A guest post from Mike Austin. Mike is Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of English at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, a member of the Dialogue Board of Directors, and a generally all-around great guy.
Trouble, Right Here in Sal Tlay Ka Siti
“I always think there’s a band, kid.” —Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man
By the time that I figured out that I hated The Music Man, it had been my favorite musical for more than 20 years. When I was ten, my mother took me to see Tony Randall as Professor Harold Hill at the Tulsa Little Theatre, and I was hooked. I listened to the LP for hours at a time, and, when the Robert Preston/Shirley Jones movie came to HBO a few years later, I watched it almost every day for two months. I have seen five stage versions and two film versions of the play a total of probably 30 times. I probably have most of the lines by heart.
I was in my 30s before I figured out that the ultimate message of The Music Man—that exciting lies are better than boring old truths—is one that I find morally reprehensible. When Harold Hill comes into River City and convinces people that he is going to build a boys’ band, everybody gets excited. People are nicer, more confident, and happier than they were before. So the whole town more or less colludes with Marian Paroo to keep the deception alive. If you want to be happy, The Music Man insists, just find a good-looking lie and pretend hard enough until it comes sort of true.
Which brings me to The Book of Mormon, which I saw last week in Dallas. I am happy to report that, like all good Mormon intellectuals, I was not offended by the way the play portrayed the Church (I am not, after all, THAT kind of Mormon). The Mormon missionaries are sweet and lovable and as well developed as anybody else in the play. When the play does have fun at the expense of Mormonism, it does so with such a good nature that it would be churlish to take offense.
I was, though, deeply offended by the vulgar lyrics and the crass dialogue. But that’s OK. Satire is supposed to be deeply offensive. When I teach Aristophanes or Cervantes, or Pope or Swift, I tell students that they aren’t really dealing with satire unless they see excrement, body fluids, and transgressive sexuality. The satirist is supposed to rub our faces in all of the things that we try to conceal from ourselves. Satire is the one literary genre that can never condone even the slightest bit of self-deception.
And this is why I believe that The Book of Mormon ultimately fails as satire—in spite of its well-documented vulgarity. The writers ultimately come down where real satirists can never be: on the side of illusion and self-deception. Much like The Music Man, The Book of Mormon ends up telling us to find an attractive lie and pretend hard enough to make it sort of true. Both plays insist that we will be happier in life if we let ourselves be conned.
The narrative arc of The Book of Mormon lots of similarities to The Music Man. In the latter play, a pair of mismatched Mormon missionaries (one polished and intelligent, the other clueless and slovenly) comes into a new town to drum up business and sell a story. The more polished missionary, Elder Price, launches into a sales-pitch musical number (”All-American Prophet”) with eerie similarities to “Seventy Six Trombones.”
But there are real troubles in this River City. In addition to extreme poverty, most of the village suffers from AIDS, and a local warlord has threatened to kill everybody in the village unless all women submit to circumcision. Nobody pays attention to Elder Price, because nothing that he says connects to the harsh realities of their lives.
It is Elder Arnold Cunningham—the slovenly slacker who has never actually read the Book of Mormon—who comes up with the hook. When pressed to explain the relevance of his message, Arnold mixes Mormon theology with fantasy and science fiction to create a new and improved Book of Mormon in which Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith team up with Hobbits and Boba Fett to cure AIDS, stamp out female circumcision, and fight the Death Star (“You’re Making Things Up Again, Arnold“).
Arnold’s teachings take the village by storm, and nearly all of the villagers get baptized. Hilarity, of course, ensues—and by the end of the play, the institutional Church (represented by the mission president) has rejected both the villagers and the eight missionaries in the area. But, as the closing number reminds us, they are all still Latter-day Saints (“Tomorrow is a Latter Day“)—“even if we change some things and break the rules and have complete doubt that God exists.”
Nearly everybody in the play ends up inhabiting this world view. The Ugandan villagers (who previously saw no value to religion other than to provide a God whose name to curse), have embraced a mythos that seems to give them control over their lives, and the missionaries no longer believe that they have to consider their religion true in order to derive benefit from it. Everyone is happy in the Church of Arnold Cunningham.
This not a new idea. Religious intellectuals have long wanted to find a way to get all of the good things about religion (community, purpose, comfort, etc.) without all of the bad things (dogmatism, exclusivity, and the intellectually embarrassing truth claims that we enlightened people don’t like to talk about). This is the essence of what we now call “Arnoldian humanism”—named after the Victorian scholar and poet Matthew Arnold, but perfectly applicable to Arnold Cunningham as well.
But this idea has always been a dead end. It turns out that “bad religion” is just another way of looking at “good religion.” The embarrassing truth claims of religion are the very things that create its strong sense of purpose. Beliefs about salvation and the afterlife produce the comfort that so many people value. And the lines that draw some people into the community also draw some people out. Religion works precisely because people believe that it is true. If it is not true then it is more trouble than it is worth. There are better ways to distribute metaphors and foster community.
I do not believe, therefore, that The Book of Mormon presents us with a philosophy that is either coherent or comforting. This is not to say that it is not excellent musical theatre. It is. The music is fantastic, and the lyrics are clever. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the play as well as the occasional profound insight. I laughed. I cried. And I wanted it to go on all night. For most of the second act, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Robert Preston was about to step out from behind the curtain, dressed impeccably as Joseph Smith, and say “I always think there’s an angel, kid.”