Friday, June 3, 2011

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

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”
Part Three – Cultural Relativism, Interfaith Relations, & New Religions: “Making Things Up Again”
Expect mild spoilers and offensive content. Detailed disclaimers can be found in the introduction.

This is it: the big Act Two showstopper, the emotional high-watermark, the great thundering anthemic number that will live on in sheet-music form long after posterity has dismissed the rest of the show as pedestrian or dated or something. “I Believe” is definitely the standout track of Broadway's The Book of Mormon as far as I'm concerned – both because it's a stonking tune and because it encapsulates the show's philosophy.

Kevin, after despairing of his difficult mission and confronting his demons in a very dramatic fashion, has an epiphany: he will stand his ground, walk into the valley of the shadow of death, and own his faith with all his heart. It's powerful, affirming, and very frickin' funny.

I believe that the Lord God created the universe,
I believe that he sent his only Son to die for my sins,
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!

This initial juxtaposition of traditional articles of Christian faith with Mormon elements, which sound kind of goofy to a non-Mormon, confronts the religious viewer with the question: why that faith? Why do you privilege one specific holy text, or one particular reading of your holy text, or one definition of God over all others? Are the Mormon-only beliefs (that God lives on a planet called Kolob; that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri) really any sillier than the mainstream Jewish and Christian beliefs that Mormons also espouse?

The trouble with the relativist perspective is that it's not clear where, if anywhere, to draw the line. Are all religions equally true, or at least equally acceptable? What about a cult? What about a faith invented and adhered to by only one person? Most of us would agree that a religion that causes people harm is not okay, but who decides what constitutes harm? John Shore's definition of harm caused by religion would differ from Christopher Hitchens'.

Broadway's The Book of Mormon doesn't really address this issue. As a show written by atheists about religious exclusivists, it fails to delve into the deeper questions of truth and meaning that might be asked by a post-modern or relativist believer. There is, I think, an ethical difference between presenting as fact stuff you believe to be true (Jesus' resurrection) and presenting as fact stuff you believe to be false (Joseph Smith's magical AIDS frog), even if the underlying lessons are good ones; but you wouldn't know it from this show.

As a teenager, my motto, which I though was incredibly clever and witty (okay, I still think it's pretty funny), was “all generalizations are bullshit”. Little did I know, this is a highly deconstructionist statement. The relativist idea that “there is no absolute truth” is itself an absolute statement, and therefore must be false under its own premise. It's a Zeno's paradox of meaning. Zeno's paradox is all very well, but when you want to get somewhere you take a step; similarly, when you want to communicate you accept that meaning exists. If you believe in God, at some stage you pick a stance on the issue of truth.

I believe that God has a plan for all of us,
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet,
And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God!

Kevin says, “I can't have even one shred of doubt”, but many thinkers believe doubt is a key component of faith. In Robert Anton Wilson's Schrödinger's Cat trilogy, two faith groups are asked , “What is the opposite of faith?” One group replies, “Doubt”; the other, “Certainty.” No less godly a figure than Mother Teresa was tormented by doubts throughout a life of service and humanitarianism.

Is it even possible to will yourself into faith? One of the major criticisms of Pascal's Wager is that you cannot force yourself to believe something. (I think one could argue this point, but I won't go into it just now.) But this song is not so much about Kevin willing himself into faith; it's more about accepting and claiming the upbringing and culture that will always be a part of him: “I am a Mormon, and, by gosh! A Mormon just believes.” To him, “you cannot just believe partway – you have to believe in it all”. He has always believed in Mormonism as a synthesized whole, not as an extra bit tacked on to Christianity, and those of us interested in interfaith dialog would do well to remember that.

I've talked before about atheist smugness; Broadway's The Book of Mormon mostly avoids this by being an exuberant celebration of faith that doesn't shy away from difficult questions. Trey Parker calls it “an atheist’s love letter to religion.” After all, from the rationalist-atheist perspective he and Matt Stone espouse, irrational beliefs sustain us all, whether it's faith in God, belief in human goodness and love, or simply hope of any kind.

* * *

That brings us to the end of Broadway's The Book of Mormon Week here at Gay Christian Geek! Thanks for reading; I hope you've enjoyed it (and are not as heartily sick of these songs as I now am). Quick shout-out to Richard Beck's terrific blog Experimental Theology, which gave me the idea – if you'd like to see it done properly, take a peek at his superb series on The Theology of Calvin & Hobbes.


  1. Having not actually seen the play, but commenting again...

    "There is, I think, an ethical difference between presenting as fact stuff you believe to be true (Jesus' resurrection) and presenting as fact stuff you believe to be false (Joseph Smith's magical AIDS frog), even if the underlying lessons are good ones; "

    I think this is why I hate... HATE the "Invisible Pink Unicorn" argument. It goes "You believe in a God. Well, I believe in an invisible pink unicorn. Think I'm ridiculous? Proove he doesn't exists."

    Why I hate that argument is that NO ONE WHO CLAIMS TO BELIEVE IN AN INVISIBLE PINK UNICORN ACTUALLY DOES. It is not something that is important to them at all, merely "something ridiculous to show people of faith how ridiculous their faith is." The sad thing is that people seem to think this argument *works* and yell at one when one points out the glaring, obvious flaws in it. It's the condescencion in it that I hate the most - the people who claim it are out and out lying (not about the existance/non-existance of the unicorn but when they say "I believe").

    I have not seen much of South Park, either, but I've caught a few episodes. One of the ones I caught was the second part of the "Imaginationland" war episode. There was a little riffing on Jesus in it, but the way it was presented - "Jesus, Gandalf, The Mario Bros. et al have touched more lives than most living/known-real people ever have or will" therefore imagination is important. I loved the respect for fiction and, in a weird way, respect for religion from people who believe it to be fiction. You already saw my own blog rant on what I think of the power of fiction.

    It's always good to see works by atheists who respect religious people as human beings (rather than just strawmanning us all as dullards). It's one of the things I like about Firefly - Wheedon could have created one of those "Outgrown those silly supersitions" sci-fi worlds, but instead, he chose to have Buddhists and Christians around - and portrayed as "good guys" no less - complex human beings along with everyone else in the Serenity crew.

    Apologies if this double-posts. My Internet is being weird.

  2. Thanks for all your thoughtful comments, Shadsie. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels this way about God (and it's nice to know that someone is reading the stuff I write!).