Evangelization and the Book of Mormon

Last night I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway.  I’m obviously late to the game, since it has been playing for six years and there have been no shortage of commentary on it.

From early on, I kept thinking, “I should be offended by this.  I probably shouldn’t be liking this so much.”   Yet I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, and had no hesitation rising with the rest of the audience for a quite long standing ovation when the show finished.

I found The Book of Mormon to be uproariously funny, and those playing the lead roles gave terrific performances.  And, while I do not think it is anti-religious, it does poke fun at some central tenets of Mormonism and, to at least some extent, at religion more generally.  And the occasional (frequent) coarse language made this New York City street kid cringe.

But it is also the case that the show is right on, albeit exaggerated, in some of the more serious points I think it makes.

First, that many whites, particularly in the First World, have a white savior complex. We see it expressed in many films and written works.  And one of the central Mormon young men in the play, Elder Price, embodies completely the complex for a good part of the play: He is young, talented, recognized as special by his teachers and peers, and sees himself as the salvation for the poor, needy people of color in Uganda.  (At least he does after he gets over his disappointment at not being sent to Orlando.)  He will go and transform these people – mostly on his own.

Second, that efforts to evangelize can’t be effective if they are totally divorced from the circumstances of the people one is seeking to evangelize.  The people of Uganda suffer from poverty, AIDs, and the abuse of warlords.  No wonder the young missionaries who have been there have been ineffective in baptizing even one of them, as they tell stories about Jesus appearing upstate New York and the trip of Joseph Smith and his followers to Utah.

And so it is the inept, bumbling Elder Cunningham who gets the Ugandans to listen and then be baptized, through his (admittedly creative and somewhat sacrilegious) stories that reflect the problems of living in a war-torn Uganda.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we remake Bible stories the way Elder Cunningham remakes the Book of Mormon (such that at the end of the play folks are proclaiming the “Book of Arnold”), but what he does serves as a reminder that pious stories that ignore the plight of those we would seek to reach are not going to be effective.

I don’t doubt that there are some Mormons and other Christians who are offended by the play.  But I also gather that there is no small number of Mormons who are using the play itself as an opportunity for evangelization, for setting the record straight, so to speak.  “You’ve seen the play. Now read the book.”  Strikes me as a great reaction.