So, this happened:
Rather optimistically, my July bucket list included mention of The Book of Mormon – a musical I’ve tried to see four times in the last couple of months, but as yet, had not managed to. (The soundtrack has been played so many times I’m pretty much word perfect.) The thing is, it’s the most popular musical in the West End. It’s instigated airline pricing (tickets go up in price as demand increases) and you need to book months and months in advance. A while ago, a friend offered me a spare ticket – the catch? Its £95 price tag.
However, it has brought with it from Broadway the tradition of holding a lottery prior to every performance, with the front row up for grabs for the very reasonable price of £20. [Keen readers and friends may remember that only Legally Blonde has done this in the West End. I got lucky with that show on my first attempt.] I’d entered the draw four times previously, to no avail (although the process is a fun one), but on my fifth attempt got lucky – very lucky.
For the uninitiated, The Book of Mormon was the work of the creators of South Park (and in turn, two of my favourite soundtracks – South Park: The Movie and Team America) and the co-writer/composer of Avenue Q. If you know anything about any of those TV programmes/movies/musicals, you’ll begin to understand what the nature of the show is. It is not an advert for the Mormon church, or really, any church that does what’s viewed by the secular world as ‘mission’. Two young Mormon men head out on their two year mission, finding themselves in a Ugandan village where no one cares about God or Mormonism…
The opening number of The Book of Mormon as the opening number at the 2012 Tony Awards.
I loved it. The front row didn’t mean an obscured view or neck craning – it meant being so close to the cast that their sweat practically dripped on you. The staging wasn’t quite what I’d assumed from the soundtrack; the plot was slightly different than I’d figured out; the costumes and dancing were awesome; the missionaries were hot… I could go on. I knew (even though I couldn’t see them) that every member of the full house audience was having a whale of a time.
I loved it, and yet at times, I had a strange sense of misgiving. Should a trainee vicar really be enjoying a musical that pokes fun at religion? [Basically, yes. I've just written a piece on Threads about this.] What about people I have a lot of respect for who happen to be Mormon – like favourite blogger Courtney – would they be offended that I’d seen it and enjoyed it? [Interestingly, the Mormon church has used it as an opportunity to promote itself. Any interest in Mormons is good interest, apparently, and a campaign to 'ask a Mormon' appeared on the escalators of Piccadilly station when the show opened.] Then there was its depiction of Uganda which was inaccurate and stereotypical – shouldn’t the producers have known better? [Probably, but I guess it's a plot device.]
But I came up with a theory. Yes, the show poked fun at Mormon missionary methods – ringing doorbells and speaking from the same script – but in doing this, it became a fascinating exploration of how to do mission contextually. In many ways, the things the missionaries get up to reminded me of Barbara Kingslover’s The Poisonwood Bible which tells the tale of a missionary family in 1960′s Congo doing things that would make modern day missiologists’ hair stand on end! Adapting to context? I don’t think so! There’s a brilliant scene just after the Elders reach Uganda, where they try to go door to door, ringing doorbells to speak to people – only to discover that Ugandan huts don’t have doorbells.
It’s only when Elder Cunningham begins to adapt the Book of Mormon to the villagers’ concerns that they start to come alongside the Mormons. They are threatened by a local war lord who wants all the women of the village circumcised; people believe sex with virgins will cure AIDS; and they are all threatened by disease – quite reasonably, the Ugandans ask what Joseph Smith has to say about all these things. Of course, FGM and AIDS aren’t mentioned in the scriptures, so Elder Cunningham (who’s a self-confessed fantasist) makes things up so that it does – throwing in some Star Trek and Star Wars references along the way. He lies, but in doing so, is actually beginning to contextualise the gospel he’s trying to share.
Obviously, lying in order to make a message relevant isn’t right and that’s not what I’m suggesting mission ought to be. But, we do know that Jesus would – for example – have spoken out on how to prevent dysentery, had he known how and had it been a major issue in 1st century Palestine. [For all I know, it might have been!] Basically, if we’re to learn one important theological lesson from this musical, it’s that we should approach mission not like clean-cut, try-hard Elder Price, but like short, fat and geeky Elder Cunningham – only with less of the fantastical fusion of scripture with sci-fi. [Oh, and there are always theological lessons to be learnt from musicals, seriously.]
Ultimately, we just need to truly believe…
You *need* to watch this – you’ll laugh, I promise. (Again, from the Tonys, this time in 2011.)