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Why the Book of Mormon is worth seeing, and why I’m disappointed with local Mormon response

Guest column by Meredith Hutchison Hartley
The_Book_of_Mormon_posterOn Saturday, Mormons in the Spokane region were encouraged to flood social media with pictures, stories, and scriptures about our faith’s missionary work. It was coordinated by regional LDS leaders in response to buzz about the Book of Mormon musical coming to Spokane.  Teams even followed local missionaries and live tweeted their days (you can find these posts by searching for #mnmspokane on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). The campaign was a labor of love and I appreciate the prayerful work my brothers and sisters put into it.

At the same time, I was disappointed that our faith leaders decided this was the best way to engage with our neighbors about the musical. I’m all for using social media to build bridges — sharing what we find inspirational, and hoping others will listen and understand us better. But friends who saw the show told me that while we were flooding social media with scriptures, memes, and pictures of #realmormonmissionaries, we weren’t listening to what THEY had to say. Broadcasting a message is not the same thing as participating in meaningful conversations. Instead of talking with our neighbors, we were talking over them.

We’ve been doing it for a long time. For years, I’ve heard friends all over the country call the show “uplifting” and “inspiring” and “positive.” Overwhelmingly, they said it made them feel less judgmental and MORE tolerant of different faiths. But my Mormon friends kept calling the musical an attack on our faith. “We have to fight misconceptions about Mormons,” I heard repeatedly from people who hadn’t seen the show. “People need to know that the musical is wrong.  We have to take a stand so people don’t think we’re like the musical.”

Wait…. I thought. People need to know that we’re not uplifiting, inspiring and positive? Our defensiveness didn’t match my friend’s positive reactions.

I admit that I am not the most orthodox Mormon. Sure, I go to church every Sunday, teach Sunday School, have a temple recommend and know how to use it.  I am also an advocate for intersectional feminism and LGBT rights — both in and out of the church. My parents  encouraged me to embrace controversy and wrestle with the contradictions — even in the darkest parts of Mormon history.  They taught me to seek after “anything virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy” as our 13th Article of Faith demands.

The musical was obviously of good report and praiseworthy to my friends.

So I bought tickets.

And I laughed so hard it’s a miracle I didn’t sprain anything.

I love it. I was shocked. I was moved. It was weirdly therapeutic to sit in a theater with hundreds of people listening to some of the most embarrassing, odd and speculative parts of Mormon doctrine described humorously out in the open — the stuff Mormons rarely discuss even with each other. And as I walked back to my car, people around me weren’t talking about how weird Mormons are. Nope — they were having lively conversations about religious tolerance, faith, and missionary work in extreme poverty. Spokane is full of intelligent, thoughtful people, and I was most definitely uplifted listening to them that night.

Yes, the musical is extreme, irreverent, and profane. It’s true satire, full of blatant and purposeful caricatures of Utah Mormons, Ugandans, warlords, Genghis Khan, and even Johnnie Cochran. At one point, Hell is seen as full of dancing Starbucks cups. Darth Vader, Uhura, Jesus, Frodo, and Joseph Smith appear together in one song. Documentary it definitely ain’t, folks. But it’s also a moving story of faith, doubt, forgiveness, why new religions are born, and why they both hurt and help people.  That’s what good satire does — uses irony, exaggeration, and sarcasm to help us understand human nature. That’s why I loved it.

And that’s why it makes Mormons defensive, too. We have an intense cultural memory of violence, murder, conflict, and having everything from our sacred rituals to our underwear ridiculed. It’s natural that we want to protect what we love from perceived attacks. But that same reflex to protect what we love usually looks like an overreaction to others. It builds unnecessary walls between us and our neighbors.

Overwhelmingly, people walk out of The Book of Mormon Musical feeling uplifted, entertained, and thinking about how they shouldn’t write off someone’s religion just because it sounds a little weird. The audience watched how early Mormons’ beliefs helped them cope with murder, war, and exodus. They saw how faith helped a fictional village in Uganda find hope and strength to face poverty, warlords, female genital mutilation, and AIDS. It’s a story about how faith and forgiveness help people cope with life – inappropriate, messy, horrific, brutal, violent, traumatic LIFE.

They walk out wanting to talk about that.  And yes — they want to talk about that with Mormons. I certainly did.

Yet I watched this frustrating pattern play out again and again:

Them: Hey – I just saw The Book of Mormon Musical. It was hilarious and I was surprised at how uplifting it was.

Us: Real Mormons are nothing like in the musical.

Them: Yeah… I know. It was just really funny and I loved what it said about using religion to help people.

Us: People have a lot of misconceptions about the church. I just hope that no one thinks it’s realistic.

Them: Uh, I don’t think you have to worry about that. I really loved the part when-

Us: I just hope people who see the musical try to have conversations with REAL Mormons.

Them: THAT’S WHAT I’M TRYING TO DO!!!! GAAAAAAAH!!!

And just like that, we shut down opportunities for meaningful conversations with our neighbors before they even start.

I hope that the next time the musical rolls into town, we will spend less time worrying about others’ misconceptions and more time challenging our own. I hope we’ll share fewer memes and ask more questions, like

“How did it make you feel?”

“What was your favorite part?”

“You said it was inspiring. Tell me more.”

And I hope that all of us — whatever our faith or philosophy — will be brave enough to just listen.

About Meredith Hutchison Hartley

Meredith Hutchison Hartley is a nationally-recognized business development consultant, crisis management expert, and co-founder of Me2 Solutions (www.me2-solutions.com). She is also a local business owner. She was the youngest person to receive certification from the American Society for Quality.

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29 comments

  1. You bring some great points. I wish there was more dialogue rather than recruitment. Missionary work is such a focus of the LDS faith, where down times it feels missionaries are more salesmen than disciples of Christ. I think taking time to listen and discuss is a more encouraging way to interact with those of a different faith than using a soap box to blast your beliefs.

    • I agree Melisa, sometimes we do that waaaay too much. I even noticed it on my mission, though I wasn’t willing to admit it, at some point I had started to close myself off from really connecting with people while teaching. This was because I had been debated to death by so many people that I was afraid to have ANY open discussion. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the people that were always razor sharp ready for a debate with me may have gotten that way because of other missionaries… of any faith. No one likes having a lifetime of belief exposition-ed down their windpipe and that usually makes people defensive. What we really need is to make friends and talk. The recruitment bit just comes from us being too scared of people who aren’t mormon! It’s pretty silly when you think about it.

      • Meredith Hutchison Hartley

        I really appreciate that, Erik. I do a lot of work representing Mormons in the interfaith community, and the most common frustrations I hear from others is that we seem to have only two approaches to discussing our faith: bearing testimony/proselytizing and defending the faith. Talking about your faith and listening to other’s beliefs is a very different skill set than bearing testimony and proselytizing.

        I think what you describe – closing off to really connecting with people — is a totally normal reaction to making ourselves vulnerable. And that’s really what we’re doing when we share our testimony. We make ourselves vulnerable to being rejected, and rejection hurts. We don’t always realize that that’s also true for the people we’re talking with — that they feel like we’ve rejected their opinions, their beliefs, and their feedback. Every single person I’ve met who didn’t like me because I was a Mormon had a darned good story about a Mormon or a missionary who they felt rejected or hurt them. We all put up walls to protect ourselves.

        So we get more focused on “us” and “them.” And we do it to them. And they do it to us. And we all go around in merry circles! It IS silly. It’s natural and usually completely unintentionally. We have to be aware of them before we can break them down. I really appreciate your input.

  2. Thanks so much for this review! It means so much coming from within the LDS family.

  3. I also saw the B of M. I think your article is great and should be shared. We all need to more empathic. It was a good way to start discussion but as you say we should spend more time listening and less time preaching.

  4. Spot on review. Thank you for eloquently expressing my very similar experience. I found the “social media blitz” organized by the regional church in response to the musical a confirmation of stereotypes, not a refreshing view of real Mormon missionaries. How many bridges could be built by talking with each other about our experiences, listening to each other, and being genuine in sharing our hopes and fears?

  5. Catherine Woodmoor

    I can’t help but wonder how you were able to verify that no personal, one one one, conversations happened in response to the blitz. You aren’t privy to private messages, email, or face to face conversations. All you know is what was said with the hashtag.

    It seems just as misguided to assume you are all knowing in the effects of the blitz as it is to assume people only left the musical with good, uplifted feelings towards religion.

    • Amen, Catherine. Couldn’t have said it better.

    • Meredith Hutchison Hartley

      Catherine – I think you misunderstood. I never claimed to have verified that “no personal, one on one conversations” happened, nor have I claimed to be all-knowing. What I have done is has spoken with literally dozens of Mormons and non-Mormons over the last week – and many more over the last three years – and I’m responding to the feedback they gave me personally about the musical and the blitz.

      I also did not claim that people *only* left the musical with good, uplifted feelings. I said that an overwhelming majority of people do, and that the people I spoke with personally over the last 3 years did.

      I can only respond to the conversations I’ve actually had and what people tell me they’ve experienced, not conversations I hope, imagine, or assume might be happening private. Of course, if you have personally had different conversations, I’d love to hear about them!

  6. Thanks for writing this Meredith!

  7. I am a conservative Mormon who works in Washington, DC. Most of my friends are not members of my faith — my closest friends are Methodist (a conservative Republican) and Jewish (a liberal Democrat). Another close fried is an active Catholic (agnostic on politics though his wife worked for Bill Clinton) who saw the play shortly after it arrived on Broadway. He loved it and recommended that I see it. Another friend of mine is a gay rights activist who was raised as an Episcopalian. He is still a religious guy and a conservative Republican. When he saw the play he was so offended by it he wrote a long diatribe about on his Facebook post. He said the language was filthy, and the mocking and sometimes belittling nature toward many LDS beliefs was disgusting. He strongly encouraged me to not see the play. In fact, he encouraged everyone to avoid the play.

    So what’s a guy like me to do? I’ve decided to skip it. Why should go to see something that is undoubtedly funny — but which uses course language that offends? I can get plenty of inter-faith dialogue without having to stick my foot inside a burlesque show. The same reality with the play that takes a light-hearted but foul-languaged approach to my faith.

    • Meredith Hutchison Hartley

      Jeff – The musical certainly isn’t for everyone. I did not say that I thought everyone should see they play, though the headline (which I did not write) did. I understand how that could cause confusion.

      Regarding language: Anyone who is sensitive to curse words certainly won’t enjoy seeing or analyzing the show. That’s a valid issue for many people. But that’s not the case for everyone, and I don’t believe it negates the value others found in it. As your two friends illustrate, two people can have very different reactions to the same play. Art is personal. Your first friend’s reaction was just as valid as your second friend’s.

      However, I must admit that I really have trouble understanding why *language* is what offends people most about the musical. The play revolves around a warlord threatening to burn, kill, and rape villagers if they don’t mutilate the genitalia of every woman in the village. And such threats aren’t delivered with polite language. That is a reality for millions – yes, MILLIONS of our sisters and brothers throughout the world. The language was realistic to the situations, topics, and people it was portraying, and is the language I have heard from refugees, from PTSD survivors, and from people from Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda use to describe their experiences. I find the violence that is their reality infinitely more offensive than any word or joke. It is something that white, middle-class Americans have trouble comprehending, let alone discussing. It’s something that anyone going to third-world countries to do missionary or aid work struggles with. I’m impressed that the musical used humor to address such an important & real subject.

      Part of our problem is that we assume that the show takes a “light-hearted by foul-languaged approach” to our faith. My experience was that it used humor and realistic language to approach very serious and important issues. So what’s a girl like me to do? I’ve decided to share my experience with the show, and my non-Mormon friends’ feedback on the social media campaign, and hope we can all try to see things from someone else’s perspective.

      Thank you for your thoughts. -Mer

      • I find it fascinating that you are “impressed” with humor being used to address such important and real subjects as rape and genital mutilation. Yeah, that’s really funny stuff. So…. vulgarity and making light of very serious global issues that affect millions of women across the world? If that’s your cup of tea, more power to you. As for me, I prefer to roll up my sleeves and engage in making a difference in the world rather than sitting back in the cheap seats and laughing at the misfortunes of others while masquerading as a woman of worldly wisdom and social enlightenment. But I’m so glad you didn’t sprain anything while you were laughing about it.

        • Samantha, there’s a big difference between using humor and satire as a tool to raise awareness and “make the unbearable bearable”, and “making light of very serious global issues” or “laughing at the misfortunes of others.” In your comment, you have unfairly conflated the two.

          As Meredith mentioned above, she’s very aware of the “important and real subjects” that are a violent reality for millions of our brothers and sisters and finds that far more offensive than the foul language in the musical that is so off-putting for some. Did you miss the part of her comment about her experiences working with refugees, PTSD survivors, and people from various African nations? You are making some broad and unwarranted assumptions about her level of engagement on these issues.

          Because those violent realities are so far removed from many Americans’ privileged lives and experiences, humor is an effective method for introducing such difficult topics. Of course, it shouldn’t be the end of one’s education, but it can function very well as a catalyst for “roll[ing] up [one’s] sleeves and engag[ing] in making a difference in the world.”

          • Nope, I didn’t miss the self-congratulatory and mention of her supposed experiences (that were shared for the purpose of shaming and dismissing the sincerity and validity of Jeff’s position by throwing out the “abuse card”). But as someone who deals quite intimately within these circles on a very hands-on basis myself, I generally find that trivializing these atrocities through caricaturization and knee-slapping hilarity is rarely a helpful or inspiring educational tool. But that’s just me 🙂

          • Samantha, have you seen the musical? It doesn’t trivialize atrocities into knee-slapping hilarity. It brings attention to issues that people have to deal with. The irony comes from young American missionaries trying to give their gospel to people who have much more pressing issues to deal with. That is the humor, not the murder, rape, and circumcision themselves.

          • P.S. I forgot a question mark (I hate you college writing).

            Samantha: I find irony in the statements “As for ME, I prefer to roll up my sleeves and engage . . . ,” ” . . . as someone who deals quite intimately within these circles on a very hands-on basis MYSELF,” (emphasis added), and then “I didn’t miss the self-congratulatory and mention of her supposed experiences.”

            “Supposed experiences”? Are you listening to yourself? How is that productive?

            Oh wait, I see your smiley face emoticon, all is well. Apparently, you can say some really rotten and judgmental things and follow it up with an emoticon (perhaps the internet version of taking an otherwise tense topic and making it humorous?) and all is well, eh?

            Perhaps I’ll try it: 🙂

        • “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll oil you.” – Oscar Wilde.

          Samantha: You seem to be angry about something that you don’t need to be angry about. While I applaud your efforts to “roll up [your] sleeves and engage in making a difference in the world,” I do not believe your inherent disdain for the perceived complacency of the author is fair.

          How do you know she is NOT rolling up her sleeves? That is not what this article is about. For you to allege she’s “sitting back in the cheap seats and laughing at the misfortunes of others while masquerading as a woman of worldly wisdom and social enlightenment,” while poetic (I especially enjoyed the alliteration. You sound proud of the language as you should be), it is not helpful to the dialogue the author is trying to promote.

          I know, for a fact, a little humor has the ability to change lives in ways immeasurably superior to casting stones.

  8. I went to see this with my mother and aunt. Let me just say that this show was the most powerful theater experience I’ve ever had.

    My family is theatrical, many of them have careers in the theater, and as such I’ve seen and participated in a wide variety of performances. The Book of Mormon takes the cake as the most cathartic theater experience for me. Being born and raised a mormon in Utah County, I connected with the show’s material. While the theater typically invokes the sympathies of the audience, The Book of Mormon was different. It was empathy I had for the characters. It wasn’t just a surface human connection I felt for their struggles; it was my own experiences, my own fear, doubts, and relationships being acted out before me.

    I laughed, I cringed, I wept. I was moved in a profound way, a way that transcended any previous theater experience. I might go so far as to call it spiritual. And while Parker and Stone are known for their strong language (BoM not excepted), I would still highly recommend it to any and every mormon.

  9. The Book of Mormon musical is the most brilliant piece of satire I have ever had the privilege of watching. This review is articulate and well written; moreover, it encourages members of the LDS church to see it. The common misconception people have is that the musical is mean spirited and mocks the Mormon faith. I did not find this to be the case at all. I grew up in the church. How someone who didn’t have that experience managed to so accurately portray seemingly strange aspects of the faith is nothing short of a miracle. Yes, the language is coarse and this will undoubtedly turn some people off. All I can say is that seeing this show was the best theatre experience I have ever had. I cannot wait to see it again. And brava to the author for so beautifully conveying this message

  10. Wow! I am so excited to see this now! The only comments I ever heard about it were the complaints of other members about the show. It was great to read a real review on it. Very well written! And about some other comments here….I just don’t get why people have to tell each other what to do all the time. If you read the article and felt that the musical wouldn’t appeal to you…then just don’t say anything. Don’t go. Read something else. Get back to rolling up your sleeves and stuff (even though you are sitting at your computer just like the rest of us:-) Great job Meredith!

  11. The show was brilliant, but I’m always surprised by Mormons who like it: it makes Mormons seem like affable, naive yokels who deceive others into joining their shiny, happy church. There are so many overt and subtle digs at Mormonism itself as well as the people.

    I mean, how complimentary to Mormons can this show be when the last line of one of the main songs is, “Jesus says, “F*** Mormons?”

    • Meredith Hutchison Hartley

      Well, first – a lot of Mormons have commented on this thread about why they liked it. You can’t generalize Mormon reactions, because – contrary to media stereotypes – we’re a diverse people – as diverse as any other group. I think it helps to realize that Mormons are not a monolithic or homogenous people, any more than Catholics or Muslims or any other group. Trying to lump all Mormons into one set of humor, belief, and characteristics is as accurate as saying everyone in the US wears cowboy boots, eats hamburgers, and drives a pickup truck. The musical depicts a caricature of the most extreme parts of Mormon belief within *Utah* Mormon culture – which is a minority of church members – and many of us just don’t identify closely with that. I certainly don’t; I was raised in Washington DC and experienced total culture shock when I went to college in Utah. There’s a great deal of tension in both the domestic and international church right now over the conflation of LDS church doctrine with Utah Mormon culture – and there were a lot of inside jokes in the musical for Mormons who are active discussing that issue (was I the only one who caught the shout-out to the Mormon Stories Podcast? Anyone … Anyone? … Bueller?).

      But even for the things I do identify with: I don’t enjoy art because I agree with it completely or because it compliments me. Plenty of people laugh at political cartoons, SNL, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report, even when their own political beliefs are being skewered. For me, context matters for humor and art. It’s easy for people be offended when they hear that there’s a song in the musical and the means “F*** You God!” But it’s very different to watch a show where characters go from cursing God to literally ending the play singing “Thank you, God!” The humor, story, and themes resonated with me.

      That’s that the point I was trying to get across in this piece – that we all need to move past broad assumptions about Mormons and non-Mormon reactions the show and on to having meaningful conversations with individuals.

  12. Damn good article, forgive the cussing, I’m a NW evangelical bred and raised overly charismatic, calvinisticly prone on a few petals, born and raised on the other side of the tracks and was taught to stand up to or shut out the Mormons and their wrongnesses. I’m in love with the rawness of biblical greek and loathe the sanitized translations for modern consumption peddled by hyper-knee jerk persnickety types. Yes, I’m uncouth, sent to the urban barbarians and pastor in the smells of pot, broken glass, thieves and tweakers, where the homeless are next door and the police are seen more than any missionaries. But…..I will say this, the pressed shirt, dainty bikers and old JW folks in sedans are by far the most active in evangelism in my neighborhood. You help all of us who were taught about underwear, angels, glass googles and wild west wife hungry black hats more than thinkers, compassionate servers, passionate writers and sincere worshippers. You help us see beyond positions and see a person, and that is a gift in a world full of straw-men burning. All in all Meredith…I like your style and hope the Mormons of tomorrow are more your breed. Thanks for writing, you do your faith good and I look forward to reading more from you.

    • Meredith Hutchison Hartley

      Aw, Eric – I was raised by sailors in the south. That’s barely even a curse word there!

      I don’t think people are uncouth or language is inappropriate — LIFE is uncouth and inappropriate. Anyone who thinks differently is missing the point.

      I think that seeing past labels was one of the most revolutionary examples Jesus set and the great lesson of the gospels. They’re full of tale after tale of Him seeing past Pharisee, Samaritan, Zealot, centurion label to the individual. And we still need every last one of them, because we’re still struggling to do what He did.

  13. I had a chance to have meaningful conversations with friends, and strangers about the Book of Mormon musical while it was in town, and so did my daughter, my sons, and my husband. I am grateful for those opportunities. We chose not to view the production because for us “entertainment” does not include foul language and humorous treatment of things that some hold sacred. Even so, we understand that some enjoyed the show and happy that we had an opportunity to chat with them about their impressions. And while perhaps she did not mean to, I do feel that Meredith’s editorial suggested that in general, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not able to have positive conversations about the musical. Just wanted to set the record straight in our small corner of the Spokane region.

    • Meredith Hutchison Hartley

      Hi Shaun – I’m so sorry if the post gave you the impression that I thought Mormons were not able to have positive conversations. As I clarified up-thread: “I never claimed to have verified that ‘no personal, one on one conversations’ happened…” I’m so glad to hear that you had positive conversations!

      Based on feedback from dozens of non-Mormons all over the Spokane region, that was not their experience – particularly with the regional PR blitz. And that deeply concerns me. I hope that as a Mormon community, we can be open to feedback and humble enough to say “Oh! I’m sorry. I never thought of it like that. We didn’t mean to make anyone feel that way. How can we do better?” — and keep trying to do better until everyone has experiences as positive as yours was.

  14. There are always negatives that go with positives. The Church actually advertises in the Playbill for the play on Broadway…not an endorsement of the musical, just engaging participants to get the Church’s side of the story. I know of several who joined the church after seeing the musical on Broadway. As members of the church, we MUST love our fellow beings and be amicable in all our dealings with them, but that doesn’t require that we agree with them on issues that are contrary to the basic teachings. We can disagree without being disagreeable. I would say, however, it’s always a bit of a slippery slope to say “I believe in the church, I just disagree with it.” I’ve know many who’ve tried to walk both ways and, the slippery slope wins every time. They would like the church to change rather than being changed by the church. But, of what value is the church if all it is is a reflection of current societal trends, if it has to change it’s “truths” to meet the politically correct demands of the day? Who even needs God when engaging life in that manner. I hold that we have the true church to help us follow God so we can become “perfect, even as He is perfect,” not to demand that God become like us, for in so doing we demand nothing of ourselves while demanding that God validate our every whim.

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