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The Book of Mormon: God’s favorite musical

March 25, 2011

I had the pleasure of going this week to see my college buddy Clark Johnsen perform in the new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon.” Having grown up Mormon myself, and having had many long, searching conversations with Clark over the years about our beliefs and upbringing in the Mormon faith, this was a particularly meaningful pilgrimage for me to the Great White Way.

I knew from my South Park patronage not to expect a musical that my mom would approve. But what I did NOT expect was a smartly-written, endearing production with the intelligence of Joseph Campbell and the heartfulness of Janice Kapp Perry.

Warning: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW!

Set primarily in a Ugandan village, the show tells the stories of Elder Cunningham and Elder Price–two young LDS missionaries who struggle to connect the Mormon message of Jesus appearing in ancient America to the daily lives of the Ugandan villagers. Epiphanies follow when Elder Cunningham realizes that if he loosely uses the Book of Mormon’s plot and embellishes it with the creations of his own imagination, he is suddenly able to tell stories that have power and relevance to the Ugandan people he is teaching. Among the stories Elder Cunningham derives from the Book of Mormon are the tales of the horrible AIDS that the Nephites and Lamanites contracted, the Lord’s instructions to Joseph Smith that having sex with virgins will NOT cure HIV, and the story of how God was so angry at Brigham Young for mutilating female genitals that he punished Young by turning his nose into a clitoris.

The authors of the play smartly parallel the escapades of Elder Cunningham with the endeavors of Joseph Smith to teach fanciful and scripture-esque stories to his followers in order to unify them, give them hope, and show them visions of better worlds they could create.

At the end of the day, Elder Cunningham’s tactics worked: the villagers united, stood up against the warlord molesting their town, and put a cease to the inhumane practice of female circumcision. All the while singing and dancing (and using lots of “f” words along the way).

Far from being a shrill rally against religiosity, the creators of the musical weave a wildly entertaining story with ROFL humor that left me unexpectedly contemplative at the end of the production.

So why am I writing about a musical on a neuroscience blog? Well–I think that the universal emergence of religion across all human societies gives us a pretty big clue that affinity for religion is something that is hardwired into our system as a species. And I think that this musical–surprisingly–provides insight into why that might be: the stories we share in our religious traditions, regardless of the literal accuracy of their content, are largely designed to point toward something beyond themselves. And as can be seen in both the fictional story of the Ugandan village in the musical, as well as the historical development of the Mormon community, shared narratives create powerfully unifying forces that can contribute to not just the survival, but indeed the flourishing of a group.

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5 Comments
  1. Thanks, Michael. Looking forward to seeing this too!

  2. Ben WillIams permalink

    I liked your commentary. I was wondering whether religion is hardwired into the brain or just the need to believe and hope.

  3. Janet Wise permalink

    I’m a Psych major at a small Catholic college in Duluth, MN (Go Saints!), and somehow had run across something for the musical, and was watching a small interview by its creators with another student. Laughing hysterically, we went on to see the performance of a college circuit musician, who turned out to be Mormon as well, and was expressing his interest in the “Mormon” musical. I think the musical is going to have a lot of laughs – for the most part – from members, but there will be those who consider anything blasphemous. It’s following in the vein of Chad Hardy’s attempt to make Mormonism more acceptable by exposing return missionaries without their shirts; unfortunately, Chad had some consequences the creators of South Park and the musical won’t.

    Way-to-go that we’re both Mormons (well, I still am; are you?) and we study neuroscience.

  4. Jade Sarver permalink

    Four words… Scary Mormon Hell Dream. I lost it when the dancing coffee cups arrived.

  5. The song where he sings of all the great things they will do but “Mostly me!” was just so funny. I have to say I found the moment when the initial convert breaks the news about what they hae been taught- the responce from the other converts- that moment is so well done- don’t want to say more only that I expected to laugh and have fun but I didn’t actually expect to be moved and enlightened.

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