Saturday, September 24, 2016

Musically Speaking, Why is it OK to Mock Mormons?

The musical The Book of Mormon is coming back to Winnipeg this week for a repeat performance. Its return once again raises the questions: Why is it OK to make fun of the Mormons in this way? And how do Mormons feel about it? I asked that in February, 2015 in my column in the Winnipeg Free Press.

“Why, in a society that revolves around political correctness, is it socially acceptable to blatantly ridicule Mormonism?”

That was the question posed by Kate Wilson in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2014 about the musical The Book of Mormon.

Wilson, who is not a Mormon, went on to say that “such religious ridicule would never be deemed acceptable directed at other religions. Imagine what would happen if a musical titled The Torah or The Quran hit Broadway, similarly demeaning the beliefs and lifestyles of their respective religions. Protests and claims of anti-Semitism and racism would inevitably break out.”

Wilson’s question is an apt one for Winnipeggers now that The Book of Mormon is once again coming to town.

The award-winning play has been playing to packed houses across North America since it opened in New York in 2011. It follows two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to try to convert people to their faith.

Reviewers have called it “the best musical of this century.” and “the funniest musical of all time.”

But while it has garnered rave reviews, others, like Wilson, have raised questions about its appropriateness, its language—it comes with an explicit language warning—and its accuracy when describing the Mormon faith.

According to the Deseret News, a Utah newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church), the musical contains multiple inaccurate representations of Mormon beliefs and practices.

Some of the errors, it says, are inconsequential, such as the specifics of how missionaries receive their proselytizing assignments and mission rules.

But other errors are less benign, such as misrepresenting the history of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, and church teachings about the afterlife.

So what? It’s just a play, a bit of entertainment. Plus, it’s all in fun.

That’s not what people were saying following the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Back then, there was a general consensus about the need to show tolerance and respect for the beliefs and practices of other religions—Islam, in particular—even in the face of a horrific crime.

But The Book of Mormon? That doesn’t seem to be a problem for many. But it is for Wilson.

“Such religious ridicule would never be deemed acceptable directed at other religions,” she wrote. “It’s clear that a double standard has been created in our culture when it comes to religious satire.”
What about people who belong to other religious groups; what should we make of this? Or maybe it doesn’t matter since we aren’t Mormons.

That’s not how Mollie Ziegler of sees it.

According to Ziegler, all people of faith should be concerned since the musical "mocks general religious belief, using Mormon characters.”

David Brooks of the New York Times agrees, noting that "the central theme of The Book of Mormon is that many religious stories are silly."

The play’s main message, he added, is that "religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally."

And what about Mormons themselves—how do they feel about the play?

I posed that question to Josh Gruninger, President of the Manitoba & Northwestern Ontario Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Gruninger doesn’t plan to see the play himself, and he isn’t aware that many of the province’s 4,000 church members will go. But “we won’t discourage people from going to see it,” he says, adding that the church is not planning to protest the musical when it comes to the city.

All he hopes is that people who go to see it might take the time “to learn more about our church. I hope they will try to find out more about the real Book of Mormon.”

As for Winnipeggers in general, we’re still stinging from the charge that this is Canada’s most racist city. 

With the Mayor imploring citizens to treat everyone with respect, maybe we can start by not buying tickets to a musical that mocks the Mormons.

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