The World Needs The Unexpected Decency And Heart Behind ‘The Book Of Mormon’ Musical

The Mormons are here. Usually, their arrival is met with anger. Sometimes, while they wait at the door to be greeted, people hide in their kitchen pantry and pretend like nobody’s home. Melbourne has done the opposite and welcomed the Mormons with open arms. The world could do with a few more open arms these days. The hit musical, The Book of Mormon, has arrived in Australia, 6 years after it shook up Broadway by smashing ticket sale records, winning 9 Tony awards — including best musical — and becoming the highest-charting Broadway cast album in over 4 decades.

The show tells the story of two missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) whose faith is challenged when they’re sent to Africa. It comes from the minds of the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and co-writer, Robert Lopez, who had success with his own musical, Avenue Q.

Zahra Newman (Nabulungi) and A.J. Holmes (Elder Cunningham) in the Australian premiere of The Book of Mormon at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. Photo: Jeff Busby

If you’ve seen the commercials promoting The Book of Mormon, they proclaim it’s “the best musical of the century” and other hyperbolic praise. I got a ticket to see the show and went along curious as to whether it could live up to the hype. I expected it to be hilarious, and it was to the point where I was exhausted from cackling; Parker, Stone and Lopez have an impeccable record in the humour department. What I did not expect was for this musical to have something noble at its heart.

The Book of Mormon pokes fun at the Mormons but it exposes the decency at the core of most religions. Groups in our society politicise the doctrine of various religions to fit an agenda, sometimes inspiring more hatred than love. Focusing on conversion, sin and politics rather than inspiring the best in others or focussing on the core message across all religions — love — often plagues most institutionalised religions. The Mormons are a prime example because they send out missionaries with the aim of increasing their numbers. Salt Lake City, Utah, is the holy city for the Mormons and it’s the hub for their community, which is where most Mormons live until they head out into the world as missionaries. The Mormons also have blind faith in their beliefs. A lot of the jokes in The Book of Mormon are at the expense of what Mormons believe in, which is mostly the Americanisation of Christianity. They are also forbidden from drinking coffee and believe the Garden of Eden is in Missouri. When the laughter fades, there’s the realisation that it’s a beautiful thing to believe in something wholeheartedly. Sure, the Mormons believe in a lot of ‘interesting’ things not everyone can agree with, but they believe. One of the most moving songs from the show is ‘I Believe’ that balances the humour and heart of the musical perfectly.

Considering how much bloodshed is associated with and has been committed in the name of religion, it’s hard to remember that religion is supposed to inspire … good in the world. Yes, a lot of established religions have scriptures, laws and ideals that are extremely rigid, especially when taken literally. Faith can work as an enormous force for good when the teachings are applied as metaphors. Religions require a certain amount of self-awareness, as showcased in the satirisation of organised religions in The Book of Mormon, in order to function properly. It can be difficult to make sense of the world and the meaning of it all in turbulent times. But religion at least provides a framework for those seeking answers, and often plays a huge cultural role in people’s lives as well. Most new-age religions prosper in the aftermath of instability or people rush back to traditional, institutionalised and more conservative systems of belief for reassurance.

Phyre Hawkins as Mrs. Brown, Ryan Bondy as Elder Price and AJ Holmes as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. Photo: Jeff Busby

I always find it fascinating when meeting people with great love for their chosen faith because their belief is often a choice, which can be fluid throughout a lifetime. Faith can come and go, it’s often tested and can be abandoned easily. Having faith is the easy part, acting on it is harder because you have to live out the teachings to put faith into action. A lot of religions teach selflessness but many people with faith can often fail to engage in charitable behaviour. The lure of faith being rewarded by the paradise that awaits in the afterlife leads to a lot of couch potato followers. The devoutly religious people I’ve encountered are more than aware of our plight, floating through space on a little blue ball, but they choose to believe in something more. The frustrating thing about atheism is the way people look down on anyone who makes a decision to trust in religion. Atheists tend to obsess about religion more than the believers do, but they do it in a condescending way. Atheism is flawed, generally, by not respecting or seeking to understand other beliefs. Sure, people who take religion literally can be dangerous but extreme fundamentalists are a minority — the good-natured side of what faith can inspire can’t be underestimated.

The Book of Mormon was once described by Stone as, “an atheist’s love letter to religion”. There is a way to admire and respect a variety of different beliefs if they aim to drive people toward helping others. If people require aid in hopeless times, give them help, not a lecture.

This article by Cameron Williams was originally published at The Vocal.