Catholic lessons from the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is not kind to Mormonism.

As you’d expect from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the play is an often vulgar – and witty – parody of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Seeing it for the first time on its recent Edinburgh run there’s much to object to from a Catholic perspective. The crass depictions of ‘Mormon Jesus’ and crude curses against God by many of its characters are boringly dismissive.

And all the more so for Mormons as the playwrights mercilessly target their Church’s founder, Joseph Smith.

But it’s still a very enjoyable night out. It’s a story of humility and bravery with a little Donny Osmond flair, and it’s funny with it.

No wonder, then, that the show did well in Edinburgh recently, despite its age. The Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has evolved its reaction to the play over the years.

Initially, and understandably, annoyed, it has since used it as an opportunity: instead of shouting at the theatres, they would smile at the exits. When I left the Book of Mormon I expected to see them – what I did not expect was for them to reference songs from the show as they welcomed people to chat.

“Most people think we’re actors,” Elder Samuel Urie told me, currently serving the Scotland/Ireland Mission. “They walk out and laugh at us – we’re fairly certain that no one’s going to really want to learn more.

“But the main reason we’re here is that they’d just seen something very bad about the [Mormon] Church and it’s just to put a smile and a good face on it,” he went on.

“I think that if you respond with hatred and anger, it just completely does the opposite of what you want it to do: it makes people more negative about the Church.”

The Catholic Church often has the same dilemma: how to respond to unfair and even blasphemous depictions in the culture.

Such was the case earlier this year with the film Benedetta – it probably passed you by. A pseudo-biographical film of a medieval nun with sexual depictions of Christ and Our Lady, it made no great impression on audiences.

It was framed by its director Paul Verhoeven as a revolt against the religious establishment, with filming locations being ‘kept secret’ for fear of ‘fundamentalist Catholic associations’.

The biggest problem for the film was that its desire for a reactionary Catholic uprising never came. Like Verhoeven himself, the powerful religious right he wishes to mock is an entity of a past age.

Nowadays the young are mostly bemused with a vague spirituality, notwithstanding the odd convert to Catholicism or Islam.

Blasphemy doesn’t sell any more.

If that suggests religion may be worryingly irrelevant, it also offers us an opportunity. Ignorance is more fertile ground than hatred.

The Book of Mormon’s insistence on the follies of religion makes it seem dated rather than shocking, but it gets away with it by being a well written musical, with hummable tunes and amusing gags.

It is said the persecutors of the Faith will be cheered into Heaven by those they martyred – perhaps they’ll cheer the playwrights too.

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Get the latest Scottish Catholic news. Sign up today.