Funny Faith

The entertainment industry is a window through which we might see what it is we value. After all, our mad-money and disposable income are often channeled toward the things we want, as opposed to what we really need. Living near New York City, it is clear that entertainment is also big business. Last night Spider-Man opened on Broadway to decidedly lackluster reviews. The web-slinger has had quite a journey from comic book to the musical stage—sometimes making it big, other times getting squashed. Earlier this week, however, it was The Book of Mormon that was making the news. Winning nine Tony awards, this musical is the first thing to pop up on a Google search when “Book of Mormon” is typed in (at the moment), I suppose, much to Mitt Romney’s chagrin.

A friend recently asked me why people take religion so seriously. To me it seems that it is a matter of historical development. Most religions developed before the culture of leisure took over. As I tell my students each semester, even in the early part of last century most people lived on farms rather than in cities. Time for leisure was rare and life was taken seriously: all work and no play. If we push that back a century, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was started, the effect was even more widespread. Go back to the days of Muhammad, Jesus, or Moses and the struggle to survive gets increasingly more difficult. Religion is a coping mechanism. When worries about food and shelter become less onerous, we can laugh at the path that led us here. Along the way few of us have met radioactive spiders, but most of us have been warmed, singed, or wholly consumed by religion in some form.

Well, in the entertainment industry talent also plays into it. But it has to be the right combination of talent. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have been making the social commentary A-list for several years now. (Bono and the Edge have too, but Broadway just doesn’t seem to be their genre.) Maybe trying to convert those of vastly different culture to white-shirt-and-tie, clean-cut American values is inherently funny. I suspect there is something more at work here. We are allowed to laugh at Mormonism—the other white religion—without too much recrimination. It is safe. What I doubt we’d ever see on Broadway is The Book of Common Prayer: the Musical. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Incredible Hulk lurch onto stage and burst into song.

Everybody dance!


Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?