Disclaimer: Obviously, The Book of Mormon Musical is intended to entertain, not to serve as a primer on Mormonism. This series of essays is offered simply as a view of what missionary life is actually like for Mormon missionaries in Africa, not as a direct response to the musical—though there are a few responses.
The Book of Mormon Musical opens with a scene of Jesus, Mormon, and Moroni on Hill Cumorah in upstate New York. It is a brief and campy depiction of a Mormon theophany, something which appears absurd and laughable to many: the idea that gods and angels would be personally involved in burying gold scriptures. In many ways, it plays on a central Mormon tenet—not just the belief in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith as translator and restorer, but the belief in continuing revelation. Such revelation not only makes seers of farm boys, but suggests that Jesus Christ and other Heavenly beings are present even in the most unlikely places, and that every human being can be spiritually enlarged beyond any border which mortal paradigms impose.
Mormonism itself demands a generous imagination. We Mormons are urged to imagine one another’s potential with limitless generosity, daring to believe that the most lowly, uncomely, unrefined person is potentially as glorious as any divine being represented with ultra-watt lighting on a Broadway stage. The Mormon imagination is telescopic, inviting us to see far into the distance, beyond time; to look into the Heavens and imagine that—even in the presence of such mind-boggling creativity as the stars and planets manifest—we humans and our incomprehensible future are God’s “work and glory” (Moses 1:39).
So, these divine beings in upstate New York do make a central statement about Mormonism and imagination. If viewed cynically, the suggestion that anyone might actually believe that gods and angels would behave so unexpectedly (or behave at all) appears simply naïve. Taken representationally, the scene implies (accurately) that we Mormons are accustomed to dealing with the unexpected, that we allow ourselves to be surprised by grace in many ways and places, that we don’t “just believe,” as one of the show’s songs states, but that as we grow in love, we behave as love itself does. And love (says Paul) “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7-8). It’s not so much a habit of “making stuff up again” (as another show song claims) as it is a willingness to nurture glorious “what if’s”. Love persuades us to view ourselves and our brothers and sisters—comprising everyone—in the light of eternal prospects, granting the potential for individual and communal progress. This progress doesn’t end. We Mormons don’t believe in an either/or (Heaven or Hell) judgment immediately after death. We believe that as God’s children, we may continue to learn and grow even after our earthly lives end. The only thing which prevents growth is a personal option for stasis.
That there are naïve Latter-day Saints is beyond question. That there are Mormons who don’t understand the hierarchy of gospel principles, and assume that a belief in Kolob is equally important to faith in Jesus Christ, is true. But globalizing and reducing all Mormons to the stereotype of smiley, gullible replicas of each other is using imagination as a flat iron rather than a telescope.
The protagonist of The Book of Mormon Musical, Elder Price, doesn’t appear until this Hill Cumorah tableau fades, and then, he’s already a missionary.
The REAL Elder Price, as presented in this series of essays (Elder Brandon Price), agreed to imagine himself and others with a divinely generous imagination when he was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. In that moment, he was told that he now held “the keys to all the spiritual blessings of the church” and that he could “have the heavens opened…and enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus” (Doctrine and Covenants 107:18-19). His temple endowment magnified his godly imagination. He entered the temple in his Sunday clothes, and carried a bag which would change his life. In the bag were new temple garments. For the rest of his days on earth, he will wear this “Mormon underwear” as a constant reminder of his consecration. The depiction of garments in the Book of Mormon Musical predictably gets a laugh, but we Mormons take our garments seriously. As much as a yarmulke or a priest’s collar indicates personal commitment in other religions, garments, for us Mormons, serve as symbols of our promises to God.
When the Broadway audience first sees Elder Price, he is in the Missionary Training Center, and soon meets his socially inept companion, Elder Cunningham. These two, with the “Mormon Boys” (various other missionaries) practice a door approach with repetitions of the enthusiastically sung “Hello.” The music is fun and catchy. The MTC experience portrayed on stage is, of course, nothing like the real thing.
My husband and I spent two years in an MTC branch—where we met the REAL Elder Price and various “Mormon boys” on the first day of their missions.
I wrote this about our experience on May 22, 2008:
Yesterday evening, Bruce and I welcomed twenty-one missionaries into our branch at the MTC.
Several of the missionaries come from blended families, where death or divorce has ruptured expectations. At least one young man delayed his mission for a year until he could work through the issues his mother’s death had introduced. One missionary was from Scotland. When I shook his hand, I noted his plaid tie. “It’s not my tartan, but it’s a good one,” he said in a thick accent.
I answered, “You’re from Scotland, aren’t you. Either that or you’ve mastered the accent.”
“I’m from Scotland.”
“Well, you have a very good accent.”
“Thank you very much,” he said. “I’ve been working on it for eighteen years.”
We had a humorous exchange, but when he stood to tell why he had chosen to be a missionary, I saw his depth.
Most of these new missionaries have sung “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” since they were old enough to carry a tune. But there are exceptions—some who had not considered a mission until recently. One, a musician, gave up an orchestra tour which included Carnegie Hall so he could serve. Another was in a rock band and had the opportunity to do a European tour. He had to choose between that tour and a mission. He sold his guitars. His mission was financed by the money those guitars brought in. One—Elder Jared Wigginton--already had a college degree focusing on international relations, and even taught for a year. He was admitted to law school, and chose to defer his admission for two years. He will be going to Africa. I am eager to see how this mission prepares him for the rest of what he’ll do in his life. He will learn about Africa in a way no class on international law will ever teach him.