Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”

Part of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week. Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

When I lived in London, I attended a conservative evangelical church for two years. I am, as you might have gathered, neither conservative nor evangelical. Evangelicals are extremely keen on sharing their faith; in fact, they talk about little else. Nearly every week we were encouraged to bring a non-Christian friend to some church event (and, knowing how most non-Christians react to being invited to a church event, I can only admire such perseverance); and nearly every week we were asked to pray for “our mission partners” in South Africa or China or France.

The whole concept of mission is very problematic for liberal or left-leaning Christians. On the one hand, mission workers did and do bring much-needed education, infrastructure, and supplies to destitute areas. However, mission's intertwining with imperialism, both economic/territorial and cultural, can't be ignored, and Christian mission can certainly be held responsible for many of Africa's problems today.

The plot of Broadway's The Book of Mormon sees two young Mormon men – all-American golden boy Kevin and nerdy comic-relief figure Arnold – sent on their mission to a village in Uganda. A lot of immediate humor is mined from the simple incongruity of the squeaky-clean, hopelessly naïve Mormon boys transplanted to a little war-ravaged African village. Refreshingly, the jokes are mostly skewed, not against the PRIMITIVE AND WACKY NATIVES!, but against Kevin and Arnold, due to the ways Africa defies their expectations (which, like mine when I moved to East Africa at the age of seven, are based almost exclusively on The Lion King).

Hasa Diga Eebowai” is the song with which the Ugandans greet them on their arrival. It's a direct rebuttal of Disney's “Hakuna Matata”*: “There's war, poverty, famine, but having a saying makes it all seem better!” Kevin tries to tell the villagers that they mustn't say “hasa diga Eebowai” (=“fuck you, God”), because “things aren't always as bad as they seem.” Naturally, he has no idea what he's talking about.

*Though, to be fair, “hakuna matata” is in fact a common saying in East Africa.

God's presence might comfort Kevin in times of trouble, but the experience of God is subjective. When your “times of trouble” constitute the plane being crowded and the bus being late, it's perhaps a little presumptuous to tell a poverty-stricken war-torn AIDS-plagued community that your God will make them feel better.

Too often, rich Westerners like to ascribe greater spirituality to the poor, as if people living in poverty are unilaterally pure and Godly. I call it “Gap Yah-ism”: to salve our rich-person consciences, we ascribe to people in poverty other assets than material ones – “a sense of enduring hope, as if to say, 'You know, despite our differences you and I are one, we are kindred spirits'...” – trying to convince ourselves that economic injustice isn't so bad because material poverty goes hand in hand with spiritual wealth. Of course, it's true that God does comfort many people who are suffering, and it's true that, per liberation theology, the poor have spiritually privileged voices; but the danger arises when people think that this means poverty and suffering are not so bad after all.

Some Christian exclusivists believe that alleviating the troubles of this life is not as important as converting unbelievers. This lack of concern for social and economic justice was one of the major reasons I left my evangelical church in the heart of London's financial district: it's easy to say that souls are what matters when your body is comfortable, healthy, and safe. In reality, millions of people are suffering, and the breathtaking arrogance of telling people their suffering doesn't matter is exactly what this song is skewering.

“When God fucks you in the butt
Fuck God right back in his cunt.”

To a Westerner, it sounds appalling – I imagine that the vast majority of even secular Westerners wouldn't be entirely comfortable saying “Fuck you, God, in the ass, mouth, and cunt” – but that's the brilliance of the song: if we're so inured to the suffering of our fellow humans that “Fuck you, God” is more shocking than “Eighty per cent of us have AIDS”, doesn't that indicate our profound moral bankruptcy? If Christians – whose entire way of life is supposed to be based on the Golden Rule – care so little for suffering people, isn't it reasonable that suffering people should in turn reject Christianity?

“When the world is getting you down
There's nobody else to blame
Raise your middle finger to the sky
And curse his rotten name.”

There certainly is Biblical precedent for calling out God for heaping suffering on your head. Check out Psalm 88:

“O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
...I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.”

Psalm 88 doesn't end with words of faith and hope in God. It is a litany of despair and pain, and its final line is “darkness has become my only companion.” Contrary to many people's insistence, the Bible doesn't gloss over suffering or offer easy answers (read Job or Ecclesiastes if you want a real head-scratcher). Any honest theology must admit that sometimes God seems at best absent, at worst malevolent, and acknowledge the legitimacy of every response to this fact.

“If you don't like what we say
Try living here a couple days.
Watch all your friends and family die
Hasa diga Eebowai!”

Tomorrow: The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”


  1. I only know what it is like to be poor and to suffer in the American sense, so I probably have no dog in this hunt but...

    I've noticed that in evangeical circles, there is (or was for a while) the bent of "God will take care of all your problems" even if it's just a low level thing. At my old church, even an intelligent doctor there I respected highly, in a disscussion of suicide once said something along the lines of "No Christian ever gets that despaired."


    All this "Everything happens for a reason" and "It was God's will this happened" has got to stop - it's not what people who hurt want to hear. I've heard this from the howling anti-thiests on HuffPo a lot - how they hate religion/religious people becuase they were told things like this.

    Yet, they won't listen to someone like me, either - I constantly reference the book of Eccelsiasties and speak of having doubts about the "all goodness" of God in the human sense of such definitions. (I presently view God as being like an author. The story will work out in the end, but meanwhile, the characters will suffer for development and/or plot points we do not see).

    The only thing I don't really like is when people diminish the suffering of another because it's somehow "not equal" to their own suffering or piss on people for how they handle their pain. For instance, anyone who says suicidal people/people who've been close to that in their lives are "weak" get my immediate contempt, as well as anyone who considers folks stupid and primative for taking comfort in prayer after they've had their lives ruined by a natural disaster instead of "reasoning it out" or whatever other "approved way" of dealing with pain a person might come up with.

    So if singing songs cursing the Almighty or cursing the universe really helps someone deal with their pain, fine by me.

  2. I don't know why some people find it so hard to conceive that every individual's experience is different, but also that every individual's experience as complex as your own. Probably because they don't read enough fiction! :P

    I really like that concept of God as author. Do you think God ever gets writer's block?

  3. I think he may have been half-asleep when he created the platypus. It is like a creature one would develop in a dream.