As I shared in Part One, it’s not my goal to defend or disparage The Book of Mormon. I wasn't offended by the content; I’m merely sharing how it impacted me. Seeing the musical brought up some troublesome flashbacks for me—taking me back to that time when I was a leader in Conservative Evangelical organizations. Some aspects of the story reminded me that faith can be distorted, and the Community of Faith can be the cause.
Which brings me to my final observation. This one hit closest to home for me.
3. Faith Communities often utilize or perpetuate harmful practices.
While it can be uncomfortable to see our Faith Stories portrayed in a negative way (as detailed in Part Two), it’s imperative to expose dangerous and/or harmful practices used by the church. Within the story of The Book of Mormon I noted several such elements that were part of my past, and sadly, still evident in conservative religious groups today. I'm sharing two:
Teaching detrimental or inadequate coping skills
After arriving in Africa, and seeing the difficulties and reactions of the indigenous people, Elder Price has a crisis of faith. He wants to quit, or escape to Orlando. His fellow missionaries, who’ve been there longer, offer their advice, in the song Turn it Off.
You say you got a problem
Well that's no problem
It's super easy not to feel that way...
When you're feeling certain feels
That just don't feel right
Treat those pesky feelings
Like a reading light
And turn 'em off
One missionary relates a story of physical abuse by his father, but learns to “turn it off.” Another endured his sister dying of cancer, but rather than grieve, he had to “turn it off.” One young man confesses to homosexual desires, but the church teaches he must “turn it off.”
Sadly, I've been in religious organizations that promote and preach such means of dealing with so-called negative emotions or "wrong" desires.
In church, we were told not to be angry; it’s a sin. I’ve heard that we shouldn’t to be depressed because “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” I’ve listened as survivors were told not to grieve because their loved one was in heaven, or told that “God needed another angel.” Losing a job, or getting a cancer diagnosis is part of God’s plan, so we shouldn’t complain.
Too often in the community of faith, if we feel hurt, depressed, grief, anger, or any host of “negative” emotions, there’s not a openness to admit these feelings; they are perceived as a sign of spiritual weakness. We’re not trusting God enough, we’re not a “good” or "mature" Christian, our faith should be stronger. We regularly hear platitudes like “God never puts more on us than we can handle” or “God allowed this for a reason.” We’re told to "give thanks in all things," claim God’s promises or speak to it in Jesus name. Clichés replace compassion. So even when we’re in pain, or discouraged, or confused, we opt for casual, expected replies. “I’m fine.” “I’m blessed.” “God is good.”
I know firsthand the frustration and trauma of (uselessly) trying to “turn off” my homosexual desires. I’ve experienced the soul-draining efforts of “ex-gay” programs and treatments. I know the destructive disappointment of the realization: IT DOESN’T WORK! I know the depression, desperation and rejection that comes with that crushing sense of personal failure. (Because obviously, it was MY fault! I didn’t believe enough, or pray enough, or try hard enough.)
Personal Note: Since leaving “ex-gay” leadership, I’ve worked for 30+ years with those damaged by programs that promise to change these desires. I’ve written often about that futility of those endeavors.
Suppressed emotions and desires don’t go away, just because we choose to conceal, ignore or deny them. Not talking about them is also not being honest about them. They will show up, one way or another. The inevitable manifestation can be unpleasant and unhealthy, everything from self-medicating, furtive sexual encounters, sudden outbursts of emotions, physical maladies (e.g., headaches, insomnia, ulcers), a sense of hopelessness and sometimes, suicide attempts.
Relying on fear to motivate and control
When Elder Price decides to abandon his mission and even begins to question his beliefs, he experiences a dream, where his actions have landed him in the torments of hell for all eternity, with such folks as Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and Adolf Hitler. He wakes up terrified, and decides to return to the mission. There, he learns others have had the Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.
For centuries, the church has successfully used the threat of punishment or retribution to manipulate members.
Disobey the rules, and God could show divine displeasure by sending sickness, injury, financial ruin, or death.
Refuse to live a certain way (i.e., “our” way) and face family rejection, banishment or excommunication.
Failure to adhere to creeds and doctrines could mean losing one’s salvation or eternal damnation.
Fear can fill the pews and empty the pockets.
Let’s face it: fear works!
(Didn’t our last election teach us that?)
Yes, there were parts of the musical that troubled me. It wasn’t the Mormon theology, or the profanity or the sacrilegious tone. For me, it was the reminders that faith can be abused, and can be abusive. It’s essential that I remember those lessons.
Beyond that, I did enjoy it.
There’s a sweetness and innocence that shines through the story. At the core are two men—young Mormon missionaries—trying to prove themselves. Elder Price wants to live up to what he sees as his divine potential. Elder Cunningham wants to finally get his father's approval and respect. They want to do what they think is right and what’s expected of them…by their church, their families and their God. That’s noble. Other than the African War Lord, I never felt any of the characters were duplicitous or intentionally being insincere. I think the two boys honestly wanted to help.
I was able to relate to a humanity that the characters displayed.
I identify with pressure of needing all the answers.
I certainly understand wanting a father's approval.
I’ve felt the stress of that task to “evangelize.”
I know the struggle of trying to deny my deepest desires.
I know the confusion when the things I've believed aren’t working.
The musical brought painful flashbacks, but also a gratitude knowing I survived. I’m not in that place now.
So for me, it was worthwhile.
I’m glad I saw it.