The Triumph Of “The Book Of Mormon”


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”


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?


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


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.

WWJD? Something Other Than Papa Bear, Ctd


A reader writes:

Bravo to you for pointing out the central conviction of the Gospels (also of the Hebrew scriptures) that there is enough and more than enough in God's abundance, that it is meant for all without distinction, and that the original sin of the Garden of Eden is the sin of failing to trust – of grabbing and hoarding – and the sin of the Pharisees and lawyers in the New Testament is that of bean-counting and score-keeping.

Right-wing evangelical fundamentalism, however, misses this point through its distorted canon.  What the "Bible" churches read, in the Bible – what they preach on – is Leviticus, Proverbs (with its prudential bromides) and the Epistles of Paul.  One of their absolutely favorite texts is Paul's rather grumpy throwaway line, "If any will not work, neither shall he eat."  They privilege Paul's shoot-from-the-hip letters to contentious groups of new believers trying to organize their common life, over Jesus's sweeping vision of a Kingdom.  The outcome of Luther's revolutionary exegesis "justification by faith" in the Epistle to the Romans is this: almost 500 years into evangelicalism, the most important messages of scripture are seen as being Paul's random dicta to squabbling communities dealing with petty jealousies and organizational dynamics.

So much for sola scriptura. It is incredibly sad.

But Christianity will survive Christianism. In that I have faith. Another writes:

A huge number of Americans (presumably including O'Reilly) believe this statement – "The Lord helps those who help themselves" is from the Bible. It is not. They don't realize it's actually a highly sarcastic comment of Benjamin Franklin's.

Either that or Algernon Sydney in 1698 in an article titled Discourses Concerning Government. It says something about the collapse of Christianity in America that what was once an attack on the Gospels is now regarded as their central truth. Another:

As a conservative Christian myself, it pains me to see Christians adopting the mindset of the Pharisees.

When I read O'Reilly's comments in the excerpt you referenced, I can hear a Pharisee making the same comments. The Pharisees would say the sick and poor were that way because they weren't faithful enough. If they were righteous like us they would be health and prosperous. It's their responsibility for being poor and they are responsible to correct it. See Deuteronomy 28 for the background of how this thinking functions. Jesus' teachings run counter to this way of thinking.

The American Dream is closer to the vision of the Pharisees than to the vision of Christ who said do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth… O'Reilly here sounds like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9 who basically prays, "God aren't you lucky to have someone like me?" Paul said the love of money is the root of all evil – think 2008 financial meltdown – but in America the love of money is supreme and corrupts Christians. This is the issue/tension that conservative Christians need to resolve instead of condemning the actions of others. Get the beam out of your own eye before worrying about the mote in someone else's.


You wrote: "I wonder how Bill O'Reilly missed the Sermon on the Mount in Sunday School."

The answer is, he probably didn't miss it because they most likely skipped over it. I grew up in Wantagh, the town right next to O'Reilly's Levittown. If his church was anything like mine – St Francis de Chantal – it was a Catholicism based on anger, bigotry and control; not love, forgiveness or charity. Any kid who attended St Francis in the 1950s-60s, going to either the school or catechism, remembers the terror-inducing Father Hein and the hardness of the nuns. I can recall nothing of the Sermon on the Mount being taught in catechism – I was left to discover its beauty seeing the movie "King of Kings".

What I mostly remember from St Francis is smoldering anger and a gospel based on submission to authority. Just picture a church full of Bill Donohues and you've got St Francis in the '60s. I'm pretty certain O'Reilly was raised in a similar church – it was the period, it was the region. My mother, who grew up a Catholic in the Bible Belt at a time when Catholics were high on the KKK's list of enemies, always said her church in Little Rock was a loving church, but she never felt there was any love in the Catholic churches of Long Island.


The thing that struck me most about the O'Reilly quote you posted was "…I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive." I was a little surprised that you felt the need to even get as specific as the Sermon on the Mount – since isn't a literally self-destructive act of charity the whole point of the Christianity? As in Jesus intentionally acted in a way which led to his own physical death in order to do good for others who didn't deserve it?

The light years between the Gospels and today's Christianist right have rarely been better exposed.

(Photo: Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly by Evan Agostini/Getty.)

The Spiritual Center, Ctd

Reacting to this defense of agnosticism, a reader makes a vital point on the distinction between non-fundamentalist Christians and agnostics:

In many ways the agnostic is in an interesting place sociologically and dispositionally, which he shares with certain Christians, of being "between" the fundamentalists on either side, whether religious or atheist. At the functional level, and here I suspect that AGNOSTIC really means at the level of politics, the agnostic and the non-fundamentalist Christian can share a great deal. Both will be humble, aware of all that they do not know, and probably open to compromise as well as given to a political ethic of empiricism, prudence, and an acknowledgment of limits. The agnostic and the grace-sustained Christian might both be conservatives of doubt.

I have been thinking a great deal about this lately, and despite the above, have been more impressed by differences between the agnostic and the non-fundamentalist Christian — especially existentially. I can't help but think that the agnostic, at the end of the day, reads all the great old books that dwelt on all the great questions self-aware man has posed to himself, and shrugs. He acknowledges mystery but does not seem to care about the source of that mystery, or even if he is responding to something "real" when curious moments of spiritual transcendence actually occur. There is, of course, a certain sanity in this response — at the least he won't end up an ideologue. I wouldn't mind having an agnostic for my neighbor. Yet all this seems to amount to a form of evasion. Its a form of studied non-observance.

The non-fundamentalist Christian experiences doubt within the framework of faith, and above all hope.

We see through a glass darkly; but one day we will see Him face to face. Our unknowing is intrinsically related to eschatology — we experience doubt but dwell within it hopefully, waiting humbly and patiently for the day when all things will be made new. In other words, the uncertainty and humility of the Christian is not a mere admission that we "just don't know," but instead is given intelligibility by our hope. It Hope might be better to put it this way: the Christian acknowledges that we don't know right now. I also suspect — or at least this holds for me — that humility is related to original sin, our flawed and fallible post-lapsarian natures. It is not that our questions are unanswerable, or meaningless, it is that we can't answer them as finite, fallible beings with minds that still bear the imprint of our aboriginal catastrophe. So we hold our beliefs with some critical distance, knowing that a belief in any God that does not slip into utter anthropomorphism will be aware of the limits of language, of marking with mortal words immortal things.

I'm not sure a simple agnosticism ever can really be sustained. I'm not sure why, apart from a kind of existential self-positing, and thereby probably delusional willfulness, it does not turn to cynical despair. I'm not sure it is ever non-parasitic on more robust forms of faith (including non-fundamentalist religious faith). I'm not sure why you would continue to attend to questions that you think are not open to some kind of provisional answer, even the answer of humble faith. The Christian who doubts has reasons for both believing and struggling, and the two are held together and given intelligibility by sustaining hope. Ultimately I think the agnostic and non-fundamentalist believer are occupying two very different existential positions, whatever the resonances that exist between them politically or otherwise.

Can Church Be Hip? Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader writes:

A lesser-known band, but one that's easily as inventive and respected in certain circles as Starflyer 59 and David Bazan, is mewithoutYou. They formed out of the Philadelphia hardcore scene in the late '90s, have been on Tooth and Nail – the same label Starflyer and Pedro the Lion got their start on – since their first album in 2002, and have toured with David Bazan a couple times. The first album was pretty hard stuff, with singer Aaron Weiss doing more speaking/shouting than singing, but each successive album has gotten a little softer, with Weiss singing more and more.

Their fourth and most recent album, "It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright!" finds Weiss given over to singing every song and the band playing stuff that is a kind of gypsy/folk sound. It's also the first album ever on a Christian label and sold in Christian stores that's a largely Muslim work. Weiss and his brother were raised by parents who were into the Sufi faith, and this album has that kind of thing all over it.  In fact, the album title is a quote from Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, an important Sufi mystic, and some of the songs are his parables [see video above].

For my money, it might be the best Christian album ever. It's got talking animals and food, songs about King David and a baby Jesus, themes of environmental responsibility (the band drives around in an old bus converted to cooking oil), and one-ness with everyone else. It even closes with a song repeatedly using the name "Allah" for God. Musically it's outstanding too, and their live performances are as energetic and engaging as any band I've ever seen.

Weiss talked about his faith with Relevant magazine:

I read that a few years ago, Christianity was just "business" to you and that you wanted to "just make out with chicks" (at one point). It wasn't until you spent a time in a communal living situation that things changed for you. What made you join that commune?
I suppose it was a longing for something real, something different than what I'd known. The Christianity I'd been exposed to was primarily concerned with the afterlife, little concern for people's tangible, immediate needs. We pray, of course, "your kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven," and I found myself wondering what the world would look like if the kingdom did come, if it were a paradise, right here, today. And it seemed like communal living was a step in that direction.

Have you received direct criticism to your way of life from other Christians? What was it, and how did you deal with it?
Not as much as I'd hope. When criticism does come, I usually think, "Finally, I must be doing something right!"

What were your friends' and family's reactions to your life change? Was it immediate, or did the Aaron Weiss we see today emerge slowly?
For a while there was a gradual turning, with one single experience bringing about a sudden and dramatic change almost three years ago. I think people worried about me. I was feverish, couldn't sleep much, woke up trembling. I would ramble on, trying to communicate what was inside, to share what had been given to me. It didn't work—I've had to learn to be quiet, to listen, to show it instead.

How does your view of Christianity affect your desire to, or lack of desire, to be married?
Jesus said that it's better for a man not to marry. Paul wrote the same thing. I see it as a sort of a concession I'll have to make if I don't have the faith to find contentment in my God alone. That I may need such a compromise seems likely, as I've always had a passion for that sort of union, and I get lonely. I don't so much mean sexually, but mostly I long for companionship and a deep friendship. If God is willing though, maybe I could find that in the Holy Ghost.

Another reader corrects me on previous entry:

There a small error in your post regarding Neutral Milk Hotel.  Mangum did NOT talk about his faith to Pitchfork in 2008.  Rather, in 2008, Pitchfork posted an interview from all the way back in December 1997.  Big deal, you might say.  I bring this up only because Mangum retreated from public life shortly after In The Aeroplane Over the Sea was released and, at least as far as I know, hasn't done an interview in many years so the suggestion he gave an interview in 2008 might surprise a few people.

Mangum's retreat from public life is itself a pretty interesting story.  Since about 2001, he has only played at a couple of benefit shows for friends.