The Book of Mormon: A True Story?

April 11, 2011 at 12:18 am, by


On March 15, I got to see a preview of The Book of Mormon on Broadway. From Matt Stone and Trey Parker (of South Park fame) and Robert Lopez (one half of the songwriting team of Avenue Q), The Book of Mormon has a pretty wild sense of humor and a pretty wild imagination. While there were some hysterical jokes, I question how insightful—or necessary—the musical was.

It might strike a funny bone in many non-Mormons when we hear the story of Upstate New Yorker Joseph Smith, who allegedly, in the 19th century, received the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, shortly after Smith uncovered golden Priestly plates Jesus had brought to North America shortly after his crucifixion in the Land of Israel. The story behind the Church of Latter Day Saints is hard for me to believe, but it’s also hard for me to believe the legends that hold up other religions.

On that note, certain religions have mythologies more believable than others, and, if I take a look at the infinitely large library of Jewish legends, certain Jewish stories are easier for me to believe than others. One trope The Book of Mormon really emphasizes is how Mormons—when following the religious obligations they have accepted upon themselves—tend to be some of the nicest and most polite people you will ever meet. So, I was confronted with a logic problem even before the opening of The Book of Mormon:

A)     If one argues that religion is a means to an end,

B)     And if the end in itself is kindness or altruism,

C)     Then why would I want to laugh at the very successful means of Mormons?

As far as I can tell, there are at least two answers to the question: the first is, because hilarity is guaranteed; and the second is, religion is not a means to an end. Religion is both a means to an end and something beyond.

Religion is multiple means, religion is multiple ends, religion is multiple starting points (you have to start somewhere to get to the end, right?), and religion is the ineffable.

When I say that religion is ineffable, I mean at least two things:

1) When it comes to things that you or I experience that feel unexplainable, or mysterious, or unique, or emotionally climactic, or holy, or like a moment with God (I know: I just dropped the G-bomb)—these are all things that are generally beyond words. No words can describe what just happened to us or what we just did. This is religion as the ineffable.

2) When it comes to things that you or I experience that feel unexplainable, mysterious, unique, holy, Godly (there we go again), or Godful (strike three!)—these are all things that are hard to believe. We have no way of telling anybody else exactly what happened without it sounding like a made up story. We have no words that could ever convince anybody other than ourselves that these things happened. This too is religion as the ineffable.

You might recall a short anecdote I had shared in the first Oholiav blog post—the one time I can recall ever feeling like God spoke to me. It was 9/11, it happened once, nothing like it ever happened beforehand or afterwards, it didn’t feel like myself talking to myself, I didn’t see a vision, I just heard an unfamiliar voice in my head, and it was only four words: “It will be alright.”

Was that a crazy experience? I don’t think so, but, if I knew anything about neurology, I might be able to discover some neurological explanation that would point to a certain mental, non-real “voice” that I can sense under duress at certain times. But it didn’t feel like a regular voice, and it didn’t feel entirely internal. It felt both internal and external simultaneously. To deny this memory might be to deny the most intimate religious experience I ever had or will have.

So, when it comes to Joseph Smith, I feel challenged. I’m sure that psychologists have a lot to say about Joseph Smith. (I’m reminded of an image from The Far Side, where a psychologist takes notes about a goofy man lying on a couch, and the psychologist writes, “Just plain nuts!”

As a Jew commanded not to place faith in divine beings other than my own God (Exodus 20:3), I think I have good reason not to believe Joseph Smith’s story. Similarly, many Christians have good reason not to believe his story. And honestly, nobody needs to believe my story. What happened to me was ineffable, and you don’t need to believe it. But you do need to believe your own story. You should never deny your own encounters with the ineffable.

So, what most troubled me about The Book of Mormon was its disregard for the ineffable. The Ineffable became a tangible stage character. We in the audience very clearly hear God’s voice assigning new Mormon missionaries where to go to convert a few souls and spread the Good Word. The action in this early scene is goofy because it presumes that, when God communicates with humans, God speaks in a low, powerful voice, using English words. But, I am willing to bet that most moderate religious people have had some ineffable experience where the ineffable (or the Ineffable) communicated to them without using any words (English or otherwise). Not only that, but I’m willing to bet the same is true for most non-moderate religious people, and most people who wouldn’t call themselves “religious.”

But The Book of Mormon reduces the believability of God to the believability of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. When Elder Cunningham (played by Josh Gad), begins to fabricate what’s in the Book of Mormon (i.e. he inserts characters from sci-fi films into stories and rules loosely based on the Book itself), only then does the cause of the Mormon missionary begin to succeed in Uganda. When it is discovered that Elder Cunningham has provided the Ugandans with a terrible mis-education of the Book of Mormon, he is shunned by Mormon authorities; however, the authorities do not get the final word in the show.

Elder Cunningham, who never read the Book of Mormon, was paired with the knowledgeable Elder Price in a decision the latter deemed not-so-Divine. After a long series of unfortunate events occur to the Elder Price, he (now standing upon shaky faith) and the Ugandan natives declare that it doesn’t matter much what you believe—so long as your religion helps you. In fact, the natives admit that they didn’t believe a word of what Elder Cunningham told them; they just liked the story. That silly story and that goofy set of rules helped unite the people so that they could suffer together from AIDS, rape, tribal violence, and other problems that never get solved.

The underlying premise of The Book of Mormon is as follows: religion cannot solve serious problems, but it can make people happy. To me, this is a grave underestimation of the force of religion.

I think it is no coincidence that many people who have changed the way Westerners think and live have been deeply inspired by religion: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr.. I think it is no coincidence that contemporary scholarship and cultures of literacy can historically be traced back to cloisters, yeshivot, circles of mystics, and sacred scribes.

I think that religion is not simply the feel-good product of simple stories and dos-and-don’ts. Successful and meaningful religion is frequently an intellectual exercise that encourages us to question and to re-imagine our sacred stories: why did they start, and when will they end? Good religion begs of us to challenge ourselves and others when we are approached by a law written to change the way we live.

Our lives are precious, and Western history’s greatest thinkers have been inspired by good religion—the sort of religion that is not merely a means to an end and is certainly not the end-all and be-all of anything.

Good religion is a path—a Halakhah—along which we encounter challenges that make us struggle with the Ineffable—just as the patriarch Jacob earned the name Yisra’el (“Struggles With God”) after surviving his own wrestle with the Divine (Genesis 32:29). Good religion is not about being told stupid things and believing them. It’s about encountering that which is crooked or deceiving and then straightening out the truth from within it: being born Ya’akov (Jacob, figuratively “Deceiver”) and earning the title Yeshurun (Jeshurun, figuratively “Straightened Out”)—in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy: “Vehayah he’akov lemishor” (“the crooked or deceived will come to be straightened out”) (Isaiah 40:4). Good religion pushes us to think better to help give order to our lives, and both the means and the end of this order is Divine: ineffable.

The Book of Mormon asks what an Abrahamic faith can do to solve problems in Uganda. Its answer is that it doesn’t matter how silly the religion is, but gathering suffering people together can make people happier. But I don’t believe that. In fact, the following is a true story of missionizing in Uganda:

During Act II, it occurred to me that I happened to be wearing a kippah made by the Abayudaya community in Uganda.

In the late 19th Century, a Ugandan military leader named Semei Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by British missionaries, and—after his engaging in further study—in the early 20th Century, Kakungulu began to articulate his preference for the Pentateuch over the rest of the Bible. Upon being informed by Muslims that the Old Testament without the New Testament makes him and his people Jewish—not Christian—he decided that his people would be Jewish.

In 1919, he circumcised his sons and himself, and a foreign Jew known as “Yosef” visited Kakungulu’s community in 1920, evidently teaching some of the basics of the Jewish calendar and rabbinic law to this Torah-based African tribe. In 1928, one sect of this people turned back to Christianity, and another became known as the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”). As years went on, the Abayudaya began to connect with Jews throughout the rest of the world to learn more about Jewish life. In 2002, approximately 400 Abayudaya officially converted to rabbinic Judaism under the auspices of several Conservative rabbis.

In 2008, Gershom Sizomu graduated from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and returned to his native Uganda, where there are currently approximately 1,000 Jews. Several times a year, the Abayudaya Women’s Association Conference offers women a day of conversation on farming practices, craft-related profits, the counseling of adolescents, matters related to family health, and more. In addition to two rural schools (a primary school and a high school) run by the Abayudaya for disadvantaged Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children, the Abayudaya run a Deaf Education Project that now offers special attention to the educational needs of hearing-impaired Ugandan children. As is the textual core of what happens in Uganda’s Conservative egalitarian Yeshivah (wherein traditional Jewish texts are studied by both men and women), the Abayudaya’s faith in Judaism forged a community that has learned not how to suffer together but how to approach problems and to work together to solve them.

Coming into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on the night of March 15, I had no clue what the content of the show was; I could only guess there would be many F-bombs (there actually were not that many), a lot of nudity (I didn’t catch any actual nudity though), and 2 hours of jokes at the expense of Mormons (not entirely true either).

In fact, the show was a little vulgar but could have done a worse portrayal of religious people, of Mormons, and of Ugandans. The show was fun and hardly malicious; however, it was a little bit too ignorant for me to find it moving. (In fact, it’s the sort of show that, for me, makes Oholiav so important. The Book of Mormon, despite being highly entertaining, is naïve about religion to a degree that the show’s message can accidentally damage a religious view.)

The ineffable good that the Ineffable can bring Uganda is something that Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Robert Lopez did not dare say in The Book of Mormon because The Book of Mormon is a fiction and a comedy: the Ineffable was satirized into the effable. But, all of the ineffable good that the Ineffable has brought upon Uganda is something that no member of the Abayudaya could possibly tell you. The Book of Mormon certainly won’t tell you what good it can bring, and I can’t tell you either. When it comes to the Ineffable, nobody knows how to say these things.

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4 Comments So Far

  1. I would argue that besides issues of the “effable” and “Ineffable” it is still more difficult to determine the purpose of religion. What if some believe it to be a code of ethics? Is that the “means to an end” to which you were referring?

    Sara, August 15, 2011 at 8:12 pm #
  2. Hey Sara, your point here is well-taken. Religion is a lot of things. I think something that irked me about The Book of Mormon was its blatant message that the belief in the ineffable was a totally bogus part of religion, whereas I feel–in my own practice–that it is essential.

    That being said, you are absolutely right that religion can be a lot of things without there being ineffable conversations: ethics (probably effable), community (probably effable), silly rituals (probably effable), etc. My own view would be to say that there is something still ineffable that lies beneath all of these matters.

    But again, that’s just me…

    Jonah Rank, December 9, 2011 at 3:54 am #
  3. Insightful commentary, but the most important part is:

    Hey – it’s Matt and Trey at their finest.

    Diana Lerner, January 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm #
  4. Ha! I forgot about that song (it’s been almost a year since I’ve seen it…)!

    Jonah Rank, January 19, 2012 at 12:37 pm #
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