Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Three – Cultural Relativism, Interfaith Relations, & New Religions: “Making Things Up Again”

Previously in Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week:
Part One – Cultural Imperialism, Suffering, & God's Comfort: “Hasa Diga Eebowai”
Part Two – Pascal's Wager, Reward/Punishment, & Mercenary Faith: “Sal Tlay Ka Siti”
Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

It's interesting to me that the decline of faith in the west hasn't removed the cultural impact of religious identity. I think it's particularly noticeable among Jews: my cousins near London host an enormous Passover seder and a Rosh Hashana meal every year, and are very active in their local synagogue, and not a one of them believes in God. Atheist Muslim friends, atheist Catholic friends, even atheist Protestant friends have spoken to me about how their family's religious background shaped their experiences of growing up and their characters today.

Recently I had to fill out a form that asked me to state my denomination of Christianity. I thought long and hard about which subgroup I identify with most, but in the end I couldn't narrow it down any further than “Protestant”. I'm very sure, however, that I'm Protestant; I can't even imagine myself being Catholic.

My faith is Protestant with a strong bulwark of Jewishness; my upbringing was Protestant with a strong bulwark of Jewishness. From the values and ideas instilled in my formative years to my present-day beliefs is a straight line: how can I help but be a cultural relativist?

And so I hesitate to call any religion “made-up”. People, if they have any belief, more often than not have the beliefs they were brought up with, and it seems too arbitrary for one religion to be correct and everyone born into a different faith tradition to be at an instant disadvantage with respect to the truth. But religions rarely take well to the new religions that spring up to usurp them. It's at the heart of the Jewish resentment of Christianity, the Christian fear and hatred of Islam, and the tendency of pretty much everyone to make fun of Mormons.

You're making things up again, Arnold:
you're taking the Holy Word and adding fiction.

At this point of the show, ill-informed Arnold is confronted by the villagers with some awkward questions. Lacking the Biblical knowledge or theological understanding to argue his points, he simply invents stories about God curing Joseph Smith's AIDS and declaring female genital mutilation an abomination. Of course, the punchline is that, to a couple billion people, Mormonism itself is “recklessly warping the words of Jesus”. Is that fair? Is it true that “a lie is a lie” – no mitigating circumstances considered?

I'm making things up again, kinda,
but this time it's helping a dozen people.

At the heart of the show lies the question, “Is making stuff up really so bad if it helps people?” I'll return to this question from an ethical perspective tomorrow, but for the moment let's consider the theological implications.

From an exclusivist religious perspective (of any faith), clearly the answer is “yes”. If you believe you have a monopoly on the truth, then you likely feel a duty to share it with others and save them from their false religions. (This is why, as many problems as I have with them, I find I can't judge evangelicals too harshly; they truly believe that they're doing the right thing.)

From the rationalist-atheist perspective, it's one fairytale or another. If you don't believe in God, what's the difference between zombie Jesus and a magical AIDS frog? Either you think it's reprehensible to tell anyone stories of the supernatural and divine, or you say (along with the show's creators) “whatever works”.

To the post-modern believer, however, this question sparks a whole host of further questions. Given the subjectivity of religious experience and the profound influence of cultural background, what can be legitimately considered “made-up”? To a Jew, Christianity is made-up; to a Christian, Mormonism is made up; to a Mormon, Arnold's new religion is made-up – who's right? What relation do facts bear to truth? Any lover of fiction understands that something can be made-up but still true (read Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ for a very interesting take on this, in relation specifically to Christianity).

Without venturing too far into the big spoiler territory, the show concludes (along with many, both religious and not) that, since we can't know what happens after death, we shouldn't dwell on it, but concentrate on living. The specifics of your beliefs aren't important, provided that you try to live a good life, help others, and improve this world in whatever ways you can.

It's hardly a revolutionary stance. But it might just be the best way of living in a world of many faiths and acknowledged cultural relativism.

Tomorrow: The Theology of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Part Four – Jews, Christians, Mormons, & Everyone Else: “I Believe”

1 comment:

  1. Of course fiction can be true. Okay, so maybe in our current universe, there doesn't exist a desert planet with a pacifist gunslinger who spouts philosophy (Trigun), but damned if his ideas on the worth of all human life and the importance of the future didn't help me out during a time I needed it!

    And maybe the deer-people I write about only exist in a land that doesn't - but I'm trying to convey personal ideas and what I feel is truth about things like tolerance, peace and human nature.