Nihilism and “The Book of Mormon”

Nihilism and “The Book of Mormon” May 12, 2014

I refer to the blockbuster musical, not the sacred book of Mormons.  Recently, I took a group of (mostly evangelical) students at Gordon College to see the play when it was staged in Boston.   (No parents have complained—not yet anyway!)   Much has already been written about the play.  Still, after watching it, I could not withhold my two-cents.

At many levels, it’s breathtakingly well done.  The dances, the music, the set, the lighting, the dialogue, the wit brought the staid Boston Opera House to life with energy and excitement. 

The play also raises profound questions that both Mormons and all people of faith ought to wrestle with.  Most revolve around the clash between Mormon-American sensibilities and those of the people of Uganda.  (The plot centers on a pair of hapless Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda, where they encounter poverty, tribal superstition, aids, clitoral mutilation, and the remorseless violence of warlords.)  Several questions could be adduced, but permit three.  First, have Western missionaries sometimes been more concerned simply with “winning souls” than taking the time to understand the culture and plight of the people they are trying to reach?  Second, do some Mormon tenets of belief push the limits of credulity?  And finally, can satire be an effective means of criticizing the foibles and blind spots of religious behavior?

I can heartily answer yes to all three questions.  The musical doesn’t simply ask these questions; it practically amounts to an interrogation.  A devout believer leaving the theater might feel they’ve had a private session with the grand inquisitor of modern secularism.  Even so, a genuine faith cannot flinch, but must address the hard realities embedded in the questions.  Taking them seriously in fact has the potential to purify faith of pious sentimentality.

But in the final analysis, the musical delivers more heat than light, more comic vulgarity than genuine humor, and more dishonesty than truth.

Permit me to expand on the latter.  Throughout, the musical sustains a spirit of venomous, laughing ridicule.  This spirit appears directed not only at Mormon beliefs and practices, but also at the Ugandans—indeed at culture and at the cosmos at large, God included.  In one of the best choreographed song-and-dances, the Ugandans dupe the missionaries into singing with them “F*#k you, God” in their native language.  The misery of their plight and the putatively absurd beliefs of the missionaries suggest that the producers (creators of South Park, know for its no-limits irreverence) conceive of human existence as malicious preposterousness wrapped in wanton cruelty.  The most genuine response, hence, is crude mockery, limitless scorn, sneering nihilism.

But instead of pressing the nihilistic logic to its conclusion, the play stops short.  In an improbable series of penultimate events, the missionaries finally win over the people.  Ugandans convert to Mormonism (or at least a bastardized form thereof) and, presto, all sing a strained praise to the “Book of Mormon” in the final scene.  It as if the playwrights wanted to say:  “Sure, Mormon beliefs and their relationship to American culture are risible, but we all have to believe in something, so, what the hell, let’s just smile, say hooray and get about our business.”

A more honest response would’ve been to plumb nihilism to its misanthropic depths.  Why not have the Mormon missionaries denounce their faith in anxious despair?  Why not have the warlords (who somehow convert?) kill every one?  Why not have the Mormons pack up and abandon the Ugandans to clitoral mutilations and warlord rapacity?  

Many have derided the play’s pervasive sexual innuendo and sacreligious satire.  But in our culture, that’s become banal, predictable.  Yawn.  What truly offends is the intellectual dishonesty at the play’s core.  It aims for comprehensive indictment, a cosmic J ’accuse, but then unaccountably fails to pull the trigger.

In a moment of unsparing honesty, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote: “Either Dionysus or the Crucified.”  Either slouch one’s way through life with selfish gratifications, come what may—eat, drink, be merry for tomorrow we all die—or live in the expectant hope that divine purpose and compassion will have  the final word. 

“The Book of Mormon” offers neither.  With the joker’s malicious laugh, it points one strongly to the path of Dionysus, but then veers off course at the eleventh hour, snatching a wan, pious smile from the jaws of the void.  The true offense of the play, finally, is neither its sacrilege nor scorn, but pusillanimity when confronted with its own implications.

Thomas Albert Howard

Gordon College


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  • EqualTime

    I’ve seen the play, and wondered when I’d find a negative review such as this from one who was offended. I’m no longer a believer, so I took the message of the play to be that there is no true religion. There are myths created to give societies what they need to hear at given times, evidencenced by the final word of the play.

  • David Tiffany

    “Second, do some Mormon tenets of belief push the limits of credulity?”
    When you compare them to Scripture, yes.
    Here are a few examples where Scripture refutes Mormon beliefs:
    1. God the Father is Spirit, not flesh.
    2. Jesus and Lucifer are not brothers.
    3. Jesus didn’t die on the cross and rise from the dead to make a way for us to earn our way back to heaven.
    4. We are not Jesus’ brothers and sisters. He is God. We are created.
    5. God has looked and there are no other gods. We will not someday become gods.
    6. There is no god the mother.
    The Scriptures are what God has given us as the Standard by which we can grade everything we read, hear and think. If a “new revelation” contradicts Scripture, let God be true and every man a liar.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    The phrase, “joker’s malicious laugh” in this article is apt. The playwrights intend the musical to poke fun at all religion and belief in the divine, using the hackneyed question of why God permits evil as the defining motif. Mormons are used as the foil because they make an easier target than would be much larger churches or faiths, like Catholicism or Evangelical Protestantism. If the play had been about Baptist missionaries, I imagine that Mr. Howard would be even less willing to go along with the joke than he is now. And I imagine, too, that the reason the play veers into its happy ending is that the alternate endings that Mr. Howard suggests would … sell fewer tickets.

  • laverl09

    As to # 4 of your diatribe–At the baptism of Jesus, a voice comes from Heaven which says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And then in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus prays, “OUR Father which art in heaven….”
    Is it not logical to say that people who have the same father are brothers and sisters?

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Contra David Tiffany, Mormons believe truths taught in the

    1. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. John 3:16-17.

    2. Jesus created the world with His Father. John 1:1-3; Heb. 1:2.

    3. It is only by faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement that sin can be forgiven. The Atonement is the only means of our salvation. 1 Cor.15:22.

    4. Salvation is by grace through the Atonement. Righteousness is necessary for other blessings. Rom. 8:1-10.

    5. Jesus is exalted above all others, save the Father. John

    Most of the Evangelical critique of Mormonism reduces itself to affirmation of the post-New Testament theology of the Trinity and the Calvinist view of salvation. With respect to my evangelical friends, neither is dictated by the Bible. Mormons believe in the divinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit without finding it necessary to add a gloss onto the Bible via explanations such as consubstantiality. Among other problems, that theology denies the son-ship of Christ, which is a truth that very plainly appears on the pages of the New Testament. And the idea that righteousness is irrelevant to the saints, or to the judgment of God, is highly unbiblical. Mormons don’t think that they earn salvation from sin and death – that is the unconditional gift of God – but Mormons agree with other Christians that there are temporal and eternal blessings associated with righteousness and obedience. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15. He never said that He died so that we would be free to keep His commandments, or not, according to our own desires. Far from it, Jesus said that it would not be enough to say, “Lord, Lord,” but instead it would be required to do the will of the Father. Matt. 7:21. Nothing in the Bible excuses unrighteousness, even for the once justified.

    Critics like Tiffany spend way more time thinking about Lucifer’s origins that Mormons do, but it isn’t clear why there would be a problem if Mormons read the Bible to say that Satan, too, was a “son of God” (Job
    1:6) since God is the Father of all. We know from the Bible that Lucifer held an exalted position before his rebellion. So, the argument about
    Lucifer devolves back to the question of whether Jesus is God’s son, and His “only begotten son” (John 3:16), which, again, seems pretty clearly taught in the Bible and which Mormons emphatically believe. Tiffany and others say that we, as children of God (Heb. 12:9), can’t become like Him, but there are exactly no scriptures that say anything close to that. Far from it, Paul said (Rom. 8) that we would be glorified with Christ as joint heirs of the Father. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that God “said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess . . . .” Somehow no one ever takes Lewis to task for drawing that truth out of the Bible.

    Tiffany is what they call a “troll,” meaning that he posts provocative comments regardless of relevance to the original subject matter, intentionally hoping to provoke an argument. So my comments here “feed the troll,” which is generally considered unwise. And perhaps it is. But it troubles me when Evangelicals (a group that once included me) adopt a kind of straw-man, cartoon version of Mormonism while also skimming past the passages of the Bible that don’t fit well into
    tidy preconceptions.

  • Rockgod28

    1. Adding unauthorized scripture is a no-no. Not flesh is adding scripture and wresting the scriptures.
    2. The Bible doesn’t say either way.
    3. We do have to earn our way by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. John 14:15 and John 15:14 with everything in context and the whole chapters and scriptures testify this is true.
    4. We are Jesus brothers and sisters, he said so. He is God. We are created.
    5. He is the most high God. We are the offspring of God. We are his children. There is no God beside him. We follow God and we will be joint-heirs with Christ, to sit on his throne. He promised. We, to be worthy, must follow him, serve the Lord and be faithful to his commandments. Otherwise we have no promise.
    6. Mormons do not worship god the mother, only God the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
    You added scripture from the Standard. You bear false witness. The Bible and scripture came by revelation in the first place. It is by the Spirit, as Jesus said, that we grade everything we read, hear and think. It is what the scriptures teach us to do.
    James 1:5

  • Rockgod28

    Jesus said upon revealing himself of Mary “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” John 20:17.

  • Rockgod28

    While this play gets laughs and dives deep into nihilism what is overlooked is reality. At the missionary training centers around the world representatives of the Church teach about the language, customs and people of the country, even Uganda. The country is mostly Christian, Catholic specifically, and the play attacks Uganda more than anyone else as the author pointed out. It is racist and terrible. Yet there is no need to protest or silence voices we don’t like, even malicious jokers.
    Thank you for your article, it was a good read.

  • laverl09

    Thank you for the additional support. I selected this one because we need to support each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Even though He is our brother, He is still the Father of our salvation because he purchased us through the atonement and will ultimately deliver us back to our Father.

  • David Tiffany

    Maybe I should back up what I’m saying.
    1. Mormonism says God the Father is flesh and bones. Doctrine and Covenants 130:22, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.”
    But Jesus says in John 4:24, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
    2. Jesus and Lucifer are brothers. “The appointment of Jesus to be the Savior of the world was contested by one of the other sons of God. He was called Lucifer, son of the morning. Haughty, ambitious, and covetous of power and glory, this spirit-brother of Jesus desperately tried to become the Savior of mankind.” (Seventy Milton R. Hunter, The Gospel Through the Ages, Melchizedek Priestood manual, 15).
    What does the Scripture say about Lucifer? Ezekiel 28:15, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.”
    What does the Scripture say about Jesus? John 1:1-3, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
    John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
    3. Earning our way back to heaven. Mormonism: Aaronic Priesthood Manual 1 Lesson 30-The Plan of Salvation-Scripture and Discussion, ”
    Have the young men read again Abraham 3:25.

    According to this scripture, why is earth life so important? (We are being tested to see if we will obey the Lord’s commandments.)

    If we obey the commandments, what will happen?
    Emphasize that this is the way we obtain our return ticket home to our Heavenly Father.”
    What does the Scripture say? Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
    4. We are all Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Mormonism: “Lucifer. One of the literal sons of Elohim and Heavenly Mother, the spirit brother of all mankind, including Jesus (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 34).”
    What does the Scripture say? Ephesians 1:5, “… he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will–”
    5. No other gods besides God. Mormonism: ‘Though some Mormons may argue that godhood is not a teaching peculiar to Mormonism, history proves that it indeed was and is. Both the Journal of Discourses (JOD) and the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (TPJS) record that, on April 6, 1844, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith preached to a congregation of 20,000 saying, “Here then is eternal life – to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God the same as all Gods have done before you” (JOD 6:4; TPJS p.346). Brigham Young, the second prophet and president of the Mormon Church, delivered a message in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on August 8, 1852, in which he affirmed this teaching when he said, “The Lord created you and me for the purpose of becoming Gods like Himself” (JOD 3:93).’
    What does the Scripture say? Isaiah 43:10, “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.”
    6. There is no god the mother. “By definition exaltation includes the ability to procreate the family unit throughout eternity. This our Father in heaven has power to do. His marriage partner is our mother in heaven. We are their spirit children, born to them in the bonds of celestial marriage.” (Achieving a Celestial Marriage, LDS Church manual, p.129)
    Nowhere in Scripture is there any mention of God having a wife. And as far as procreating in heaven? In Matthew 22:30 Jesus says, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

    *Mormon references obtained through and mormon research ministry, both of which are Mormon sites.
    **Scripture references are from the Bible, the Standard God has given us to grade everything we read, hear and think.