The “early” in this post title is intended to modify the word “responses,” not “Mormon.” I apologize to anyone who saw the post title and mistakenly thought I had discovered some sort of prophetic statement from the olden days regarding the new musical.
I’ve been watching the various reviews and responses to the new Book of Mormon Musical with interest. I enjoyed Ken Jennings’s “to each his own” response, which interestingly compared the structure of the musical’s plot to the Book of Mormon in a way that made connections I’m sure the authors of the musical never intended or realized. Michael Otterson (the Church’s head of Public Affairs) published his own interesting response column today. Otterson brings up the musical’s idea that Mormons are generally unaware of or naive regarding real-world problems; that they find their feel-goodery religion not enough for real problems in the world. The missionaries in the musical find “their training and life experience…wholly inadequate to the realities of a continent plagued by poverty, AIDS, genital mutilation and other horrors.” Otterson then asks the question: during the 7 or so years it has taken the writers and producers to put this show together what has the Church been doing in Africa? His answers surprised me. Of course, there are a few obvious objections to this line of response.
First: Otterson hasn’t seen the musical. (Response: True. But he is critiquing a generally-known premise of the musical, so we can assess his response to that premise without expecting him to have seen all of the show. The ending may make it seem as though everything works out for the Mormons, but that actually could circumvent needed reflection on the part of Mormons, or any other viewers for that matter, on the subject of lived religion. More on this below.)
Second: Many missionaries are quite naive regarding some of the problems they will face as missionaries. (Response: True, but not by necessity, and not universally. To the extent that the Church can look inward and consider how to better prepare missionaries for difficulties in the mission-field the musical can be helpful to missionary work in general.)
Third: The things Otterson lists are great, but they are not enough compared to what I think the Church could have done. (Response: Could be true depending on the standards to which you hold the Church in terms of humanitarian outreach, etc. which is, itself, a contestable and interesting subject.)
Fourth: Otterson seems like he is bragging about the Church, and I feel uncomfortable with seeing our supposed good works being broadcast like this.
This fourth objection (and there are likely many others) is of particular interest to me here because it identifies an interesting paradox that seems to me to reside at the very heart of Christian religiosity. The objector might reasonably appeal to the words of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament :
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4, NRSV)
Of course, Otterson might reasonably respond by referring to Matthew 5:14-16 (which, interestingly enough, was a ‘scripture mastery’ selection when I was in Seminary. Is it still? Is Matt. 6:1-4 in there?):
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Again, I think this situation underscores an interesting paradox of living a Christian faith. If it is a false dichotomy to pitch these verses against each other, how would you reconcile them and do they apply to Otterson’s column, or the church’s other efforts to let people know about the humanitarian service the Church provides (wearing t-shirts that match, etc.)?
Ultimately, all of this demonstrates what interests me most about the new musical: its potential to help Mormons and others engage in thoughtful consideration of our faith, the Church, Christianity, and larger cultural issues in the world.