Many of you know, but many of you probably don’t know that I grew up Mormon. That’s usually what I say, although that can give the impression that it was only a part of my life as a child, which isn’t true. I was a very faithful Mormon throughout my teens and into my 20’s. I attended BYU for undergrad AND law school, living in Utah for 7 years. I didn’t leave the church until I was 25, after a very long and very difficult struggle with everything I believed.
You’d think this wouldn’t matter so much in my life anymore. It’s over 10 years later and I’ve lived most of my adult life without it. But if you’ve had something be a part of your life/culture/etc. for so long it never really leaves you.
Now that I live in Boston where Mormons are a microscopic minority, I am often one of the first Mormons someone has met or many times the only one. When I go on dates or when I meet new people, when it comes up in conversation it inevitably leads to question after question. Whether I like it or not, I am still an emissary from Mormonism to the rest of the world and around here everyone wants to know a whole lot of things.
Mormonism is absolutely a phenomenon and it’s hard to explain to people. People who have no trouble believing that a woman in the Middle East 2000 years ago was impregnated by God seem to have a lot of trouble understanding why other people would believe things that are equally ridiculous but not the same kind of ridiculous that they grew up with. Religion isn’t about being rational and it never has been, but we sure enjoy making fun of religions that have a different set of ridiculous beliefs than ours. So I’ve always been a bit defensive about it, even as a kid. People don’t come at you with pleasant questions but stupid ones. And Americans have enjoyed spreading rumors about Mormons ever since the church was formed.
I’m particularly aware of Mormonism in pop culture because of this. People think they actually understand the church because of portrayals on television or elsewhere. I admit to watching every single episode of Big Love but only 25% or so of that show rang true even though the characters were supposed to have originated in traditional Mormonism before branching off for a more extreme fundamentalist sect. (Even writing traditional Mormonism makes me bristle. There are Mormons and there are fundamentalists and while the fundamentalists see themselves as Mormons, they’re not. This is also why reading memoirs about people who left fundamentalist sects doesn’t teach you anything about Mormons.) The language would be right sometimes then drastically wrong. The culture and climate would swing across a similar pendulum from yes-that’s-it to no-that’s-not-it-at-all. It never really sustained a feeling of correctness and instead would just do what they needed to do for their plot.
But the biggest pop culture event recently has been The Book of Mormon, the musical from the South Park guys. I didn’t watch any South Park until I’d left the church, but when I did I watched it for years, I only stopped after Tessa was born and life got too crazy. And since everyone has been falling over themselves to say how great this musical is, and I’m a pretty hardcore musical nerd, I’ve spent the last four years waiting to see it.
It’s in Boston right now and tickets were finally cheap enough that I could snag a seat for around $50. I was really excited. For years people have asked me if I’ve seen it and I’ve said sadly that I haven’t and that I feel like I must be their perfect audience member and it’s really a shame.
So I saw it. And it bugged.
Let’s skip over the racism that had me feeling squirmy and uncomfortable for much of the show. Someone else has written about it quite well right here and I endorse their impressive takedown and won’t repeat it here.
But really, the show’s treatment of Africans and its treatment of Mormons are pretty similar. If you find it racist but still thought the Mormon stuff was funny, well, I don’t really know what to tell you. With both groups the writing ignores fact and settles for half-truth, plays heavily off stereotypes, and goes for the lazy joke. There. I said it. The musical everyone says is the funniest one ever wasn’t that funny.
I was disappointed. Because I know the wealth of possibility there is to make jokes about Mormons, whether they’re going to be light and loving or pointed and harsh. I know them all. But I’ve heard Mormons make better jokes about themselves. This was pretty much just the same jokes over and over: Mormons are weird, Mormons believe weird things. (Just like the Africans got the same jokes over and over: Africans don’t know anything, Africans will believe anything.) I don’t care so much about the vulgarity that has bothered people, I’ve seen (and enjoyed) far more vulgar episodes of South Park. I care about the jokes. They’re lazy. And I don’t go to comedies for lazy jokes.
Initially I couldn’t get settled because of the factchecking. Yeah, I know, it’s a musical not a journalism piece, but when your musical is all about a group of people and then gets all this stuff about them wrong, your joke doesn’t land as well. You actually make your jokes worse because you’re making a joke about a straw man version of the person instead of the person themselves when the actual person is just as ripe for joke-making.
So yeah, it was hard to settle. No, that’s not how missions work. And it’s not how the MTC works. And it’s not how mission companions work. No one (and I mean no one) actually wants a stateside mission. No one wears one-piece garments (they used to, it’s true, but we’re way way way past that). Mormons don’t have a hell the way other Christians do, and the one they do have they don’t call “hell.” Latter-days actually means now. No one says, “Praise Christ” like ever ever, in fact that would probably be found offensive if you actually said it in church. (The one fact they got right that surprised me was that they actually acknowledged that Joseph Smith was murdered, a fact that most people don’t actually know and that most people talking about wacky Joseph Smith and the founding of the church happily gloss over.)
All those errors didn’t have to kill the jokes. In fact, you could make better, smarter jokes about the actual facts. But that didn’t happen. I laughed 3 or 4 times, maybe.
It bugs me because I spent money on my ticket and have spent the last four years being excited about this ridiculously overhyped musical.
It bugs me more because I left that theater with a bunch of people who now associate Mormonism with this. People who were still laughing several minutes after the show was over, who couldn’t stop smiling because they’d been laughing at this stuff for a few hours. I’m an ex-Mormon, it’s true, I have plenty of very significant and very legitimate beefs with the church and plenty of them have to do with missionaries. But not one of them was in that show and I didn’t see anyone up there on that stage that I recognized. Instead we’re back to a place where pop culture has thrown out a version of Mormonism and it makes people think they know who Mormons are and how they work.
It means that when I sit down with someone who’s seen this show, they think they know where I came from and they don’t.
I have never seen a movie or tv show that gets Mormonism right to the point where it’s recognizable to me. I have read a couple of books. From a current Mormon, there’s the mystery novel The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison. From an ex-Mormon (and I’m quite critical here, since ex-Mormons can go way overboard with bitterness and miss the boat) there’s Elders by Ryan McIlvain. And that’s my very short list. Both take some fictional license. But I could tell both were written by people who had grown up living the same kind of life that I did. They got the nuance and the little things along with the broad strokes.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to write novels. I started when I was 13 or so and kept my writing hidden in a drawer or a plain notebook. That plan has been on pause since life is so crazy now, but as time passes and I think about what I do want to write when I start writing again, I’ve been thinking more and more that this is the thing I may have to write about. If no one else can give me the thing I want, then I need to make it myself, right? I was thinking that again last night as I left the theater. And I was thinking that I need to actually start it soon since my side projects are dwindling from many to a few. So I’m setting up a deadline, and telling myself to get to work on that. (Which, you know, might have been another–and some would say better–way to use up 1500 words.)
So I guess I can’t be all angry at Matt & Trey and the Book of Mormon team. I didn’t get the experience I wanted (or the one I deserved, IMO) but I did get something that will hopefully be more valuable in the long run.