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.
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…