On The Book of Mormon – the musical

By | June 11, 2011

In the NYRB blog:

In the face of … inconveniences, in 1978, the leaders of the church experienced, in an “upper room” in Salt Lake City, a highly convenient Pentecost, and with it a revelation ending the ban against black priests. Mormons were still counseled by their church President, Spencer W. Kimball, not to “cross racial lines in dating and marriage”—but this was presented as a practical matter, not a spiritual commandment. Meanwhile certain excisions were made, to render The Book of Mormon less embarrassing, and the text of II Nephi 30:6 was rewritten in 1981, to prophesy that righteous Indians would receive a blessing from the hand of God and that “their scales of darkness shall begin to fall from their eyes; and many generations shall not pass away among them, save they shall be a pure and delightsome people.” In the original version it had been foretold that the Indians would become a “white and a delightsome people.” (The Jews will also become delightsome, thank goodness, when they agree to believe in Jesus Christ.)

This willingness, admirable in its modest way, to jettison or modify revelation in order to conform to public opinion, has been characteristic of Mormonism since the long dispute over polygamy: in the end, it would seem, they get the point. They listen to criticism over the decades. They make some furtive adjustments. They clean up their act. And, at this rate, one might predict—one might be inclined to prophesy—that within a decade or two they will have reformed their teaching on homosexuality, which comes in for much good-humored ragging in the Broadway show, including one of the wittiest of the songs. It is as if the search for acceptability matters more, in the long term, than doctrine. In this sense, the candidatures of Mitt Romney, sacrificing his most significant legislative achievement on the altar of Republican censoriousness, and Jon Huntsman, sacrificing no less than his old master Obama, look like expert strategies of Mormon assimilationism.

In the context of the musical, the openness to ragging, the patience under blasphemous attack, become less mysterious. It is as if they understand the ridicule that they are currently undergoing at the Eugene O’Neill Theater to constitute a sort of hazing. To get through the ordeal they must keep their good humor, and it is worth doing so because, at the end of the hazing, their reward will be a greater acceptance in society. Some hand is going to clap them on the shoulder and say: Well done, you managed to survive. And the audience is going to feel better about Mormons than they did before, and better about themselves for all that better feeling.

The little I know of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka. the Church of Mormon I learnt from attending a service at one of their temples in Lagos, and from reading the Book of Mormon. I don’t remember much of the content of the book, but I remember that I was struck by how very Christian the content and message of the book is. Nothing revolutionary in the book itself, and nothing that one would see as against the doctrines of Christianity as found in the Bible. Of course, that is after you’ve got over the idea that the newest messenger of the lord is, well, an all American guy. It is somewhat heartening to learn that they are willing to review and modify their beliefs. One wishes that Christianity in general (Mormons are Christians), particularly in Africa, were also willing to do so.

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  • Menelic

    I’m sorry but I must beg to differ. Rewriting small pieces of the book does not take away the fact that the bigger piece of the story remains problematic for First Nation People and People of Color in general – for they have been smitten wth color of skin as a marker of sin. Wether they can or cannot serve as priests does not change the fact that American wars of conquest are recast as holy war and execution of gods will. It is for this and many reasons that Mormons are not Christians, neither orthodox Christians nor Mormons would make that claim, if you as them. When in theological conflict – and there are quite some – the book of Mormon trumps the Bible in Mormon systematics. There is a reason for that.
    This is not to say that all Mormons are bad people – but as a Black person, I d invite you to have some conversations with Mormon missionaries in Eurpe and Afrcia as well as with African converts. You will very quickly see that above all-is-well-that-ends-well tale of lieral accomodation is unfortunately very far from the truth.