On The Book of Mormon: Christianity without Scripture

In the musical number “Making Things Up Again,” from the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, Elder Cunningham is told by a Ugandan character with AIDS, “The story that I have been told is that the way to cure AIDS is by sleeping with a virgin! I’m going to go and rape a baby!”

Horrified, Elder Cunningham replies, “That is definitely against God’s will! […] Uh, behold, the Lord said to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, ‘You shall not have sex with that infant!’ Joseph said, ‘Why not Lord? Huh? Why not?’ And the Lord said, ‘If you lay with that infant you shall… Pghwwww! […] burn in the fiery pits of Mordor! […] A baby cannot cure your illness, Joseph Smith – I shall give unto you a… a frog! And thus Joseph laid with the frog and his AIDS was no more!”[1]

Recently, I had the chance with some friends to watch a touring cast of The Book of Mormon, the acclaimed Broadway musical. I appreciated the music and the wit in the songs, as did the friends with whom I saw the musical. However, as I later reflected upon the satire of Mormonism that the musical portrayed, I realized that beneath the humor and entertainment, the musical presented some profound ideas about religion.

In the musical, two Mormon missionaries are sent to a village in Uganda to try to convert the natives to the church of Latter Day Saints. However, they are faced with complete failure because the Ugandans find stories from hundreds of years ago about Nephites and Jesus in America irrelevant to their lives with AIDS and maggot infections. As the missionaries are just about to give up, in a moment of desperation, the compulsive liar Elder Arnold Cunningham suddenly has a brainwave – why not claim that the book actually speaks directly to the situation of the suffering Ugandans? Why not make up stories from the book in order to teach what he is sure are Mormon principles anyway? Trying it out tentatively, he changes the way the villagers see AIDS and infant rape with his story about the frog given to Joseph Smith. Unexpectedly, the villagers are attentive and open, believing that the religion does have something to say to them; soon, the Starship Enterprise, Boba Fett, and Ewoks are given roles in the sacred book to teach the Ugandans about ‘Mormonism.’ When threatened by his conscience, Cunningham justifies his lying by telling himself, “I’m making things up again, kind of, but this time it’s helping a dozen people… this time, I’m not committing a sin just by making things up again.”[2]  Cunningham discovers that although scriptures are important, what is more important to him is ensuring that religion helps people. Indeed, the community is helped, and the Ugandans embrace the modified form of Mormonism in practice. They are invigorated with a new sense of community, and the village is transformed from pessimistic and miserable to a group of optimistic, hakuna matata-esque villagers who adopt pseudo-Mormon ethics and practices. They then follow their all-American prophet, Arnold Cunningham, as they evangelize the other neighboring villages with their new religion.

Described by its creators as an “atheist love letter to religion,” The Book of Mormon is based on the claim that religion does not need to be true, or even real, as long as it helps people and causes them to lead better lives.[3] And indeed, this is not a sentiment held exclusively by fictional Broadway characters – George Eliot is famously purported to have proclaimed, “The old religion said ‘Heaven help us!’ Our new one, from its very lack of that faith in a heaven, will teach us all the more to help one another.” In Eliot’s and Cunningham’s opinions, the true value of religion is found not in the underlying stories, but instead in the humanitarian ethics and teachings that religion imparts. In other words, they believe that religion is able to help people as effectively, and perhaps even more effectively and powerfully, when divorced from faith and religious dogmas.

It is outside of the scope of this article to comment on Mormonism or other religions as a whole, but from a Protestant Christian perspective, this raises interesting challenges and implications about the value of Christian ethics apart from the Christian story. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, rejected the view of his contemporary Eliot, writing, “Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.”[4] In a similar vein, St. Paul wrote in an epistle to the Corinthian church, that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17, 19). While Nietzsche and Paul wrote from different perspectives (Nietzsche argued that we should abandon Christian ethics altogether along with our faith in the Christian story, while Paul argued the exact opposite), they both agree that somehow Christian ethics are empty without the story on which they are based.

In Nietzsche’s and Paul’s view, the ethics and teachings of Christianity, even if faithfully and piously practiced, would not be of use if the fundamental story were wrong. They would not only be irrational, but also would be a meaningless and powerless illusion.[5]  In other words, if the Scriptures and the gospel were distorted and modified to make the teachings more ‘relevant’ or ‘helpful’ to groups of people, then these teachings of the church would have no real value even if they do superficially make their followers happier or more ‘peaceful,’ or even if they inspire their followers to perform more good deeds. In this way, instead of only instituting a series of good practices, a moral code, or ‘a way, a truth and a life’ to help people to live better lives, the value of the Church is in declaring the truth:  by Jesus Christ coming to Earth and reconciling man with God, he provided himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6, italics added).

The notion that good Christian ethical practices are not only irrational, but also powerless when divorced from the Christian story and spirit can perhaps best be seen through an illustration. A common teaching of the Church is that a person who has been wronged should forgive his or her transgressor, and should not bear a grudge. Intuitively, this seems like an unreasonable instruction, especially if one has indeed been substantially wronged by a transgressor – it would be reasonable to expect justice to be meted out. Not to seek justice would be to lose due compensation. Even if it were reasonable, forgiveness is much more difficult in deed than in word – even if someone wanted to forgive, he or she might not be able to. This sentiment is expressed in Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he notes that “[striving] for the righteousness that is based on the law” would be futile because of the utterly high standard to which Christians are called (Rom 9:30).

When located in the biblical narrative containing this instruction, however, we see forgiveness in a different light. For instance, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a servant owes his king a large amount of money, but is unable to pay when asked (Mt 18:21-35). In an act of unmerited kindness, the king completely forgives and absolves the servant of his debt. As this servant leaves, he then accosts a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller sum of money. Similarly unable to pay, the second servant pleads for patience and a little more time – the same thing that the first servant also pleaded to the king – but the first servant flies into a rage and, “seizing him by the throat,” has him thrown into prison (Mt 18:28).The king then hears about this incident, and he has the first servant summoned and thrown into jail for being ungrateful. The message behind this parable is clear: we, as people who have been forgiven a great debt by God, should similarly extend this grace from God to others because we have been forgiven a transgression against God that is much larger in magnitude.

In this case, we can see that although the teaching remains the same, the Christian ethic of forgiveness changes completely when told in light of the biblical narrative. Just as we might rationalize that the first servant did no wrong in throwing the second servant into jail for defaulting on a debt, we would not be able to meaningfully forgive and teach forgiveness without first understanding that we were forgiven a greater debt by God. There would be no real reason why one should forgive a transgressor for a wrong clearly done, unless one has experienced forgiveness oneself. Indeed, it is because Christians recognize that they have first been forgiven much that they can similarly forgive others. Furthermore, by understanding the story behind the teaching and understanding the original source of forgiveness, Christians are then also actually empowered to forgive, by the grace of God that comes with this acknowledgement.

This reasoning can be extended to other aspects of Christian teaching – for example, abstaining from extramarital sex, putting the needs of others before oneself, and not worrying about the future – where we can apply the same analysis and see that teachings are quite irrational and powerless without the story behind them. [6] When Christian ethics are spread by the church, they lose their value if they are not accompanied by the stories in the scriptures and by the figure of Christ in the stories. Indeed, the mission of the church is not to get people to take on a new label, or even to have them take part in the practices and activities of the church. Rather, the mission of the church is to point people to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, moving them to cultivate their relationship with God, based on the price paid by Jesus for their redemption.[7] It is only this mission that can make a true, meaningful difference in the way humans view themselves, each other, this present life, and eternity. Moral living, humanitarian work and social action are essential and integral parts of Christianity, but they cannot be separated from the scriptures and story behind them. If there were a real Arnold Cunningham, his followers would not be true Mormons (indeed, in the musical, the Mormon missions president denounced them as much), and Cunningham would not have really helped them. All that this new religion would have done for the peoplewould be to cause them to switch from one set of cultural practices to another.

When I walked into the theater to see The Book of Mormon, I expected two hours of simple entertainment, laughter, and satire. I did not expect the themes raised in the satire to linger with me as long and as profoundly as they did. The creators unintentionally remind the Christian church to reexamine itself and its practices by presenting their understanding of the value of religion in helping people. The Book of Mormon provides a caricature of what religion might look like if it rested only upon its practices and not on the truth of the underlying story. Christians should be reminded of the importance of the scriptures that we hold true, as we are challenged to reflect on whether and why the stories contained in them actually do matter.

 

References 

[1] Parker, Trey, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. “Making Things Up Again,” The Book of Mormon. Perf. Josh Gad.

http://lyrics.wikia.com/Josh_Gad:Making_Things_Up_Again. Accessed Oct 3, 2013.

[2] “Making Things Up Again,” The Book of Mormon.

[3] Jake Tapper and Lauren Effron, Creators of ‘South Park’ Defend Their Broadway Debut, ‘Book of Mormon’, ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/south-park-creators-defend-musical-book-mormon/story?id=13214753, accessed Oct 3, 2013.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Twilight of the Idols,” The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 515.

 

[5] Francis. Encyclical Letter. Lumen Fidei. 5 July 2013.

 

[6] cf. Matthew 6:25-31, in which Jesus explains to his disciples why they should not worry but should instead trust in provision from God.

[7] cf. Mt 28:19, NRSV.

 

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