Authenticity and The Book of Mormon

January 3, 2013 | 39 comments
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I know, I said a year and a half ago that I wasn’t going to see The Book of Mormon. But then it came to Chicago and, in spite of the fact that it is sold out through at least March, a friend set me up with a ticket.1 So I’ve now seen the show.

I’m not going to review it, though. It’s already been widely reviewed, and frankly, I don’t have the musical theater chops to provide a credible review.2 There are plenty of reviews, both professional and amateur, scattered throughout the internet.3

I am, however, going to address its portrayal of Mormons, how well it manages to paint us. It’s a real issue. Parker, Stone, and Lopez are trying to create real (albeit caricatured) Mormon characters. If the characters aren’t Mormon, the play doesn’t work. No conservative evangelicals in Mormon drag will work here. At least one review has already addressed problems with the musical’s portrayal of Mormons, and Mormonism, but I’m going to look at it with a slightly different taxonomy. Specifically, there are things that The Book of Mormon gets wrong for narrative purposes; I’m willing to overlook those problems (though some of them were initially jarring). But there are other things it gets wrong that have no point.

I should say, they get a lot of things right, from missionary motives (for good and ill) to familial support to recognizing that missionary companions have to stay together (and, generally, the breadth of rules that exist for missionaries) to an obsession with the nice-ness of Mormons (an obsession that also plays out in South Park).

Narrative Necessity

  1. The missionaries find out where they’re going to serve and who their companion will be at the end of the MTC. This one was jarring, coming, as it does, at the end of the first song. But it’s a narrative necessity—we need to have some idea of who Elder Price and Elder Cunningham are to understand why they react to their call and companionship the way they do. The constraints of theater would make it unwieldy to meet the missionaries before they get their calls, see them get their calls, then go the MTC, then sing their first (remarkably catchy) song, etc.
  2. It’s not completely clear, but it looks like in the world of The Book of Mormon, missionaries keep their same companion for the full two years. Though not necessary, getting into the intricacies of transfers would have added unnecessary (from a narrative standpoint), and distracting, detail to the show.
  3. Elder Price at one point has a (justifiable) meltdown and leaves the house to find the mission president and insist on a transfer from Uganda to Orlando. While no missionary would believe, for one second, that he or she could be transferred from one country to another, Elder Price just experienced extreme trauma, and could be forgiven for not thinking clearly.4

Unnecessary Errors

That said, there are problems that are (a) so specific that they must be deliberate, but (b) serve no narrative purpose. And those just bug me. A few:

  1. When missionaries are assigned their companions, the unembodied voice of (presumably) the MTC president tells them that their new companion will be their “brother.” Only we don’t say that. We say companion. Full stop.
  2. Late in the show, the mission president comes with who I assume were his APs. The APs don’t really do anything except trail the president and occasionally say, “Praise Jesus” (or maybe “Praise Christ”). No Mormon in the history of Mormondom has ever said that.5 Not only does it serve no purpose, but it’s not an accidental expression. It is essentially all these characters say, and it is so not Mormon that it seriously bothered me.
  3. The big one for me: for some reason, the MTC of the musical lasts for three months. The play says it. Out loud. On purpose. Not three weeks. Not two months. Three months. I mean, we only catch the missionaries on the last day of the MTC; there’s no reason for it to be assigned a length. But if you’re going to assign it a length, make it something real.6

On the Fence

I’m on the fence about “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream.” A couple missionaries mention their Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams, and then Elder Price has one. On the one hand, Hell doesn’t play a role in Mormon theology, or in the way we talk. I can’t imagine that many (any?) Mormons have dreams about Hell.

On the other hand, Parker and Stone can’t address religion unless they also include Satan (ideally with an electric guitar), Hitler, and Dahmer. And the song is excellent (as are the dancing Starbucks cups). The dream doesn’t really serve any narrative purpose, and the play could easily exist without it. But, on the other hand, it contributes to the show in a way that Three Months and Praise Jesus don’t. So make of that what you will.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. It turns out that the cost of a free ticket on opening night to a sold-out show is the worst seat in the house, a seat I hope nobody has ever paid money for. Behind a tall guy. Still, it was free, so no complaints.
  2. For instance, it turns out that a central moment in the second act is a direct homage to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I. And how do I know this? Not because of my familiarity with The King and I (though I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it). No, because, after seeing the musical, I read some reviews, all of which seemed to mention the reference.
  3. Okay, quick review: it is often hilarious, though sometimes the jokes miss. The music is catchy, though, if certain songs get stuck in your head, you’ll probably want to hum them, not sing them. Should you see it? It depends on your level of tolerance of horrible, horrible language (and some blasphemy). Basically, if you’ve seen South Park, and you can imagine what it would be like if there were no network toning it down, you have a good idea of the level of offensiveness of the play.
  4. Mission story: although no missionary could believe he or she could waltz into the mission office and demand a transfer to another mission, much less another country, it’s not inconceivable that a missionary could believe that he or she could make it to another mission. Once on my mission, my housemate and I were each training new missionaries. My housemate’s companion decided, on like day 2, that he didn’t want to be in Brazil, and never ended up unpacking his bag. After about six weeks, and going through the mission president and some Area authorities, he managed to create an illness that required him to go back to the U.S. He had visa-waited in the U.S.—Idaho, maybe?—and believed (whether it was true or not) that this mission president there had told him that, if Brazil didn’t work out, he’d be welcome to come back to that mission. I don’t know what happened to him after he left Brazil, and I don’t know what the mission president had said to him, but I do know what he believed he’d heard. So Elder Price’s desire to go to be transferred from Uganda to a U.S. mission is possible, even if his technique isn’t.
  5. I probably exaggerate a little. But seriously, that’s not the way we talk.
  6. I just Googled “MTC length.” The Wikipedia article says 3-12 weeks. But seriously, have you ever met anybody who was at the MTC for 12 weeks? Because I haven’t. And I suspect that, had they talked to any Mormons about it, they would have heard three weeks or two months.

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39 Responses to Authenticity and The Book of Mormon

  1. lisbonMissionary on January 3, 2013 at 11:25 am

    While I’m not up on recent practice, I know of 2 examples from my mission in the mid-90’s where Elders who couldn’t acclimatize to new cultures were reassigned to US missions.

    One Elder from my MTC class returned to finish in the states after a month or so in Brazil. When I arrived in Portugal, I was emergency transferred 7 days into my 1st area to swap out with another new Elder who was having culture problems so he could be closer to the mission home. About a month later he was ‘transferred’ to a state-side mission.

  2. Bryan S. on January 3, 2013 at 11:27 am

    MTC lengths have changed recently (to be shorter) but at the time the play was written 3 months was standard for at least non-Latin alphabet languages. I have a number of friends who were in the MTC for 3 months for languages like Russian, Thai, Mandarin, or anything else that has a different alphabet. It’s also possible that more difficult languages like Swedish (or was it Dutch? Or Norwegian? One of those languages is supposed to be really hard despite using the Latin alphabet.)

    I don’t know much about Uganda, but google says the official language is English and Swahili. Swahili appears to use the Latin alphabet now but maybe it’s hard enough.

  3. Bryan S. on January 3, 2013 at 11:29 am

    * It looks like I didn’t complete one of my sentences…

    …It’s also possible that more difficult languages like Swedish (or was it Dutch? Or Norwegian? One of those languages is supposed to be really hard despite using the Latin alphabet.) would also have a 3 month duration.

    Hope that makes more sense.

  4. iguacufalls on January 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    I was in the MTC for 3 months – not by design, but because I was waiting for my visa to Brazil. After 3 months, the Church gave up and sent me to Palm Springs for another month until my visa showed up. This was in Feb-April of ’88.

  5. Paul on January 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Yeah, my daughter was in the MTC for 12 weeks before going Mandarin speaking to NYC last year. But my friend’s son (who is an American) who actually serves in Uganda went to the MTC in South Africa for three weeks. So add that your list of inconsistencies.

  6. Roger on January 3, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    You guys do understand that TBofM is a satirical comedy? I’m not sure fact checking a Broadway musical makes much sense. For example, the point of mentioning Orlando is to make fun of Mormon’s obsession with Disneyland/World.

  7. Bryan S. on January 3, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    You do understand that everyone who has commented has fact checked Sam’s blog post and not the musical?

  8. Binary Search Tree on January 3, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I know that Hungarian is also a 12-week language in the MTC. (Or at least it used to be; apparently MTC times were cut down with the recent age changes as well?)

  9. Susan M on January 3, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    That’s weird, I’ve been a member of the church for 23 years and I’ve never once heard anything mentioned about Disneyland/World.

  10. Roger on January 3, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    So Bryan, you think I ought to be fact checking the commenters and not the original author.

    Susan M. you must not live in Utah. Apparently a disproportionate number of Disneyland attendees are from Utah.

  11. Roger on January 3, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Binary Search Tree and others, the offical language of Uganda is English.

  12. Bryan S. on January 3, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Roger,

    The plural of “you guys” in your comment made me think you were directing your comment at the commenters not the blog poster. I see I was mistaken. My apologies.

  13. MLewis82 on January 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    When I was in the MTC learning Japanese I was assigned for “12 weeks”, but it was 12 MTC weeks. Week 1 started on Wednesday (03 October 2001), and ended on Saturday. Week 12 started on Sunday, and ended on Monday (17 December 2001) when we went to the airport and flew to Japan (arriving on Tuesday night, interestingly enough, but that’s just because of the time change and does not actually add to the length of time in the MTC). Because the first and last weeks are not full weeks, I was only actually in the MTC for in the MTC for 75 days or 10 weeks and 5 days, but it was “12 weeks” according to the official calendar.

    While there, I was told by our Large Group Meeting Instructor at the time (Br. Kelend Mills) that only Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Russian were “12 week languages”. All other languages were “8 week languages.” Br. Mills said this determination was based on the State Department language difficulty ranking (based on how many hours of instruction it takes a native English speaker with no previous exposure to the target language to become functional in performing State Department tasks). A friend told me Finnish should be added to this list, so it’s possible Br. Mills missed some languages or that things changed, but my other friend confirmed that at least for her, Thai was 8 weeks, not 12, so the rule does seem to be based on some form of difficulty ranking, and not solely on Latin-based alphabet usage.

    All Category III languages taught at the MTC, and for some reason Russian which is a Category II language, were made “12 week languages”. Russian is the only language taught at BYU which gives 5 credits for the 101 and 102 levels. All other standard languages give 4 credits, and the non-standard ones, like my Swahili class in May-June 2001, capped out at 3 credits – so I suspect BYU’s Russian department had some influence in bumping it to a Category III level for MTC purposes.

    In addition to the standard lengths of time listed above, there were probably 30 Brazilians serving in my mission with me at any given time, many of whom were in the MTC for longer. When they got to the MTC they would be given an English test, based on which they were placed in the English program for 4 weeks or 8 weeks (though many tested out completely) and then they were transferred to the Japanese program for the full 12 weeks. That means at least a few of them (including my friend Elder De Arruda) were in the MTC for 20 WEEKS. Albeit these were MTC weeks, so it may have been slightly less time, but this was their official MTC stay, and it had nothing to do with waiting for visas.

    As for Uganda, my brother-in-law, who is from Uganda, said that even though English and Swahili are both official languages, no one in the country speaks either as a native language. Swahili has long been a trade language in the region, and the common Bantu roots make it easier for most Ugandans to learn, but Ganda (also known as Luganda) is the native language of the largest group of people in that country, with some speakers of unrelated Nilotic languages (related to Nubian) in the north. The Church only has the Joseph Smith Testimony translated into Ganda, most educated people speak English, and Swahili’s status is politically controversial, so the missionaries just teach in English, and most don’t bother to learn anything else. This will probably change in time, but for now, Uganda MTC stays should be as was described by Paul above.

  14. Bryan S. on January 3, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I haven’t heard that Mormon’s have an obsession with Disneyland/World more than others. Is it that grown Mormon’s have an obsession or that Utahn’s generally have more kids and therefore are more likely to take them to Disneyland?

  15. Howard on January 3, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    At first I was stopped by the errors but they are so glaring they had to be deliberate! Then I realized the play does an excellent job of characterizing the particularities of Mormon thinking, Mormon personas and Mormon irrational belief to non-Mormons while entertaining them every step of the way! It was very well done but hard to hear and understand the words at times and it offered something to offend almost everyone.

  16. Sam Brunson on January 3, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Bryan S. (14), the play doesn’t really claim that all Mormons view Orlando as paradise; rather, it’s a quirk of one particular missionary (none of the others evince any desire to go there), though one that may reasonably derive from his Mormonness.

  17. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 3, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    I doubt that a missionary serving in the Orlando area is allowed to go to Disneyworld on P days. Maybe if his parents come to pick him up at the end of his mission and travel with him, he could go spend the day at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

    I have not gone to see the musical or listen to the recording of the music. Based on the many detailed descriptions in stories about it, it strikes me as a 21st Century minstrel show, with caricatures of Mormons instead of African-Americans. I get the strong impression that it does not instill confidence in the audience that Mormons are either intelligent or honest or grounded in reality. Rather, they are deluded nincompoops, who are harmless, as long as you don’t let them near the White House or running your company.

  18. Frank Pellett on January 3, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Its possible many of the theme parks are not even in mission boundaries. I know the Six Flags between Dallas and Ft Worth was not in either the Dallas or Fort Worth missions, so missionaries couldn’t even go on p-days.

  19. Master Blaster on January 3, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    I get the strong impression that it does not instill confidence in the audience that Mormons are either intelligent or honest or grounded in reality. Rather, they are deluded nincompoops, who are harmless, as long as you don’t let them near the White House or running your company.

    This has been my impression of this musical all along and why I choose not to see it. Not to mention the obscene vulgarity.

  20. queuno on January 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    When my inlaws were Russian MPs in the early 00s, it was three months for Russian. My wife served in Anaheim in the early 90s and they went to Disneyland once a year as a mission. She knew of some who went more often (against the rules).

  21. Cameron N on January 3, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    The max time for the harder languages is 11 weeks I believe. I didn’t have a hard one, but I had two (french and tahitian), so we got extra time. This was in 2002, but I don’t think those times have changed…

  22. Rigel Hawthorne on January 3, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    I think I recall reading that the creators have acknowledged that the “Praise Jesus” phrase insertion was realized to be inaccurate after-the-fact. I never knew if they followed up with a revision to the script, but apparently not. I don’t know what it takes to change the script of a Broadway musical once it has been launched. Perhaps they were so pleased with the commmercial success they just left it in. I know when we were doing a road show, we discovered that an accidental goof provided such a good audience reaction that we made the goof nightly after that.

    From what you are describing, the AP’s saying nothing but that goes along with the general missionary character developement as optimistic bubbleheads that do not have enough intelligence to see through a religious farce. That keeps the non-Mormon audience comfortable laughing without thinking too deeply of the more profound reasons Mormon’s dedicate themselves to their faith.

    It also hearken’s back to the the Parker/Stone movie, ‘Orgazmo’, where the main missionary character upon hearing anyone say, ‘Jeezus’ as a slang word, would look around and say ‘where?’ as if to expect that someone was announcing that Jesus had appeared. ‘Jeezus’ in that context appears to be a source of humor all in itself. Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar says it when Jesus is brought before him in a tone intended to get laughs.

    At least I don’t hear that The Book of Mormon musical has the missionaries praying to small statues as they did in Orgazmo.

  23. Laura on January 3, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Re: Narrative Necessity #3: In my first area in Brasil, within a month’s time my companion and I were mugged twice, followed on the streets, and otherwise threatened and/or harassed a couple of other times. This on top of the more mundane unpleasantness of intestinal parasites and such. Anyway, I was pretty freaked out, and when we saw the mission president at zone conference, I asked him to transfer me to Pocatello, Idaho. I don’t know why Pocatello or why Idaho–it just seemed boring (in a good way–no slight meant toward Idaho) and safe. Of course, I was (mostly) joking–I knew that was not a possibility, and I probably wouldn’t have really wanted it even if it had been–but it was how I dealt with my fears.

    (By the by, the president did transfer me to a very sleepy little farming community a couple of hours outside the main city of my mission. I still remember the first night I was there, instead of walking home on deserted streets and constantly checking over our shoulders, we walked with families headed home from services at the local Evangelical churches, pushing sleeping babies in strollers. It was a beautiful sight.)

  24. kamschron on January 3, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    Not long before the MTC in Provo was built, I spent four months instead of two at the LTM (Language Training Mission) that preceded it, waiting for a visa to Colombia. When I finally left the LTM, I was assigned temporarily to California before being transferred unexpectedly to Guatemala.

    At the LTM, we were told that LTM classes formerly had been graded and that the grades that could be earned were rumored to be A, B, C, D and England.

  25. Sam Brunson on January 4, 2013 at 12:22 am

    RTS, this wasn’t really a direction I wanted to go here (the propriety of seeing the musical has been debated ad nauseum), but a couple thoughts.

    First, I’m certainly not going to tell you to see it. If you’re worried you’ll find it offensive, you will. (In fact, even if you’re not worried, you’ll probably find at least parts of it offensive; that’s kind of their stock in trade.) I don’t think Mormons have any ethical or moral obligation to see anything big that involves Mormons.

    That said, I’d be really slow to accuse it of being minstrely. Partly because it isn’t—they work hard to create fully-formed characters that are recognizably Mormon, even where they get some details wrong—unless if by minstrely you mean something that makes fun of Mormon beliefs. And partly because, if you say that to your friends and neighbors who see the show or hear the music, you’ll lose all sorts of credibility (especially if you admit to not having seen the show or heard the music). Your friends and neighbors will see the play, if it’s general sold-out nature is any indication, and they’ll come away with a strong impression that the authors like Mormons, even if they find our beliefs absurd. You could certainly discuss why you’re not going to see it, or what they got wrong (based, of course, on my post!), or any n,ber of other things. But if you just accuse the play of being anti-Mormon, you’ve lost a great conversation.

  26. Owen on January 4, 2013 at 12:22 am

    #2: You’re thinking of Finnish. Norwegian, Dutch and Swedish are “easy” Germanic languages.

  27. Michael H. on January 4, 2013 at 12:50 am

    Honestly, there are plenty of instances besides the ones you mentioned (the APs ONLY say “Praise Jesus”) where the authors make things up. Like “Jesus has his own planet as well.” It’s clearly deliberate, and the fact that it’s deliberate makes it obnoxious.

    Here’s my general take on the matter: http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com/2012/04/making-things-up-again.html

  28. Niklas on January 4, 2013 at 2:53 am

    #26: Yep, 3 or even 9 weeks wouldn’t be enough for missionaries coming to Finland. Those learning Swedish need only 9 weeks.

  29. Bryan S. on January 4, 2013 at 11:56 am

    Sorry for getting the discussion derailed so much.

    I haven’t seen the musical and probably won’t ever because I don’t know when I’ll ever be in New York, and I’m not much of a go-to-musicals-live person anyway. I got free tickets to one in Vegas once and left unimpressed. But that was more because it wasn’t a good musical, not because I dislike them. Aside from a couple high school productions that’s it. So I think other ones are higher on my list of productions to see before that one.

    I guess a question would be, can we or should we expect a satirical comedy like this to be reasonably accurate? Sam is obviously giving them some wiggle room in the form of artistic liberty (or necessity in some cases). Are people who see this play considering it a source on what Mormons are like?

    On a similar note I’m currently reading a post apocalyptic book where there is a group of Mormons travelling through Texas with the main character. It seems much more inaccurate than even the play. The characters all are closer to the AP’s mentioned in the play and closer to 19th century evangelicals than modern-day (or post-modern-day) Mormons. Does a serious fiction novel have more responsibility to accuracy than a musical comedy?

  30. Sam Brunson on January 4, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Michael (27), it’s been a couple weeks since I saw the show (family visit and flu intervened), so I can’t speak to “I Believe” with a perfect memory. Like you, I disagreed with some of Elder Price’s beliefs; many I find unsupportable. That said, at least the vast majority (like I said, I don’t remember everything) are beliefs I’ve either heard Mormons say, or logical derivations of the same. Like planets—while I don’t buy the idea that we’ll all get our own planets in the end, I’ve certainly heard people say that, both seriously and playfully, and the idea the Jesus has His own isn’t difficult to get from there. (Heck, I had one mission comp who didn’t believe in dinosaurs.) So I’m not convinced that they were making things up so much as presenting what they viewed as Mormon beliefs (albeit, I admit, uncharitably: the “God changed his mind in 1978″ is a perfect zinger, and apparently represents the beliefs of some Mormons, but is clearly not the way most of us think about it).

    Bryan S. (29), great question. My take: I want to say that an author has an obligation to create a rounded, authentic character (which means, if the author calls the character Mormon, the character’s Mormonness should play a part in her character, even if the author doesn’t get all of the details right). Of course, if that’s the rule, it certainly must be broken: there is a place in literature for one-dimensional straw men (maybe, anyway—I’m not entirely convinced). That said, I don’t think that’s what Stone, Parker, and Lopez were going for, which is why I’m evaluating their play against actual Mormonness.

  31. Stephen Hardy on January 5, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Ok, so for a reality check, what follows are the lyrics to “I Believe.” It has everything that is right and wrong with the musical. I think that it reflects a missionary’s desire to be good and to do the right thing. I reflects their naievete and their pureness. Elder Price is have a crisis of faith. This isn’t unusual for a missionary. He is trying to figure out how to believe even though he has doubts.

    I would guess that the song’s “unfair” bias is that it “cherry-picks” our oddest beliefs by exagerrating them (perhaps a bit.) It also reflects many Mormon’s attitude that you have to “fake it until you make it.” That is, we must ignore our doubts and simply roll up our sleeves and work, and let those nagging doubts take care of themselves.

    I think that the song is brilliant, because it captures so many things. Not just the odd doctrines, but the facing of doubt, the desire to do good. And let me ask: What do you find objectionable about this song?:

    Elder Price:
    Ever since I was a child I tried to be the best
    So, what happened?
    My family and friends all said I was blessed
    So, what happened?
    It was supposed to be all so exciting to be teaching of Christ ‘cross the sea,
    But, I allowed my faith to be shaken.
    Oh, what’s the matter with me?

    I’ve always longed to help the needy
    To do the things I never dared.
    This was the time for me to step up
    So, then, why was I so scared?

    A warlord who shoots people in the face.
    What’s so scary about that?
    I must trust that my Lord is mightier
    And always has my back.
    Now I must be completely devout
    I can’t have even one shred of doubt…

    I believe that the Lord, God, created the universe.
    I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.
    And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America
    I am a Mormon,
    And a Mormon just believes.

    You cannot just believe part way,
    You have to believe in it all.
    My problem was doubting the Lord’s will
    Instead of standing tall.

    I can’t allow myself to have any doubt.
    It’s time to set my worries free.
    Time to show the world what Elder Price is about!
    And share the power inside of me…

    I believe that God has a plan for all of us.
    I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.
    And I believe; that the current President of The Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.
    I am A Mormon,
    And, dang it! a Mormon just believes!

    I know that I must go and do
    The things my God commands.
    I realize now why He sent me here.

    If You ask the Lord in faith,
    He will always answer you.
    Just believe in Him
    And have no fear!

    I believe that Satan has a hold of you
    I believe that the Lord, God, has sent me here
    And I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!
    You can be a Mormon..
    A Mormon who just believes!

    And now I can feel the excitement.
    This is the moment I was born to do.
    And I feel so incredible
    To be sharing my faith with you.

    The Scriptures say that if you ask in faith,
    If you ask God Himself he’ll know.
    But you must ask Him without any doubt
    And let your spirit grow…

    I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
    I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
    And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
    If you believe, the Lord will reveal it.
    And you’ll know it’s all true. You’ll just feel it.
    You’ll be a Mormon
    And, by gosh!
    A Mormon just believes!
    Oh, I believe.
    I believe.

  32. Stephen R. Marsh on January 5, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Does a serious fiction novel have more responsibility to accuracy than a musical comedy? — if it does not want to be a minstrel show, then it does.

    Which, if it claims to be serious, then …

  33. palerobber on January 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    thanks for the review.

    i think ‘praise jesus’ is the worst you mentioned (though the hell sequence is pretty inauthentic too). so what would we have them substitute for it? i can’t think of any common Mormon saying that fits the bill. perhaps instead of saying anything they could have whipped out their planners and taken notes, but that’s too hard to telegraph on stage.

  34. palerobber on January 6, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    @ Stephen Hardy

    And let me ask: What do you find objectionable about this song?

    the only thing that’s straight up wrong is, as you mentioned:
    “I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well”

    this line also seemed inauthentic:
    “I’ve always longed to help the needy”

    certainly mormons perform acts of service for the poor, but it’s not part of the church’s three-fold mission nor is it part of mission prep culture (i.e. something young men headed for a mission “long” for).

  35. Cameron on January 6, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    @palerobber, All those youth service projects don’t count as mission prep?

    I haven’t seen the show, but I would expect to be disappointed as a Mormon who could discern the inaccuracies. The basis of comedy is widely-understood truth, so the play fails both tests for me because 1 – it isn’t too accurate and 2 – if it were accurate, it would be even less funny than it is now (which isn’t much because of #1).

  36. Kaimi on January 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Great discussion. I think you do a good job of highlighting some areas where the musical really gets it right.

    I might quibble with a few of your quibbles, though.

    First, I think that “brother” rather than companion is probably a good idea. Outside of Mormon circles, the word companion has definite sexual connotations. (Think about how it’s used in _Firely_, for instance.) Using the “mission brother” label avoids that connotation.

    And in fact, that’s something I’m really glad the writers did. I was a little worried that a South-Park version of Mormon missionaries would be based entirely on sex jokes. And while they mention the possibility of gay elders (like a light switch!), the major story arc was _not_ about boy-meets-boy.

    A minor quibble on MTC time frame. This one might have a narrative purpose as well. Actually, I can think of two reasons to have this here.

    First, it highlights the extent to which Elder Cunningham _does not fit in_. Failing to learn the script after a 3 week crash course is something lots of people might do. Failing to learn the script after three months of intensive training? That clearly casts him as a major misfit.

    And second, the writers may have done this because a 3-week MTC just doesn’t sound believable to outsiders. We really send 19-year-olds to Africa after 3 weeks training? Uh huh. Tell me another one.

    Of course, the ironic thing is that that _is_ what the church does. But it would have pushed the story in weird directions. (Mormons send unprepared kids to Africa — well, what do you expect?) And so, the 3 months period may reflect the level of training that outsiders assume missionaries receive.

  37. Rachel Whipple on January 7, 2013 at 8:15 am

    I haven’t seen the musical, but I have listened to the soundtrack. It seemed to me that the inaccuracies you mentioned serve as an out for Mormons so they don’t have to accept the portrait of them painted by the show. Many of the attitudes of the missionaries seem to be right on, from the earnest hubris of “Mostly Me” and “I Believe” to the relentlessly correct mindset of “Turn It Off” (sing a hymn when tempted by impure thoughts, anyone?) to the deep love that missionaries often develop for the people and the countries they serve in, along with inadvertent colonial condescending overtones (“I Am Africa”). And my husband’s told me about girls on his mission to Brazil that clung to the missionaries in ways that made them uncomfortable (see “Baptize Me,” one of the most hilariously inappropriate songs of the show). Some of them were even successful in marrying those American boys who came to their country. But if these portrayals make some Mormons feel uncomfortable, they can say, well, that’s not really about us, because we would never say “Praise Jesus.” It’s a kindness, really.

  38. Sam Brunson on January 7, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Kaimi, the “brother” thing would make sense—“companion” definitely can have a sexual connotation—except that later they go with “companion.” (My assumption is that they’ve heard Mormons call other Mormons brother and sister and just kind of went with it.)

    Interesting idea on the three months; I’m not sure that two months wouldn’t do it just as well, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Rachel, the fun thing is, they’re not just satirizing Mormonism. “We Are Africa” doesn’t feel particularly Mormon, and it’s not really supposed to. That’s straight-up “We Are the World”/Bono/white American pop stars writing a song (a song!) to help downtrodden people. (Which isn’t necessarily to say that “We Are the World” is bad—though it is—or that Bono is bad—he seems to have credibility. But that, as much as “Mostly Me” is pure American (er, Western) hubris.)

  39. palerobber on January 9, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    @Cameron

    All those youth service projects don’t count as mission prep?

    i don’t know about you, but when i was a youth i never once heard someone say at a service project, “…and this is what you’ll be doing when you serve a mission.”

    maybe they should have though.