David Brooks went to the theatuh. Actually, he saw a Broadway musical comedy called, The Book of Mormon. Its plot summary might read, missionary meets bible at the School for the Performing Arts; a fan of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby yells, Road Trip to Uganda! Its theme is that kindly inclusiveness, tolerance, practicality, a few lies and some chutzpah is a way to know God in heaven and achieve peace on earth, or at least a way to make peace and improve your lot. It’s the basis of every good religion, or should be.
The fuddy duddy David Brooks is decidedly Old Testament in his review. He ignores the book and lyrics, and uses the play’s title to criticize the wishy-washy. Impliedly, that could be Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the wishy-washier protestant Barack Obama, or liberals and reformists generally.
Brooks gives two thumbs down to the musical’s “kinder gentler” message, and two thumbs up to the exclusive zealotry of the Republican Party’s base – in the guise of its uncompromising religious rigor and its hard definitions of good and evil. Hypocrisy, though, he leaves right out.
Jesus’ startling inclusiveness was a revolution in that it offered a path to God for all who truly believe. It originally discarded lists of laws and sacred places, and substituted grace and the sacred heart. That’s not Bobo’s vision. He prefers the fire and brimstone of hard definitions of “salvation” and “damnation”. For him, they provide a code of conduct “rooted in claims of absolute truth”. They describe a “map of reality” along a route that avoids the desert of “mindless conformity”. His religion sanctifies suffering and helps us tolerate evil in ways that arguably help perpetuate both.
Bobo makes an implied dig at Mr. Obama and liberals (two distinct groups), and returns to his critique of The Book of Mormon, by describing models of Christianity in Africa as so “doctrinaire and socially conservative”, they would “make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on end.” He regards that as a good thing; it makes them more “persuasive” and therefore more effective in dealing with Africa’s scourges. Tolerant do gooders, he says, are less persuasive and therefore less able to do good.
Tolerance may be less relevant than ignorance and inexperience. Of all of Africa’s woes, I would place an abundance of tolerance lower down the threat list than despotism, imperial resource extraction, poverty, disease and cultural barriers to equality and improved sexuality and health education.
I almost haven’t the heart to tell Bobo that The Book of Mormon is a satire from the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It premiered on Broadway last month to rave reviews. The plot evolves around two young missionaries who travel to Uganda: Art Buchwald meets Joseph Smith on Lake Victoria. Parker and Stone call it a combination of “Mormons, Disney, Rogers and Hammerstein”, an “atheist’s love letter to religion”.
The Book of Mormon pokes fun at religious shibboleths – stone tablets, golden tablets and sacred cows. The important thing is let’s get practical. What do we need to do? How can religion help do it? As this synopsis says, “the importance of religion is not truth, but whether it helps people.” Loaves and fishes are as important as the sermon on the mount; one kind of sustenance without the other will not do, no matter how much we sanctify it.
In the play, the missionaries find a way to help the Ugandan villagers they set out to convert. The villagers learn how to help themselves. That binds them together and they stay together. Surely, that need no longer be the secret that God revealeth unto his servants the prophets. I wish Bobo and Barack would find ways to be as helpful.