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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