he is probably a district president in Uganda today.

    I actually think that Stone and Parker are doing us a favor. Stone and Parker are giving us free publicity and have nothing but nice things to say about us as a people. I don’t really see them as enemies of the church in the same way that Krakauer is in my view. Krakauer’s assertion that LDS beliefs lead to violence is simply refuted by the available social science. He is simply wrong and probably knows that he is wrong based on the available evidence. But he wants to sell books so he presses forward.

  21. From what I have read, The Church’s role in getting clean water to Ugandans was not that big? They only contributed to the effort and did many others.

  22. i just read ‘under the banner of heaven’ and it doesnt seem like any of the commenters did. krakauer doesn’t say that current LDS are violent. just that early mormons were, and fundamentalists today are. he never makes the connection to mainstream mormons living today, but everyone is assuming he did.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    Celestialbound, I think you are right. Mormons can rightly expect ex-mormons to understand, at least cognitively, the foundations of mormonism and to have an above-average sense for how mormon culture operates. Fundamentally, however, a mormon may believe that of all non-members, an ex-mormon actually understands mormonism the least — after all, if they really understood the religion they would never have left (or so the argument goes).

    Bob, I believe you’re you’re mistaken. Yes it was a group effort, but the Church did quite a bit.

  24. I’ve been thinking along some of these same lines lately. I served about half my mission in a poor African country no one has ever heard of. When I read that the goal was to expose the uselessness of Mormonism when it is faced with real problems found in Africa, I remember thinking that the people I ran into seemed to find Mormonism about as useful or as useless as people in Europe (where I also served) and America. That is, the message we had and the changes we were hoping to see in people didn’t change based on their poverty level. If anything, I guess I felt that the gospel helped the “poor” Africans more than than it helped the “rich” Europeans.

  25. CelestialBound, I don’t think the lack of understanding is because of atheism proper but because of shared experiences and values. Much like a Mormon probably wouldn’t understand a Muslim. But of course a Muslim convert to Mormonism might.

  26. Steve,

    I occasionally find South Park funny, but I’m put off by the crudity of much of that humor. I don’t deny that it’s funny, just that it’s a type of humor I don’t much care for.

    Ultimately, Parke and Stone both think we’re nuts, deluded, and clearly not in touch with reality, but otherwise harmless and nice in many other ways. But to them, we’re still nuts, and I sometimes think they are nice to us in a Dinner for Schmucks kind of way. We provide a way to make fun of all religions, and we’re nice enough to not strike back, ala Krakauer’s take on us.

    Nonetheless, I really appreciate the Church’s response via the Newsroom regarding the BOM musical. Kind of a nice, harmless response that doesn’t stoop to their level.

  27. Glenn Cornett says:

    This is my first BCC post. Brief intro: I am a biotech entrepreneur. I attend the Palo Alto Second Ward with my wife and four children. My beliefs (such as they are) are far from orthodox (I claim to show up mainly to make the mainstream people nervous), but I appreciate the potential of the church to be a positive force.

    I saw the first show in NYC last night; happened to be there on a business trip, and am now heading home. An SLC tribune reporter was referred to me; here are some of the remarks I shared with her:

    I enjoyed the play. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Book of Mormon Musical” was both entertaining and thought-provoking.

    The play emphasized its central themes by underscoring the potential weakness, absurdity or irrelevance of certain religious beliefs/practices in the context of cultural disparity (SLC vs. Uganda) or human brutality (e. g., female circumcision; sex [usually forced] with virgin females as a “cure” for AIDS; indiscriminate slaughter by warlords). In doing so, the script resorted to the sort of shocking statements characteristic of Parker and Stone’s other work. Many of these statements would offend those who believe blasphemy (in the standard Judeo-Christian sense of the term) is a bad idea. Also, camp depictions of LDS religious figures (Jesus, Moroni, Joseph Smith, et al.) would make some of the more-devout people a bit queasy; these gestures, however, provided some of the easier laughs in the production.

    I was pleasantly surprised, by the way, that the writers’ usual middle-school-grade crudeness was virtually absent.

    While decidedly irreverent, the script’s approach to religion was a far cry from that of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins’
    provocative atheism. The play made an engaging (if at times twisted) case for the use of religious concepts (“true” or otherwise) as a basis for inspiration to improve one’s self and and one’s community/planet. At one point, the elder converts in a village explain to a younger convert that “Salt Lake City is not an actual place; it is a metaphor.” This counterbalance to doctrinal absolutism and scriptural literalism will go against the grain of many mainstream Mormons, but sits very comfortably with me and many of my friends in and out of the church.

    Relative to my 1980s experiences as a missionary in Thailand, the play’s scenarios were at once shockingly different and warmly similar. Early attempts at cross-cultural empathy usually fall short, frequently with humorous or awkward results. Also, attempts at dialogue tend to lack coherence when one or both parties are so steadfast in their beliefs that they are impervious to reason and evidence. Some of the most-bizarre moments in the play therefore were more exaggerations of my Thailand missionary experience than complete misrepresentations.

    Finally, the person sitting next to me noted the preponderance of males in the room (perhaps at a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio vs. females). We agreed that this was quite possibly a response (in the form of a robust turnout from the gay community) to the LDS church’s prominent Proposition 8 role and related activities.

  28. Glenn, thanks for your comments. Even biotech entrepreneurs are welcome.

  29. S.P. Bailey says:

    I am surprised by all of the positive responses. We *are* too nice. Granted, stuff like this is better than tar and feathers and extermination orders. And perhaps we should be glad people are talking about us at all. And I agree that it is healthy to understand how others see us (for many, we are indistinguishable from Scientologists on the crackpot scale). But Stone and Parker look increasingly like three-note hacks who have a lot to say on subjects they only vaguely understand. One of the notes just happens to be *Mormons are so stupid! But in a good way!* Do we really want “friends” like that?

  30. SP, that’s really not too far off from how my non-mormon friends view things. I think it’s closer to standard atheist views than you might be allowing for.

  31. #27 – Thanks for the review, Glenn. I appreciated reading your reaction and reflections.

  32. Celestialbound says:

    Steve,

    Isn’t saying that an ex member never really got it just using the No True Scotsman fallacy? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

    In the interest of full disclosure, as you probably guessed, I am an ex member and was directed to your article by a link form the operator of the Latter-day Main Street website.

  33. S. P. Bailey — but, but South Park said we were the right answer.

  34. BTW – South Park has blasted atheists just as much as Mormons.

  35. Today’s young Mormon missionaries are deluded, just like Stone and Parker say. But not Mormonism.

    Mormonism took root in an environment full of suffering, poverty, persecution, and tragedy. The Book of Mormon is a leaden document, full of suffering, with humorless prophets forlornly walking the earth proclaiming “we were wanderers, cast off, therefore we did mourn out our days.” It’s stories would be instantly recognizable to the suffering Ugandans.

    It is a spectacular feat of naivete that so many well-off, modern Mormons have managed to completely forget that this is in fact, the “lone and dreary world.” We have somehow come to expect and believe that automatic happiness and prosperity are the lot of anyone who keeps the commandments, and those who are not happy and prosperous, “just don’t get it.”

    I’m sorry, but we “just don’t get it.” Half the stuff I hear at church would be different if we actually had spent a few years in the suffering Ugandan’s shoes.

    I wish this musical was truly about understanding and relieving suffering. But it’s not. Parker and Stone are just as naive about misery as Mormons are, or they wouldn’t be writing such superficial material, and poking fun at a religious group that is actually trying to help the poor. What are they doing to help the poor?

  36. #32 — yes, it is.

  37. 22–Krakauer doesn’t say current mainstream Mormons are violent, but he does say that Mormon doctrine & culture inspires violence. He makes some sociological distinctions between mainstream Mo’s and fundamentalists, but he fails to make any meaningful theological distinctions.

    /threadjack

  38. Eric Russell says:

    Shawn, I think S&P are coming from a community and a worldview where Mormonism is both stupid and reprehensible. And because I think that community is their primary audience, they actually see themselves as apologists. To any extent that they are attacking, they see themselves as merely affirming the status quo.

  39. What Eric said.

  40. Haven’t read the comments yet, but can’t help but think of something else I read that echoes the OP- Neal Chandler’s similar but real account of a missionary dealing with post-WWII Germany, the collective skepticism and conscience of having perpetrated “hellish realities of man’s cruelties to man.” I liked it enough to repost it.

    If it’s true that most Mormons are privileged elitists in a socio-economic sense, it’s also true that the Gospel has the power to pull people out of the deep rut and “save” them in a very here-and-now kind of way. I’ve seen it.

  41. #35 – I love me some good stereotyping.

    There’s the musical on one end, which sounds like it at least views Mormons as favorably as the writers are capable of seeing them, and there’s your comments here. Not much difference in overall tone and content.

  42. I served in a rich African country (RSA), and my parents served in … Nigeria. One of the great values of a mission is that many wealthy Americans learn just how little they know and how much they have. –or perhaps that was just the effect on me.

    South Park is an equal opportunity mocker…sure we’re the ones who get a musical…but they generally mock everyone. Frequently it’s funny and sometimes it goes too far for me.

    My thoughts…we believe in faith hope and charity. Anyone with hope is going to do better than someone wihtout hope…just generally. Charity is surely helpful in the worst of situations.

    I will always remember how amazing individuals chose to apply the gospel in their lives and make HUGE breaks from bad habits (beating a wife in one case -the only indian I knew who made that change).

    I believe that the best preparation for a life of service is a chidlhood in a Shire-like environment. I dont’ think of it as a disadvantage to grow up sheltered. I do think it’s a problem to stay there forever (I’ll always remember the talk given by whomever about needing to be the salt of the earth and we can’t do that sitting in one lump in the cultural hall–yup I’m lazy enough to not look up who and when).

    I think education is critical (atleast theoretically knowing about problems). I also think we need to be sure to emphasize principles over practices once you go out of the shire (we worked hard together and tried to get along v. we all lived in short houses with round doors).

  43. Mark Brown says:

    britt, I think this must be the statement you are looking for.

    “We must reach out beyond the walls of our own church. In humanitarian work, as in other areas of the gospel, cannot become the salt of the earth if we stay in one lump in the cultural halls of our beautiful meetinghouses. We need not wait for a call or assignment from a church leader…”

    Glen L. Pace, general conference, October 1990

  44. S.P. Bailey says:

    I understand that, Eric, and I appreciate it as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far!

  45. I had a good friend who came from a relatively rich family who got sent to Haiti on his mission. It was such a shock to him adjusting to the mindset and when he came home he really had a hard time adjusting mentally.

  46. thanks Mark!

  47. Great post! I hope that the Newsroom statement is all that the Church ever says about this. No need for us to whine. Let’s take our lumps and get on with life with self confidence. We know what our religion means for us and we believe that it can make a huge difference in the lives of Ugandans, as a belief system and in terms of building solid, temporally beneficial communities.

    Britt and Mark, great quote from Elder Pace, thanks.

    Allusions to salt also make me think of the yeast/leaven metaphor and in particular how Richard Bushman has reemphasized it recently. This is helpful perspective on this issue as well, I think.

  48. Granted, stuff like this is better than tar and feathers and extermination orders.

    Awww, you’re too lenient. Surely this IS just as bad as tar and feathers and extermination orders.

  49. Looking at the demographics of the church, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Phillipines, Peru, Argentina, and Guatemala make up 3 million, or roughly a quarter of the membership of the church.
    I can’t wrap my head around the idea that Mormons are perceived as a naive, white bread, sheltered group of people. Sending a good portion of our teenage boys, at the height of naivete, into distant parts of the world probably means that we are some of the least naive people, as a group, in the developed western world.

  50. Thanks John. I agree — that short but sweet statement is all we ever need to provide.

  51. Sending a good portion of our teenage boys, at the height of naivete, into distant parts of the world probably means that we are some of the least naive people, as a group, in the developed western world.

    That’s an excellent point, actually.

  52. …unless we are so naive as to have no idea of the evils they will encounter…

  53. But if that’s the case, then it should be reducing exponentially as those who served in such places become more and more numerous.

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