On Layered Time, plus Thoughts on a Certain Musical

On April 6th

I was interested in General Conference to hear stories about the beginnings of the Church welfare program. I knew the program was important, but I didn’t realize how important until Bishop Burton shared the Heber J. Grant quote about how other core programs of the church (including sending out missionaries and operating temples) could be temporarily suspended in order to make sure the welfare program succeeded.

I also didn’t realize that the program had been launched 75 years ago today: on April 6th. Maybe the 6th just happened to be a conference day that year, but I would how intentional it was to layer the founding onto the same day the church was founded. The day we believe Jesus was born.

We Latter-day Saints, after all, like to do that. Time isn’t so much a line in our stories as a series of layers that show through each other. Latter-day Saints layered over early church saints, not far beyond them on some continuum of progress. The trek west layered over the story of the Exodus. We even do this with geography: here’s a Jordan river and some mountains of the Lord. We layered Missouri right onto the Garden of Eden.

Look in the scriptures and you start to notice this layering everywhere. Two weeks ago, our Sunday School teacher pointed out that when Jesus walks up between Tyre and Sidon and finds a woman whose child needs help, there are echoes of Elijah’s journey to Zarephath. Look at the way Moroni tells the stories in  the Book of Ether, and it’s almost as if he’d compressed the whole Book of Mormon into 15 chapters.

On The Book of Mormon Musical

A few weeks ago, prior (as I recall) to the opening of this musical, Mahonri Stewart wrote an interesting post comparing depictions of Mormons in some art to minstrel shows. If we get past the specific disgust Americans reserve for minstrel shows, it’s an interesting idea: is there something inherently dangerous about using a marginalized minority as a caricature for laughs?

Looking at some reviews of the show, though, I think commedia dell’arte may be the better analogy. There’s a stock character in commedia called “Il Capitano,” drawn as I recall from the old Roman stock character of the braggart soldier. The point of a commedia show is not (or at least not exclusively) to make fun of soldiers, it’s to make fun of the intersections between various stock characters with exaggerated characteristics. You could say that commedia stereotypes all soldiers as braggarts. Or you could say they needed some representative for the human tendency to brag and soldiers were the most convenient.

Parker and Stone seem to want to caricature idealism and earnestness. In a weird way, I’m almost flattered that they picked us as the most convenient group to showcase those characteristics in excess. And what may make the Mormons in this show better than Mormons in, say, Angels in America or Neil LaBute’s Bash is that because the style is obviously caricature, people will probably not be as quick to assume that’s what we’re really like. When I was at a panel on Angels in America at the Jewish-American literature conference, one attendee asked a Mormon presenter what it said about our supposed emphasis on family values that Joe Pitt’s father never gave him a priesthood blessing. I was absolutely floored: it’s bad enough to be judged based on the conduct of one other Mormon, but to be judged off the conduct of a fictional character in a work by a non-Mormon writer? Wow. Talk about impossible standards. Luckily, I doubt anyone will expect me to be accountable for the actions of Parker and Stone’s characters.


That Said…

If we shouldn’t have to worry as Mormons about the way this musical caricatures our identity, I think we should be a little worried as critics and world citizens about the caricature of sub-Saharan Africans. After all: Mormons, especially Mormon missionaries, do run more idealistic and earnest than the average South Park fan. But in my personal experience, depicting sub-Saharan Africans as cynical atheists who curse God is way off.

A quick illustration: I was a missionary in the former East Germany, where the overwhelming majority of people consider themselves atheists (even if they believe in guardian angels, but more on that another day). One week, I started trying to start up conversations on the street with people by asking first “Do you believe in God?” and then following up on the standard “No” with “Have you ever wanted to?”

One night on our way home, we ran into an African guy who probably had three inches on me (when I stand up straight, I’m 6’6″). When I asked him my question of the week, he didn’t have to think at all before replying “I’m black! Of course I believe in God.” He then told us about how he’d come to play basketball to pay his way through college in Germany. The first time he found out a professor was an atheist, he was so surprised he said “What???” right to her face. The guy had never even imagined atheism as a coherent possible position before.

As I understand it, this position is fairly consistent with religiosity in Africa. Some people are Christian, some Muslim, some practice native faiths and many mix a little, but almost everybody believes strongly in God. The idea, then, that obviously the suffering of third-world life would lead to widespread disbelief or anger at the Almighty is a not an exaggeration of reality but rather a  projection by secular Westerners onto a foreign site.

This misrepresentation particularly bothers me because it’s as in line with condescending Western attitudes about Africans as it is out of line with real African faith as I understand it. While the suffering in places like Uganda is very real, we do a disservice to anyone when we assume their lives are consumed by a victimized relationship with suffering.

A thought: maybe sitting on American campuses theorizing someone else’s pain naturally lends itself to a sympathetic but condescending story of victimization?

A thought: maybe the close physical interactions that come from brother-and-sisterhood in the church are far more likely to produce mutual respect than all the literary theory in the world…




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5 Responses to On Layered Time, plus Thoughts on a Certain Musical

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Those two thoughts couldn’t not possibly be likely to be true.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    Religious belief is one of those things that often seems to be misunderstood in fundamental ways by those who don’t share it.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’ve read a few reviews, good and bad, about this play. But I don’t remember mention of sub-Saharian Africans, which I guess means blacks. So for those of us who haven’t seen the play and who are otherwise ill-informed, what occurs on stage that worries you? I’m guessing the musical elders are sent to Africa…. Then what?

  4. James Goldberg says:

    The core of the play is the juxtaposition of the idealistic young missionaries with Ugandan locals suffering from various epidemics, warlord violence, poverty, etc. One of the introductory songs in fake Uganda is supposed to be sort of like “Hakuna Matata” in the Lion King, except that it turns out the phrase is not “no worries” but “*^#%$ God.”

    Uganda is the country Idi Amin ruled, and bad, bad stuff has happened there, but I think Westerners are a lot more likely to blame God for their troubles than most Africans are.

  5. Regarding the date of the launching of the welfare program: as I recall, it used to be that April general conference was held on three days (seven sessions, counting the priesthood session), and two of the days were Saturday and Sunday. The third day was on April 6th, regardless of what day of the week that was.

    So it was not unusual that something like launching the welfare program could be done on April 6th.

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