WARNING: there are some off-color references and descriptions in this blog post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Having lived in Colorado for many years, I’ve heard the story of how Trey Parker and Matt Stone went from being the clowns of their high school to being some of the most prolific and important humorists on the planet today. It all started, as I’ve heard the story spun, when they created an animated short that got circulated via video tape to various film festivals and caused quite a stir. The figures were nothing more than paper cut-outs at the time, and though the “Southpark” series now is animated by computer, the same paper-like figures and “crappy animation” remain part of their trademark.
I feel more in love with the duo’s work when they released their first full-length feature film in 1999, “Southpark: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.” Yes, it’s incredibly crude and sophomoric with scores of fart and penis jokes. But beneath that was an undercurrent of spot-on cultural criticism that was nothing short of profound.
So when a couple from our church (yes, really) called at the last minute to invite us to join them for a local touring production of “The Book of Mormon,” written and composed by Parker and Stone, we accepted immediately.
Basically, the play follows two new elders of the Mormon Church (Elder Price, the Golden Boy and Elder Cunningham, the class screw-up) on their two year mission trip to Uganda to spread the Good News. They arrive in their assigned village and begin to share their testimony, only to be interrupted time and again by a villager who declares he has maggots in his scrotum.
Abrasive? Well, it is the Southpark guys. But there is a greater point laid out over a few musical numbers, including one that effectively extends a middle finger to the Creator for submitting the village to such dire circumstances. Incidentally, it was during this song that my wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, whispered to me that this song was, in fact, a sort of Psalm. And she’s right. Though perhaps a little less graphic, the Psalms are rich with such appeals to God.The point: bring your whole self to God, including the parts that are broken, suffering and perhaps even hating God or doubting God’s existence. Bring it all. So in this sense, the scandalous song, “Hasa diga eebowai,” which translates to “F— you, God,” is a more earnest prayer than many of our neat-and-tidy missives we share during Sunday worship.
And yet the missionaries miss the point. A majority of the village suffers from AIDS, the innocent are being raped, women are systematically being castrated by rebel forces and the poor guy continues to remind them of the lowly state of his scrotum. So why, they ask, would they be open to the Good News from some Western book while they drown in such misery? And why should the villagers invest themselves in some rhetorical promises from two white boys who will go back to their comfortable lives in the States once they’ve won souls for the Church?
The play takes on more than the cultural insensitivity for much Christian mission work, including considering the Bible (or even the Book of Mormon) seriously but not literally, and boiling it all down to what really matters: putting others ahead of ourselves.
It’s too bad, really, when non-Christians have a clearer window into both the tragic flaws and the often-lost core message of our own faith. But sometimes it takes a prophet from the outside to point out what few within can see, in a way that everyone can hear. Yes, many Christians will shut out the message of the play (and anything else Parker and Stone touch)_ because of their shock-and-awe style, but they’re missing an opportunity to learn not only something about themselves, but also an awful lot about how the rest of the world looks at Christianity.