Having conquered Broadway over the course of the last year, Trey Stone, Robert Lopez and Matt Parker’s The Book of Mormon begins a run at London's Prince of Wales Theatre this month. Coming as it does from the co-creators of controversial US cartoon South Park, we should expect abundant irreverence, some form of public uproar, and very possibly a campaign from the Daily Mail.
In America, the show hasn't just upset the Mormon Church referenced in the title, but the wider Christian Church too. Some of its darkly comic targets are specific to a religion (some would say cult) which is far more familiar to an American audience than a British one, but some of the most controversial moments apply more broadly.Offensive song
The plot follows two Mormon missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are horrified to discover that they’re being sent to serve their two-year evangelistic mission in Uganda (having hoped they’d be sent to Orlando, Florida).
Here’s where the controversy starts to kick in – as they land in Africa, and meet a local tribe. They soon learn not only that the villagers live in appalling conditions and have to face the realities of AIDS, poverty and a murderous local chieftain, but that they cheer themselves up with a song which translates as ‘**** you, God’.
The song is pretty much the most offensive thing you could play to a God-fearing person. I don’t in any way advise you ever to listen to it, but the climactic part beggars belief – I don’t think I’ve ever heard swearing and blasphemy combined to such a degree. When the show opens in the UK, I will be stunned if Christian Voice and other lobby groups aren’t yelling ‘ban this sick show’ on the basis of these lyrics alone.
They’ll arguably be right to do so. Except…while that song feels incredibly gratuitous, it is in fact going to an extreme in order to make a point. The song is a darkly comic exploration of how those in extreme suffering feel angry at God. The lyricists’ target here – and in subsequent songs – seems to be the way that fundamentalist religion can prioritise religious conversion’ above earthly justice; how religious people can seemingly overlook or ignore cries of earthly pain in the pursuit of ‘scalps’. The way that Stone, Lopez and Parker go about making their point seems to go way too far; perhaps they would argue that doing so is the only way to be heard. And while Mormonism is the stated target, it’s not hard to see that the indictment spreads far wider – to any religion that has attempted to teach doctrine to tribal Africa.
The story continues as Elder Price attempts to dazzle the villagers with his retelling of ‘The Bible Part 3’ – the Book of Mormon and the story of ‘All-American Prophet’ Joseph Smith. At first his preaching falls on deaf ears, as the Ugandans see through his hollow words. The Elders are at first disillusioned, but after various offensive misadventures, the young missionaries arrive at an understanding that while scripture in itself is sacred, what’s important is ensuring that those who seek to put it into action actually help people. Again, the creators of the show are making a searing point to every kind of American church – faith without works is dead…and I think we’ve heard that somewhere before.Engaging with the enemy?
Yes, the show is unbelievably coarse, deliberately controversial, and many will view it as blasphemous. Nevertheless, it is coming to the UK this month, and we can choose to stand outside it waving placards. Seems to me, though, the show is designed to both enrage and poke fun at exactly the kind of person who would choose to do so.
Is there another way of engaging with a cultural event which, on the face of it, seems to see us as an enemy? I’d argue that rather than wasting energy standing against Parker, Lopez and Stone’s view of Christ-centred religion, we should busy ourselves with demonstrating through the way we practice our faith that their caricature doesn’t ring true. And perhaps, in their heavy-handed jibes at missionary activity in Africa, they raise uncomfortable issues with which the wider Church actually does need to engage.
Ultimately, I believe in a God who is bigger than a musical play that mocks him and his followers. I don’t feel threatened by it, and I don’t feel the need to defend him in the face of it. In the coming weeks, we’ll see if I’m in a minority. Keep an eye out for those Daily Mail headlines.
Martin Saunders is the Christianity Culture columnist. Follow him on twitter: www.twitter.com/martinsaunders