Thursday, June 23, 2011

'Religious humor' should be an oxymoron.

Me and my family (minus Smush) at the Mesa Temple, 2009

A few weeks ago, a new Broadway musical took home nine Tony awards. Nine! An impressive feat. Must have been a pretty touching masterpiece to earn such accolades, right? Well, I don't know; I haven't seen it. But based on the content, I can safely say it didn't deserve it.

The big winner is "The Book of Mormon," written by the guys behind South Park. In case you haven't heard, the musical is about two Mormon missionaries in Uganda and the adventures they have there. Sounds innocent enough, right? Wrong. It's not meant to be respectful, heartfelt or touching -- it's meant to make fun of Mormons and their beliefs, and it takes no shame in doing so.

Sure, some theater-goers have called it "surprisingly sweet," so maybe it's not as crass and crude as critics have claimed. Again, I don't know and won't know -- I'm not going to see it. And not just because I'm a Mormon, although I am and I revere my faith highly. No, actually, it goes much deeper than that.

Last month, I went to Washington, D.C. and toured the Holocaust Museum.We all know what happened -- millions of Jewish people, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses, disabled individuals, gypsies, Polish people, Soviet war prisoners, homosexuals and anyone who opposed the Nazi government were systematically slaughtered. In the end, the death toll reached between 11 and 17 MILLION people. Real, human lives. Of those, six million were Jews. Of course, it is horrifying to think this ever happened, that it was allowed to happen. It's astonishing to learn that one group of human beings could decide other groups weren't good enough to exist and then murder them in the most brutal ways. It's not fun to think about, but we must.

Part of the museum includes an exhibit about Nazi propaganda, the media used to plant pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic ideas into the heads of Europeans. One thing that struck me was the way Jews were portrayed in the propaganda -- always as grossly exaggerated caricatures with huge noses, beady eyes and unhuman ways. They were painted as vile, evil, scary people without morals. They were made fun of in films, cartoons and books and likened to rats or poisonous mushrooms. Children were taught to revile them from an early age through these media.

Sure enough, as soon as enough of Europe viewed Jewish people the way the Nazis intended, it became easy to cart them off and kill them. They called it the "Final Solution." Many Europeans (but not all) turned their heads and looked away as their neighbors were transferred to ghettos and later to killing camps. In their eyes, it was just the way it is. For the greater good, they'd been told.

It sickens me that not even 100 years later, society has already seemed to forget how a small seed of distaste for a particular religious group can quickly grow into a forest of hatred. How often do we see religion mocked for humor's sake? All. The. Time. In television, movies, books, cartoons and on Broadway. And somehow, it elicits laughter and wins awards, when in reality, we ought to be shaking our heads in disgust.

Why do we allow this? As Americans, who believe in "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," why do we not only permit but praise theatrical and artistic works which makes light of others' sacred faiths? Have we not seen enough tragedy come from religious intolerance?

It's easy to pick on people who aren't like you, isn't it? People who might be seen as weird or different -- they're the obvious scapegoats. If you can't understand them, make fun of them. Bully them. You'll feel better about yourself. Right?

Well, when you put it like that ...

I know, you think I'm overreacting. No, I'm just calling it like I see it. This country was founded so people could practice their beliefs in peace. Check the First Amendment if you don't believe me. So far, it looks like we've got the "practice their beliefs" part down, but what about "in peace?" Not even close, in my opinion. No one should ever have to experience the stabbing hurt and anger we feel when our religious faiths are pushed around and peddled as comedy. It's just not American to satirize what people regard as sacred. It's not even human.

I readily acknowledge the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, too. Believe me, I am grateful for this. You don't need to tell a journalist twice. Humans need to be able to speak our minds, to argue with the status quo, to challenge others. I don't think we need laws to criminalize religious taunting; I just think it should be common sense. It's tactless, it's hurtful, it's wrong. What more evidence do you need to stop doing it?

So go ahead, make your hysterical religion-bashing musicals. It's within your right to do so. You'll make a quick buck and everyone will applaud your boldness. People will cheer and call it "cute." You'll be the momentary hero, soaking up your 15 minutes of fame in battery-powered limelight. But at the end of the day, your offensive play will hardly stand against the truly inspiring masterpieces on Broadway. In a few years, we'll forget about that play that made fun of Mormons. But I can guarantee we'll still be buying tickets to "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Wicked."

For additional reasons not to see "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway, check out this well-written and researched article from the Deseret News: 'Mormon' msuical: Pride in prejudice?. Basically: my thoughts exactly.


  1. Well said. A powerful post.

  2. Blah. I'm going to disagree with you. I'm a former Mormon but I hold no ill will or harbor any bad feelings towards the church. I paid an outrageous amount of money to see this and laughed my head off. I find humor that points out the obvious to be refreshing. Comparing this to the holocaust? Really? Not even on the same level. The first amendment works for everyone--not just what Jenna thinks.

  3. On the bright side, it's opened the door for positive publicity about the church. But I agree - I don't poke fun at other peoples' religions and I don't appreciate it being done to me. What would it be like to live in a world of mutual respect?

  4. This musical has brought up a lot of debate between friends, and I love it. The church and many other writers have dedicated a lot of work to this topic. I like what they are writing and maybe I can send you some links to them. I haven't seen the musical and probably won't, but we'll see. Depends on how catchy the music is. But the reason it took home so many Tony awards is because no other musical has come out except the Green Day one. So frankly there wasn't much competition. And I don't mind a healthy dose of humor even in the name of my religion. We have to laugh at ourselves. And in a way, there's no such thing as bad publicity. If this gets people thinking and talking about Mormons and what they believe, then bring it on. If New York missionaries knock on doors and can bridge facts from their prior knowledge of this musical, then it may open more possibilities.

    What bothers me, and others have already refuted this, South Park guys are attempted "factual" portrayal of researched beliefs. Their work, while having facts, is farcical and untrue. Don't try to be realistic and claim to be realistic and miss basic beliefs (like Heaven and Hell - apparently they messed that one up. Hell isn't a real place for the standard person. Everyone knows Mormons believe that).

    But sorry this comment is so long, but I've been a part of MANY conversations about this. Someone wrote it was bad taste- like a Mormon writing a play about gays. Or someone writing a musical about the Koran. Then someone else wrote that they were writing the The Big Gay Muslim Musical-the musical. It cracked me up. But maybe I'm a little too irreverent. :)

  5. VERY well said Jenna. You express yourself SO well. Thank you for your wonderful post.

  6. Jenna, a friend of mine posted the following quote from the LDS newsroom about the musical:

    "The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

    Good for you for writing this post. It is propaganda...not to the level of WWII...yet. But it has the potential of getting there.

    Oh, and because I always like to have the source of my quotes known, here is the link to it!

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love reading what you have to say because it gets me thinking! Big Love and Year One are two more prime examples. Although I've never seen Big Love I've heard many things about it and it makes me so sad that Tom Hanks is behind it. But then again, can't we also say the same about Singles Ward, The RM, and maybe even The Best Two Years being prime examples? Are those okay because it's an LDS cast and probably written and directed by LDS people?

    Although your other commenters didn't care for your comparison with the Holocaust, it's definitely something to think about. We're not there yet, and will probably never see something so extreme again, but look how a good chunk of the population in Arizona view Mexicans. I don't know the facts because I don't live there and don't have tv, but I think it's safe to say it's making a lot of citizens think they're better than those here illegally. It may not be a concentration camp, but they work incredibly hard for very little pay. Now there's a topic for your blog! :)

  8. I have a lot of respect and even love for the LDS faith. I think you are on to something, and when things like this come out about black people I typically have knee jerk reactions. It's hard to see yourself portrayed in a cruel way and then laughed at. No one wants that or deserves it.

    I've tried to understand why a church that has been so persecuted has reached out and in the eyes of many persecuted others- prop 8. That coupled with some of the racial things in the church's past makes it hard for me to see the church as just a blameless victim. Still, I don't think persecution is right even if groups who have been on the receiving end are doing it.

    I won't see it, just like I don't patronize lots of movies and shows etc... Voting with your pocket book seems to be the only thing that works.

    And I cringe when I sometimes read horrible, awful things about our president on blogs that have a LDS button right next the post. I think, "what if Christ were reading this?" I'm not saying you can't be an active person in your faith and have an opinion, or even be a Christian who judges (Lord knows I do it), but sometimes I wonder for a church that has such a strong believe of missionary work it might do some bloggers well to tone done the hate of President Obama and democrats. And Jenna you NEVER do this and I have so much respect for you and think you are the utmost classy lady. And I DO know there are lots of LDS democrats and people who don't bash Obama :)

  9. @Anonymous,

    No where in my post did I say this was anything like the Holocaust. I simply pointed out how aggravated I am that despite the fact 6 million people died due to religious intolerance, we still go around making fun of people's beliefs. Also, seeing how atrocities like that come about by small acts of distaste really puts things into perspective.

    And if you check out the 3rd-to-last paragraph, you'll see where I readily defend the First Amendment right of freedom of speech. I'm not saying we should ban offensive musicals, movies, whatever, but it should just be common sense not to crack jokes about what others hold sacred.

  10. that's so stupid!! why do people have to make fun of mormons? we don't make movies about catholics or lutherans...etc.!

  11. that's so stupid!! why do people have to make fun of mormons? we don't make movies about catholics or lutherans...etc.!

    Well, they kind of actually do...ever seen Angels & Demons? Or heard a generalization about a Catholic priest molesting boys?

  12. @Jessica: I think she meant WE (as in Mormons) don't make movies that poke fun of other faiths.

  13. Well said, Jenna! I don't think there is a more misunderstood religion than the LDS church. I get asked by friends all the time, "how come the men in your church marry more than one woman?" and "Is it true you guys sacrifice animals in your temples?" If only everyone would find out for themselves what our faith is about, instead of believing the cruel rumors people spread. This musical only furthers the confusion swirling around. It's just not right. Every faith deserves respect and reverence.

  14. I think this article really says it well:

  15. I have to say that there IS such a thing as bad publicity. Because the majority of people who see that show will never seek out the "truth".

    Great post Jenna. Very well said and I agree whole heartedly.

  16. Well it sounds like you've got quite a few debaters! Ha! Very good job on this post and never apologize for tactfully compiling your feelings into writing! Everyone has a right to say how they feel...even those who have disagreed with what you wrote.

    I sit on the fence with this; I feel that there IS a possibility people will seek out the truth after seeing this, but there are also those who won't. Those who are just looking for a laugh at another's expense. To me that is simple minded and makes up the majority of Americans so what can you do?

    @Nick, Sara, Wedge and Shasta:
    I have seen Big Love and the thing that is most upsetting about that is he leads the viewer to believe the FLDS and the LDS religions are the same. I agree that plays or shows like this only add to the already existing confusion on Latter-Day Saints. But if the ignorant choose to stay be it.

    I HAVE lived in Arizona and also in El Paso, TX which is so close to Juarez, Mexico that stray bullets hit our City Hall building. People aren't racist against Mexicans nor do they think they are better than those making a low wage. Those people should be making NO wage. There are Mexican citizens who work for years saving their money to legally come to the United States to work for that same wage, so why should someone who hopped the fence reap the same benefits? It's not racism; sometimes it's even Mexicans against Mexicans because of the unfairness. Please educate yourself on these topics before speaking so passionately on them. This coming from someone who has been discriminated against for being white. I speak Spanish almost fluently and have been told I wasn't good enough. My mother/friends/family have been cut in front of in line at the grocery store because of their white skin. It is a disgraceful situation of reverse racism. Move to Arizona and get a TV then we can speak.

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  18. I read this the day you posted it, but was on my phone so I couldn't comment. I just wanted to let you know, that I agree with you completely. I've been thinking the same things for a while now. You just seem to put your feelings down so much better than I can.

    This is a wonderful, thought provoking post.

  19. I read this the day you posted it, but was on my phone so I couldn't comment. I just wanted to let you know, that I agree with you completely. I've been thinking the same things for a while now. You just seem to put your feelings down so much better than I can.

    This is a wonderful, thought provoking post.

  20. From what I gather, two writers did some research and produced a script for a new musical, "The Book of Mormon". It pokes fun at Uganda, organized religion, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    As this production continues on Broadway (and tours the United States in 2012), I hope it inspires people to ask questions about the church, and what we really believe.

  21. I just wanted to speak to Big Love for a moment.

    I used to be LDS, am not anymore and have a primarily good view of the church. I also joined later in life and really learned quite a bit about the church, its doctrine and history.

    I have also watched Big Love since it started in 2006. I like the show. There is absolutely no way a person watching it would be led to think the FLDS = LDS. While Niki and Bill grew up on a "compound" which is supposed to represent FLDS Barb, Bill's first wife, had a traditional LDS upbringing. They do a more than good job of explaining the differences, showing how the two church's interact with each other. I know, I know, a lot of LDS people are mad because of Big Love's temple scene, but please don't tell people that the show says FLDS = LDS. Because it doesn't.

    And for what it matters, MOST people know that the two are not the same. Even if you aren't LDS or living in a primarily LDS area most competent people can tell you the difference between FLDS and LDS. I think the reason why the LDS faith is on the receiving end of negativity from non members is this: the church and it's stance on prop 8, the church's history of polygamy and the church's history with race. And, well, let's face it: people don't like what they don't know. There were years that the LDS was shrouded in mystery to the majority of the rest of the US. I think President Hinkley did a wonderful job of bringing the church out so to speak. Of course the concept of temples is also something most people might not understand and therefor like. It's just too bad.

    And to the Hargrove family: I believe racism exists on all fronts. But there's something wrong with thinking a person cut in line as an example of racism. Let me give you a better one: my great-grandmother died in the car in front of a hospital from treatable illness because the hospital was for whites only. That's racism. Sometimes people THINK something is racist (and I'm guilty of this like any other person) but I chose to believe that for the most part people are making honest mistakes or just doing dumb things. When you experience racism you know it and it's a terrible, awful feeling.

  22. Jenna I love your blog! I agree full heartidly. I makes me sick to my stomach when people target the church. If only they'd choose to ask questions and learn for themselves, instead of making fun of what they dont understand...