On a Mission
The new Broadway musical by the creators of South Park isn't anti-Mormon. Like all of their work, it's anti-stupidity.
On a Monday afternoon in late January, Trey Parker and Matt Stone crammed a few dozen people into a rehearsal space on 42nd Street in New York to watch a 25-minute preview of their upcoming Broadway show, The Book of Mormon. The audience consisted of friends, production staff, students, bloggers, and journalists—but, notably, no representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was pretty clear why. "You'll know it's done when you hear the word cunt and everyone bows," said Stone.
What followed is unlikely to please the Mormon church. The musical, written by Parker and Stone with Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, tells the story of two young missionaries dispatched to Uganda to spread the gospel of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. Part coming-of-age story, part buddy comedy, the show mocks Mormons' clean-cut earnestness as well as the specific tenets of their faith—that Native Americans were actually Israelites who left Jerusalem for America in 600 B.C., that Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection, and that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates he found in the ground with the help of an angel named Moroni.
Nervousness among Mormons is understandable. After nearly two decades of doling out equal-opportunity religious mockery, Parker and Stone have become synonymous with sacrilege. In their first South Park short, "The Spirit of Christmas," Jesus Christ battles Santa Claus for holiday-mascot supremacy, only to have figure skater Brian Boitano intervene and reveal the true meaning of Christmas. An episode in Season 6 depicts child abuse as official Catholic Church doctrine and the leader of the church as a giant spider queen. In Season 5, a team of religious figures known as the "Super Best Friends"—Jesus, Buddha, Joseph Smith, Krishna, Lao-Tzu, Moses, Mohammad, and a superhero called "Sea Man"—join forces to defeat the all-powerful magician David Blaine. (Comedy Central yanked the episode from its Web site, but it's available here.) Parker and Stone tried to portray Mohammed again in the show's 200th episode in 2010, but Comedy Central censored the image. (Mohammed did appear, but first in a bear suit and then covered by a black "censored" box.) Throughout the series, God is portrayed as a hippopotamous-cat-monkey—who is actually Buddhist.
For all the ridicule it heaps on organized religion, however, South Park, like the town in which it's set, espouses pretty traditional values. Family and friends matter most. Political correctness chills honest speech. Celebrities are empty inside. Mass hysteria—liberal or conservative—is rarely warranted. And people should be able to believe whatever they want to believe, as long as they're not hurting anybody else. South Park never attacks faith itself—it attacks hypocrisy, gullibility, and the ways organized religions use fear, power, and money to manipulate people.
Take the skewering of Mel Gibson in the Season 8 episode "The Passion of the Jew." (You can watch every South Park episode here.) Gibson is portrayed not as an anti-Semite (the episode aired in March 2004, long before "sugar tits" and the voicemails for his ex) but as an unhinged man who uses violence to promote religion. "If you want to be Christian, that's cool," says Stan, the show's protagonist and moral conscience. "But you should follow what Jesus taught instead of how he got killed. Focusing on how he got killed is what people did in the Dark Ages and it ends up with really bad results."
The Catholic Church learns a similar lesson in the episode "Red Hot Catholic Love." When Father Maxi of South Park discovers that priests are having sex with boys, he complains to the Vatican, only to learn that Vatican Law allows sexual abuse. Maxi ends up destroying the holy document of Vatican Law, and St. Peter's Basilica crumbles. When the Italian clergy accuse him of killing the church, he shoots back: "All that's dead are your stupid laws and rules! You've forgotten what being a Catholic is all about. … Love your neighbor. Be a good person. That's it!" He doesn't attack faith, or even organized religion. He attacks the church's unwillingness to adapt to modern times and punish abuse. In the end, even the South Park residents who gave up God after learning about priestly abuse come back to their faith. "We don't have to believe every word of the Bible," says Randy, Stan's dad. "They're just stories to help us to live by. We shouldn't toss away the lessons of the Bible just because some assholes in Italy screwed it up."
Clip from "Red Hot Catholic Love":
Cults particularly irk Parker and Stone, but even here, their ire is turned against religious figures who would exploit their flocks, not against belief itself. When David Blaine convinces his "Blainetologists"—thinly veiled stand-ins for Scientologists—to drown themselves in the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C., so that his organization can gain tax-exempt status, the Super Best Friends rally to stop him. "You don't need David Blaine to tell you how to live," Stan says. "Cults are dangerous because they promise you hope, happiness, and maybe even an afterlife. But in return, they demand you pay money." In another episode about Scientology, "Trapped in the Closet," Stan faults the religion not for giving people something to believe, but for being, in Stan's words, a "big fat global scam."
Clip from "Trapped in the Closet":
Even the attempt to portray Mohammed last year was meant not to insult Islam so much as to send up our cultural sensitivity when it comes to Islamic imagery and to assert the show's First Amendment rights. In the episode, Hollywood celebrities kidnap Mohammed to extract the "goo" that makes him immune to ridicule.
Mormonism gets a disproportionately large share of ridicule in the Parker/Stone canon. But compared to their treatment of other religions, their handling of Mormonism has been tame—affectionate, even. The protagonist of Orgazmo (1997) is a wide-eyed, tender-hearted Mormon missionary named Joe Young who gets lured into the world of porn. In the end, he doesn't reject adult films or his faith—he finds a way to make them compatible. On South Park, Mormons are portrayed as kind and earnest, if a bit naïve. In an episode from Season 4, we learn that, of all the world's religions, Mormonism is the correct one and only Mormons are allowed into heaven.
Parker and Stone's master work on Mormonism—and possibly the best-known pop culture portrayal of the church (Big Love, which depicts a polygamist offshoot of the religion, doesn't count)—is the episode "All About the Mormons?," in which a Mormon family moves to South Park, and their son, Gary Harrison, tries to befriend Stan. At first, Stan and his friends make fun of Gary and his family. But the Harrisons win them over with their warmth, generosity, and Rice Krispie treats. Before long, Stan's family has converted to Mormonism. But as Stan learns more about Joseph Smith, he becomes increasingly skeptical. Finally, he snaps: "All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!" The Harrisons say Stan has the right to believe whatever he wants, which only irritates Stan further: "That's another thing! Why do you have to be so freakin' nice all the time?! It isn't normal! You just weasel people into your way of thinking by acting like the happiest family in the world and being so nice to everyone that you just blindside dumb people like my dad." The episode ultimately sides with the Mormons against people who judge them. "Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense," says Gary,
and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. … All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion. … You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.
As if to prove Stan's point about how "freakin' nice" Mormons are, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has responded to the upcoming musical with a calm statement that refuses to take the bait: "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."
Clip from "All About the Mormons?"
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.
And it does evolve. For decades, the church didn't allow black people to participate in temple ceremonies. In 1978, as dissent within the church grew and protesters started picketing Brigham Young University football games, the president of the church announced that God had told him it was now OK to make African-Americans equal. "Mormons believe that," says Stone. "They believe that in 1978, God changed his mind." As ridiculous as that notion may seem, at least the church is flexible enough to change with the times. "I suspect they'll have the same thing with gay people," says Stone.
The psychologist and pragmatist philosopher William James argued that religions with dubious origins can still be useful. If faith helps people be good to each other and lead happy lives, more power to them. Parker and Stone take a similarly pragmatic view. "At the end of the day, if the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?" Stone says. Some atheists believe that truth is the highest good, and that crackpot religious stories need to be debunked. "I'm not quite sure," says Stone. "I'm not sure the veracity of the stories is that important." Perhaps it's the stories' absurdity that makes the belief of millions all the more inspiring. As Robert Lopez, the show's composer, put it: "It renews your faith to see the miracle that all these people believe in this shit."
The day I spoke with Stone, I coincidentally ran into a group of Mormon missionaries in the lobby of a mall. They hadn't heard about the musical, but they'd seen the Mormon episode of South Park. I asked if they believed the story of Joseph Smith was literally true, or just a tall tale from which to draw lessons. Oh it's true, said a dapper-looking elder: "I didn't see the plates for myself or anything, but I know it happened. The spirit told me it's true." Not much room for argument. He then gave me a message to pass along to Parker and Stone: "Tell them I said 'hi' and I think their show is funny." So freakin' nice.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.