Catholics Need Their Own "Book of Mormon"

Indulge me for just a second. Imagine the impossible. Let's agree for the sake of argument that the Catholic Church has a serious image problem where the world's concerned. To restore her to the public's good graces, a piquant musical comedy might be just the thing. It seems to be working for the Mormons.

Since its opening last week at New York's Eugene O'Neill theater, "The Book of Mormon" has been storming some well-fortified hearts. Times reviewer Ben Brantley declares it "an old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical" and commands the public: "hie thee hence . . . and feast upon its sweetness."

On the surface, its plot, which plunks a pair of LDS missionaries into Uganda amid "a defeated, defensive group of villagers, riddled with AIDS," looks like a cheap shot at do-gooding and religion in general. This is exactly what anyone would expect from the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone ("South Park"), and Robert Lopez ("Avenue Q"). But observers are finding in it an affirmation of faith and good works that is no less persuasive for being delivered with a backhand.

In the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan writes that Parker and Stone, "seem to say as an empirical observation, we need a grander narrative; and if religion can do that, and bring compassion to the world, why should we stand in the way?" 

Perhaps Sully, a believing Catholic, is an easy sell on this point. If so, that would place him squarely in the minority. At least until recently, the Church of Latter-day Saints was the most cheerfully maligned denomination in America. Before the 2008 primaries, Mike Huckabee asked, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus Christ and Satan are brothers?" The question struck many as mock ignorance, calculated to scare evangelical voters away from Mormon rival Mitt Romney. A few months later, opponents of California's Proposition 8 aired a TV spot in which two Mormon missionaries steal a lesbian couple's marriage certificate. Whether the sticky wicket was real social conservatism or alleged doctrinal weirdness, marginalizing Mormons was the one activity that could get Left and Right singing "Kumbaya" in close harmony.

That mockery can bring about a PR coup for its subject might sound a little far-fetched. Indeed, truly mean-spirited mockery probably wouldn't. But "The Book of Mormon" handles its material with greater care, contrasting the missionaries' exotic religious zeal with their lovably human quirks. One of the elders, for example, seasons his exegesis with quotes from the Ring saga. Another falls in love with a native girl. In this, creators have made Mormonism the stuff of high camp, as Christopher Isherwood defines it. "You can't camp about something you don't take seriously," Isherwood explains. "You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it." In other words, Parker, Stone, & Co. are laughing with Mormons, not at them.

It turns out that many Mormons are willing, even flattered, to be laughed with. In the Times, Laurie Goodstein quotes Dustin Jones, a Mormon lawyer from Phoenix: "Now we've arrived, and we're on Broadway." Even some Mormons who reacted more viscerally admit the show portrays the truth of missionary life too well to qualify as hateful caricature. Recalling his own mission, and "the shock at the poverty and violence, the pressure from the mission president to baptize more natives," John Dehlin, a Utah graduate student, calls it "way, way too close to home."

In their range—from pained recognition to wry triumph—Jones' and Dehlin's reactions mirror those of Jews to the early fiction of Philip Roth. In Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969), among other works, Roth depicted in gruesome comic detail both the anxieties that typified Jewish marginality and the licentiousness that often attended Jewish assimilation. Still reeling from the murder of 6 million by the Nazis, the Jewish establishment shuddered. "What is being done to silence this man?" wrote one rabbi, of Roth, to the Anti-Defamation League. "Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him."

Yet in retrospect, the success of Roth's fiction seems to mark the moment when American Jews had, to use Jones' word, arrived. With more awards than Audie Murphy, Roth has become the yardstick against which the establishment measures new hopefuls. Vivian Gornick might have been wrong when she sniffed that Roth's readership is "limited to the Jewish community center." Nevertheless, she was testifying to his work's place of honor in the American Jewish consciousness.