Attractive Lies and Boring Truth

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.”


  1. Some people would say that religion is nothing but exciting lies instead of the boring old truth. I personally fall somewhere between the two extremes.

  2. I thought pretty much all had been said on The Book of Mormon musical, but you surprised me with this thoughtful analysis.

  3. “Religion works precisely because people believe that it is true.” Excellent point I’ve been trying to get my head around for years. The church as solely a community is not sufficiently compelling to be worth the hassle of arbitrary rules and judgments. Those who don’t believe it’s true will cease to see it as good in the long run.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts. I think that the music of The Music Man is superior though. Who would have thought that it was more subversive than hard rock?

  5. Michael Austin says:

    And, in its day, “The Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me” was pushing the envelope of moral respectability in much the same way that some of the songs in The Book of Mormon are pushing it today.

  6. I think this review nailed it. I saw the musical and agree that while it’s superficially clever the underlying message is bland: Out with Truth and in with truths and whatever works for you as long as it makes you a better person, i.e., postmodern religion for the masses.

    What’s so interesting is how popular the show has been. Is it just the catchiness of the music and the cleverness of the lyrics and dialogue that is pulling people in, or is there something about the underlying message, too, that is speaking to people? They know religion is crazy (and none crazier than Mormonism (except for Scientology)) but they still want it, and The Book of Mormon musical gives them permission to have their cake and eat it too (or at least to give a pass to those around them who choose to live with exciting lies). It’s the same message found in the recent The Life of Pi: what would you rather hear and believe, the ugly true story or the beautiful false one?

    I have no problem with metaphors and myths. What I do have a problem with is when someone thinks beautiful lies are good for other, more stupid people. All I see is Jack Nicholson sitting smugly up on the stand at the end of A Few Good Men: “You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth!” In fact, I might have liked the musical better if Jack Nicholson had come out at the end and delivered this very line.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    This was easily the best thing I’ve read on this musical. But I’m not so keen on the title. The truth – reality- is infinitely rich. I don’t think there is any idea that I’m more personally committed to than the idea that reality is richer than un-reality.

  8. Thomas makes a great point. There is nothing more inspiring and thought provoking to learn that we are children of God who created this world and everything in it so that we could become like him and carry on his work. If that though was on our mind more we’d act with greater clarity and compassion in all things.

    The play by comparison is distracting drivel at best.

  9. But I did appreciate your insightful comparison with the Music Man.

  10. Excellent review. I hadn’t made the connection between theses musicals, but it’s a strong one.

    My main thought as I read the post and the comments:

    I love what I have to work to try to understand – and what changes regularly as I try to understand it. I don’t want easy answers; I want eternal progression.

    Ironically, that leads me to believe in worshiping God according to the dictates of my own conscience and allowing all people everywhere the same privilege, while acknowledging that we all see through a glass, darkly.

    I guess that puts me right in the middle of these sort of discussions – on my own path amid all the other paths that make up my faith community.

  11. questioning says:

    This is probably the first time I have ever been able to agree with everything written in a BCC OP.

  12. Last Lemming says:

    I take it you hate The Life of Pi too.

  13. nerdherd21 says:

    The premise of the whole show is that they think that Mormonism itself is a lie that people use to make themselves happier. The whole song about “Turn it off” basically says that even though the truth is hard, (ie “I am gay”) if you can just keep on believing and you will be happier in the end. The makers of the show think that mormon people are great but they are delusional and believe in a lie that makes them happier. To use your comparison they are saying that Harold Hill = Joseph Smith = Arnold Cunningham.

    The definition of satire is basically irony or sarcasm. Based on that, I don’t think you possibly can say that the writers failed at all. I guess I don’t understand how you don’t see the irony or sarcasm of the link to Arnold and Joseph. I think they actually nailed it pretty well. To say they come down on illusion and self deception is kind of strange because that is exactly what the satire is about. They even wrote a song about it.

  14. Good point, nerdherd21. I think that the song “Turn It Off” works pretty well as satire because it ultimately does not come down on the side of self-deception. The apparent meaning of the song is that you can change who you are by simply deciding to be different–with the primary example being Elder McKinley, the missionary who :”decided” not to be gay. This is what he says, but the text itself gives us reason to doubt this and to realize that he still is gay, even if he is pretending not to be. The surface meaning of the song is that illusions can make you happy, but the stable meaning of the song (the voice of the satirist) is that you can’t just “turn it off.” .

    Later in the play, however, the satiric voice switches to the side of self-deception. Arnold’s deceptions are fully approved of by the text, as, in the comparison that you site, are Joseph Smith’s. The message is that truth is dreary and hard and that illusions are actually good for you.

    This, I would argue, is an inherently unsatirical position. Saying that satire is “basically irony or sarcasm,” I think, confuses a set of tools with the thing they create. Irony and sarcasm are the tools that satire uses, but they are not “satire”–any more than rhyme and meter are “poetry.” Satire is a fairly well-defined stance of an author towards a subject–a position that has been worked out in Western literature in the 2500 or so years since Aristophanes wrote plays like “Lysistrata” and “The Clouds.” An important part of this tradition is a sort of unsparing truth telling that forces readers to confront unpleasant realities without the security of comforting self-deceptions. Satire can certainly be ABOUT self-deception (Don Quixote would be a good example), but (at least in the critical universe that I inhabit), it must always side against self-deception or it becomes something else.

  15. nerdherd21 says:

    I guess if you are going to be technical about what satire is and define it in your classical way you are going to win the argument, however their intention is pretty clear that they believe that religion is a way to delude ones self into believing something that is going to make you happy. Even if it isn’t true it will make you happy anyway. So the value of the belief itself isn’t found in the truth of the belief but in the actions that they inspire in the individual.

    You say, “The satirist is supposed to rub our faces in all of the things that we try to conceal from ourselves.” In their mind you are the person that they are going after in this play. They are trying to rub your face in the fact that you are deluding yourself into believing that Joseph Smith really saw an angel. Seems like you didn’t like that part so much so you didn’t like the second part of the show.

    I totally understand while the first act tries to portray mormonism as weird and all that a mormon would not be bothered by the show. However, your reaction is exactly the reason I think most mormon’s really don’t like the second act. The ridiculous things that Arnold come up with to make people believe in seems to hit a little to close to home and in some ways when comparing their beliefs with what they believe. In the end i guess I feel like they did a good job.So maybe it is more parody then satire?

    Also, did the creators of the play actually say they were going for classic satire? If not why is this even an issue? Going after a play because you don’t think it fits what you think it should be doesn’t seem like a good reason not to like something.

  16. Sadly, when the Church airbrushes inconvenient truths from its history, glosses over inconsistencies in the evolution of its doctrines, twists the meaning of Biblical passages in order to make them fit the Mormon narrative, and disseminates educational materials containing numerous errors and misinformation it, like Elder Arnold, substitutes myth for truth. Though the truth is often messy and discomforting, I prefer it. And I think we can handle it.

  17. “Going after a play because you don’t think it fits what you think it should be doesn’t seem like a good reason not to like something.”

    My bias here is simply that searching for the truth is a better thing to do than searching for an untruth. I have no problem with the equation of Arnold and Joseph Smith as people who just make stuff up. That is a legitimate criticism of the Mormon position that I may not agree with but can certainly respect. I have a problem with the fact that, for the authors, Arnold and Joseph Smith are people who just make stuff up–and that is OK because the truth really isn’t important anyway. .

  18. My (typically long-winded) endorsement:

    While I am not experienced enough in the finer points of satire and the hidden meanings in plays and songs to comment on all that, this post contains a great articulation of where I am now “at” with regard to my beliefs about the value of the Church. Mike Austin (and several commenters) has aptly said what I usually refer to (generally, in defense of “staying” when I believe so little in the party line) as “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” (similar to but not in comparison to Sterling McMurrin’s well-known “love” of Mormonism):

    “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).”

    I have progressed to the point where, while very aware of the “dirt” in the “bath water,” (which includes allowances for the TBMs’ unquestioning acceptance of everything) I can see that the positive aspects of our Mormon culture and the community and friendships with really great people that I experience very likely could not have developed without at least a good portion of the baloney we have been fed for 180+ years. Angela C puts it much better than I..” “Religion works precisely because people believe that it is true.” Excellent point I’ve been trying to get my head around for years. The church as solely a community is not sufficiently compelling to be worth the hassle of arbitrary rules and judgments. Those who don’t believe it’s true will cease to see it as good in the long run.’

  19. Coincidentally, yesterday my dentist (who I visited for my annual checkup) asked me what I thought of the Book of Mormon (the play, that is). He is Jewish and had just seen it. I told him that I had not seen it, but that I was familiar with script and the lyrics of the songs. I then said that while I don’t have a problem with anyone poking fun at my Church (heck, I enjoy doing that, too), I had declined to see it because I thought it was too vulgar, especially with the gratuitous profanity.

    Somewhat to my surprise, his reaction was similar to mine. He thought it was way over the top, and wanted to know why people on Broadway and in Hollywood seem to reserve their greatest disdain and vitriol for the Mormon Church. I shrugged my shoulders and said: “Beats me.”

  20. Thomas–the title was my fault, not Mike’s–I forgot to include it when I first put the post up, and then hastily tried to cover my mistake.

  21. This is now my favorite response to / review of the BoM musical.

  22. Professor Harold Hill says:

    The think system creates a band, unites a town, brings hope to children, eradicates vice, and ends in virtuous romance. The Book of Mormon (musical) is a smug, sub-par, scatological satire that will soon be forgotten: “The Book of Mormon (musical) may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”

  23. This makes me think the Church’s famous PR response to The Book of Mormon could be used for lots of other Broadway hits.

    “Chicago (the musical) may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but Chicago the city will change people’s lives forever by being, well, not New York, but a perfectly fine Midwestern industrial center.”

    “Cats (the musical) may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but cats the animal will change people’s lives forever by pushing their little butt-holes into your face when you’re trying to nap.”

    “Fiddler on the Roof (the musical) may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but a fiddler on the roof (the actual fiddler) will change people’s live forever by playing a fiddle on their roofs.”

  24. Really enjoyed this post and think it gets it right. Also the comment immediately above this one is pretty funny.

  25. Ahw… The Music Man is the story of Marion. She is not hoodwinked and is determined to make lemon aid from the Harold Hill lemons. She is the hero of the play and makes Prof. Hill into a good man. She keeps the town united and the situation from being a tragedy. The line between optimism and gullibility is not clear, and I think they play is about that line. Marion understood that conundrum.

    Have not seen “The Book of Mormon.” That, being said, I presume we, the audience, are in the position of Marion, being aware of the limitations of optimism and the dangers of gullibility. The play may end, on stage, as the triumph of gullibility, but in the intellectual Mormon’s head, it continues. It is completed as Marion completed the story of the Music Man, eyes open and aware, but full of hope.

  26. My participation as a member of the boys’ band in a community production has left me with a somewhat skewed view of The Music Man. It seems to me that the miracle of the partial success of the band in playing the Minuet in G came about because the boys loved Professor Hill enough to be willing to make a last-minute, behind-the-scenes effort to learn to play their instruments instead of giving up on him when the chips were down. Some of the lessons that The Music Man has to teach are that a burst of hard work at the end to rescue a procrastinated project from failure is better than no work at all, that learning to care about people is better than learning to fool them, and that thinking about music is almost as important as practicing it.

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  28. Hi, Mike. I’m an atheist and I just saw the play too. I’m not coming here to argue with you — I thought your post was interesting because it was, IMHO, a completely appropriate reaction for a Mormon to have. At my theater in Austin, there was a large multi-page ad for the Mormon church, and I’ve heard that some Mormons really like the play. I found this kind of perplexing, myself.

    Whether or not the message hits home, I’d say it is deliberately insulting to Mormons. It’s not so much the way they present the literal story of Joseph Smith — they play it up for laughs, somewhat, but it seemed like they more or less told the story accurately. However, IMHO, the writers very clearly intended to draw a direct parallel between Joseph Smith and Elder Cunningham. Both of them, in Parker and Stone’s story, are supposed to be making up stories for their own reasons, and the religious movement that they create is based on a willingness to believe those stories. The fact that the show begins and ends on the same song, with some of the details of the story changed, obviously is meant to bookend the two versions of the “Mormon” story.

    Now, clearly I understand that we’re on different sides of this issue. I agree with their interpretation, to an extent, and you believe that they missed the mark because the Joseph Smith angel story is real. But I think we both understand the message of the play in the same way, and that’s why I feel like it would be hard for a sincere Mormon to get the same message out of the play that you and I did, and still really like it.

    Anyway, I just thought that was interesting.

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