The Triumph Of “The Book Of Mormon”

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Ben Brantley delivers a rave review after the opening night I am still recovering from:

This is to all the doubters and deniers out there, the ones who say that heaven on Broadway does not exist, that it’s only some myth our ancestors dreamed up. I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers too), to “The Book of Mormon,” and feast upon its sweetness.

That word "sweetness" does not spring to mind when you think of Eric Cartman serving Scott Tenorman's parents to him, like Titus, in the classic "Scott Tenorman Must Die". But the real genius of Parker-Stone is precisely the underlying humaneness of their view of the world, packaged in surreal, scatological, obscene and invariably hilarious scripts and performances. South Park episodes rarely end without reconciliation. And The Book Of Mormon – while wildly blasphemous – becomes by its end a loving celebration of religious faith, stripped of its obsessive logical contradictions, idiotic neurosis and literalist and fundamentalist certainties. Rule 23 versus Rule 72 in Utah becomes "Fuck You God In The Cunt" in Uganda. The comedy inherent in juxtaposing desperate black Africans with earnest white Americans never quite distracts us from the message underneath.

That is not so say that Matt and Trey are proselytizing. They are merely judging faith by its actions, and judging Mormonism by Mormons. We need a higher calling, they seem to say as an empirical observation; we need a grander narrative; and if religion can do that, and bring compassion to the world, why should we stand in the way?

The innate small-c conservatism of the duo endures. This is an almost classically traditional musical score, each song unique, but united and woven together in show-stopping finales. Their blend is of subversive material filtered through tradition and sincerity. There is no cynicism here. Yes there is General Butt-Fucking Naked. There is an African woman called Neosporin. There is a fantastic send-up of Bono; a lovely dig at Johnnie Cochrane; some rudely sodomized frogs; and a baptism that sounds like sex. But there are also moments of unexpected poignancy, as when an African woman discovers that she has in fact been deceived.

It is the best thing they have ever done – musically, theatrically, comically. They are slowly becoming the Hogarths and Swifts of our time – because by trashing the world with anarchic humor and biting commentary, they are obviously also intent on saving it. And loving it regardless.

“A Pro-Faith Show”

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Aaron and I are heading to New York today for the premiere of Matt and Trey's "The Book Of Mormon." I saw one of the earlier workshops a year or so ago, and caught a smidgen of a pre-preview rehearsal a few weeks back, and cannot wait for opening night (tomorrow's morning Dish might be a little hung over). But the genius of Parker-Stone is that they have a healthy skepticism toward religion but never cross the line into Dawkins territory. And so those who want to see Mormonism mocked in the musical need to prep themselves for seeing the LDS faith also praised, and Mormons weirdly admired. From an interview with one of the funnier performers, Josh Gad:

It really is a pro-faith show, in that it teaches us that people who are in dire straits, and people who are in desperate need of something greater because their lives are so wretched, and they have to dealt with such harsh realities, can find hope in a higher power, can find hope in something that is unexplainable, in something you can’t necessarily prove, but something you can believe in and hold dear to your heart, something that can give you the strength to carry on despite the hardships.

Where The Hell Is God?

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Jim Martin offers some Jesuit reflections on the theodicy question in the wake of the catastrophe in Japan. This anecdote made me smile:

Believers are rightly suspicious of easy answers to suffering. My mother once told me of an elderly nun who was living at a retirement home with my 90-year-old grandmother. One day the woman's religious superior came to visit. The elderly nun began to speak about how much pain she was enduring. "Think of Jesus on the Cross," said her superior.

The elderly nun replied, "Jesus was only on the Cross for three hours.”

But Martin's real point is less trivial:

Richard Leonard, an Australian Jesuit priest, wrote about his experience with such facile answers in his recent book Where the Hell is God?

Richard's family has been touched with great suffering. His father died of a massive stroke at the age of 36, leaving his mother to care for Richard, then two, and his siblings. At dawn on Richard's 25th birthday, his Jesuit superior woke him to summon him to the phone for an urgent call from his mother. His sister Tracey, a nurse working at a healthcare facility for aboriginal people, had been involved in a terrible car accident. When Richard and his mother reached the hospital their worst fears were confirmed: Tracey was a quadriplegic.

Through tears, Richard's mother began to ask him questions about suffering that put his faith to the test. Richard called it "the most painful and important theological discussion I will ever have in my life.” "Where the hell is God?" his mother asked.

(Photo: In this handout image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), model runs from the Center for Tsunami Research at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory show the expected wave heights of the tsunami as it travels across the Pacific basin March 11, 2011. By NOAA via Getty Images)

Architect Of Faith

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Bob Duggan considers Denis McNamara’s How to Read Churches:

Writing about geometric ornamentation, McNamara explains that “[m]athematics and geometry were understood as ways to return order and right proportions to the chaos of a fallen world.” … I’ve seen photos of Russian onion domes countless times, but knowing that they mimic the burning flames of candles and usually appear in fives (one for Jesus Christ and four for the Four Evangelists) made me see them with fresh eyes.

(Photo of the Kremlin by Flickr user dipthongasaurus rex)

Following Our Mythologies

Frank Wilson defends the idea:

Shortly before his death, J.R.R. Tolkien took his private secretary, Joy Hill, for a walk, during which he introduced her to all his favorite trees, and even showed her how he communicated with them (if memory serves, he did this by placing his hands on them and leaning forward until his brow touched their bark, after which some sort of silent colloquy ensued).

… Unfortunately, we tend to run from our own mythologies, or to bury them away, afraid that if others learn of them they will think us eccentric at best or else flat-out nuts. But such a personal mythology is actually the record of our profoundest self’s encounter with the world. My own, of course, is grounded in my Catholic faith. But one’s faith needs to be lived as a musical score is played — not with metronomic monotony, but with a generous dash of rubato. As Jesus said, the law was made for man, not man for the law.

“The Darwin’s Finches Of Religion”

Last night, I went to see part of a rehearsal for Matt and Trey's "The Book Of Mormon." Oh, man. I'm sworn to secrecy, but the set alone is worth it. In a "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" number, the set looks like the Black Party, with Johnnie Cochrane singing below the Angel Moroni plonked on top of the proscenium. It may be the best thing they've ever done, and musically, there are some brilliant numbers, reminding me of Stephen Sondheim's accurate observation that "Bigger, Longer and Uncut" was the best musical of the last decade. Chris Beam previews it here:

What Parker and Stone do isn't religion-bashing. It's religion-teasing. And it's born more from fascination than disdain. "I'm an atheist that admires and likes religion," Stone told me in an interview. He describes the new musical as "an atheist's love letter to religion." If you had to classify Parker and Stone's world view, you might call it Hobbesian absurdism.

In the universe they've created, random, terrible things happen with no explanation. It's no coincidence that South Park's most famous line is "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!"/ "You bastards!"—in response to the frequent death of Kenny McCormick—with no explanation of who "they" are. Parker and Stone's Book of Mormon has a similarly bleak perspective. When the two missionaries arrive in Uganda, they find the natives singing what sounds like an uplifting "Hakuna Matata"-like spiritual. It turns out what they're chanting—assa dega ebo aye—actually means "Fuck you, God." The rest of the musical chronicles the missionaries' attempt to reconcile their faith with this place that God appears to have forgotten.

Religion is good dramatic fodder for a Broadway show. Young believers are strong-willed, forward-moving, confident of their place in the universe—just the kind of hubris that makes for a good slapped-in-the-face-by-reality story. Adding to Parker and Stone's fascination is the fact that Mormonism is itself a young religion. "It's like Darwin's finches of religion—we can watch it evolve," says Stone.

Well, more frogs than finches, but you need to buy a ticket to find out why. My view is that the duo's view of religion is that it's absurd and a good thing. Their view of atheism is best expressed by SP's depiction of Richard Dawkins and their episode featuring a universe war between different tribes of non-believers.