Note: This is a continuation of a three-part series. It’s essential to read Part One for context and clarity.
After finally seeing the musical The Book of Mormon, I understand why some were upset. Admittedly, it’s sacrilegious, crude and vulgar.
I did enjoy it, but left the theater…troubled! I wasn’t offended by the content, but the story caused some flashbacks from my time in Conservative Evangelical leadership. It reminded me that faith can be abused…and abusive.
In Part One, I shared that confidence in what we believe can often degenerate into an arrogance about our Faith.
When I embraced the Christian Faith at the age of 19, I thought it was the most logical and important decision I could make.
I told my "testimony" to anyone who would listen. Often and repeatedly. It was imperative to me they believe. Exactly what I believed. I was confused when I'd explain what'd happened to me, and people would essentially shrug.
Why didn't they immediately "accept Jesus" as their Savior?
As a Baptist, I was baffled at churches that baptized by sprinkling or pouring.
Didn't they know it was supposed to be immersion?
It horrified me that gay men and lesbians would not want to "leave their homosexual lifestyle."
Couldn't they understand it was an abomination, and they could change?
I was bothered when Christians didn't know what the Bible about any given topic. I prided myself on my knowledge of the Bible! I would challenge folks to ask me a question, and I was usually ready with a chapter and verse to respond. (I memorized hundreds of verses and entire books of the Bible.) If someone asked a question I couldn't answer, it became my goal to search the Bible until I found the "right" answer. Not knowing was not an option. Answering "I don't know" was a sign of spiritual weakness.
The Book of Mormon reminded me of that version of me.
There was another element in that show that made me uncomfortable as well. It reminded me of a difficult lesson I had to learn, and one that was instrumental in me leaving that rigid, extreme religious environment.
2. Seeing our Faith Stories from an outside perspective can be…unpleasant.
I remember my time in Conservative/Fundamental groups, where we often existed in an Echo Chamber, only hearing about our Theological Correctness. We were right, and everyone else was varying degrees of wrong. There weren't explanations or examinations of their wrongness, merely ridicule that they were so wrong. It called into question their commitment to Jesus and the Bible. Looking back, it felt designed to make us see ourselves as better than them—more holy, more righteous, more spiritual. The conviction of and commitment to the absolute Truth of Fundamentalist dogma didn't allow for dissension. Fundamentalism doesn’t like to be questioned, just parroted.
It’s not easy to move outside that Protected Environment and hear our Faith Stories scoffed at, and the Source of our Faith demeaned and mocked. We're taught that's blasphemy, one of the worst of all sins.
Example: One song, Hasa Diga Eebowai, is sung by the African community when they figured out the Missionaries are there to tell them about God. The always positive Elder Cunningham asks if it’s like Hakuna Matata, ("No worries") from The Lion King. Turns out, it’s the opposite. The people of the community are angry and frustrated with all the problems of their lives, and the song is a caustic reflection of that bitterness, directed at God. With some of the coarsest language in the musical, the song is literally a middle finger to God, adding the f-word and numerous gestures for clarity. (I saw several folks leave the theater as the sustained flow of vulgar lyrics continued with raucous repetition.)
Yes, it’s shocking and jarring. But in the midst of my cringe, I had to admit: it's honest. And if I were just as truthful, I’d confess to those same feelings at times. Haven't you? But in the conservative church, giving voice to such anger and sacrilege would be grounds for rejection. Perhaps even being dis-fellowshipped. (More on that in the next entry, by the way.)
Saying “No worries” as a simplistic expression of my faith in God might be what's expected, but too often in the midst of my struggles, questions and struggles, my actual (unspoken) attitude is closer to “F#*k you, God!” I recall those times when I was trying desperately and unsuccessfully to change my sexual orientation. I vividly recall a night, alone in my office, where I literally screamed in anger at God because it wasn't working. It wasn't long after that I abandoned my "ex-gay" attempts, eventually also separating from the Evangelical/Fundamental church. (I write extensively about the futility of what's known as "ex-gay" programs.)
Our Faith Stories are important, often precious to us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean others will see them in the same way. If...when...someone challenges what we believe or makes fun of us for believing what cannot be scientifically verified, it would be easy to become offended, or defensive.
We could demand they respect our beliefs.
We could condemn them for not seeing it "our way."
We could insist we're right.
We could argue and protest and even seek legislation to enforce our beliefs.
But what does that accomplish?
There are those who insist the musical is a mockery of Mormons/Mormonism, and by extension, all people of faith. Personally, I felt highlighting the supernatural origins and beliefs of Mormons from the viewpoint of African people who’d never heard those Stories shined an objective light. I think it's enlightening for us to see what our beliefs might look like/sound like to outsiders.
Some detractors have asked if it would be funny to mock and make fun of Catholics, or Buddhists...or Muslims? I guess that depends depend on the person watching it. I have seen other musicals address religious issues, and they were also considered offensive. (I remember the protests and outcries for Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar).
Personal Note: I admire how the Mormon Church has consistently responded to the musical. When it first premiered on Broadway, they released a short statement: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” There was no call for boycotts or protesting with angry signs. There were no screeching claims of religious persecution. At some shows, actual Mormon missionaries stood outside, handing copies of the Book of Mormon and engaging in discussions. The church has taken out light-hearted ads in the programs. I think that's classy!
The insightful, sharp-witted Mark Twain is credited with saying: "I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people."
Several years ago, when Mitt Romney (a Mormon) was running for President, a conservative Christian friend of mine asked if I thought Mormons were Christians. “They sure have some strange beliefs,” this friend remarked.
“What is your faith background?” I inquired.
“Have you ever thought about what your church teaches? Such beliefs as confession to a priest, efficacy of the Pope, praying to Mother Mary and the canonization of saints would seem strange to someone outside the faith, wouldn’t they?”
It’s an uncomfortable reality that not everyone embraces our Faith Stories. That shouldn’t dissuade us in our beliefs, but perhaps it might help us be more sensitive before we dismiss the beliefs of others.
As a Christian, my faith is important to me, and I value the Stories that accompany my Faith. Yes, I'm aware there are things I believe…things I hold dear…that cannot be proven.
It’s faith, not science. And faith can be seen as absurd.
I don't contend the Stories are all true, just that they are part of my Faith.
What I believe it's not as "set in stone" as it once was. Asking questions, having doubts and not knowing all the answers is now part of my Faith. These days, I no longer feel a need to defend my faith, argue about it, or try to convince others of its validity or veracity. (i.e., “converting” “evangelizing”)
To the best of my ability, I seek to live my faith openly, honestly and sincerely.
I've also determined to extend that same respect to the beliefs of others. I may not agree with what they believe, but I will not dismiss or demean them for those beliefs, or their lack of any belief. I'm less impressed with what someone believes and more focused on how they treat others. (Caveat: when their beliefs seek to take away my rights, or they insist on imposing or legislating their beliefs on me or others, then Respect is replaced with Resistance!)
Regardless of what we might think faith/Faith is, or where it originates, surely it must come with a higher purpose than making us feel superior to someone else, or judging others who hold a different belief. Wouldn’t it make sense that it's more than doctrine and dogma for disagreements, debate and divisions?
I see Faith as personal, expressing itself uniquely within each of us.
In the end, Faith is a choice.
I believe because I’ve chosen to believe.
There was one more observation for me from the musical. In fact, it was the one that hit closest to home, and impacted me the most.
In my next post I’ll provide that final Faith Element, and my closing thoughts.