This Show Will Change Your Life
Trey Parker and Matt Stone may have saved the great American musical.
When I first found out that the creators of South Park were doing a musical, I was hugely skeptical, as many good Broadway snobs were at the time. However, looking at the track record of South Park, you begin to see that the show is riddled with musical numbers, many of them hilarious, most of them… less than polite, but all of them showing a fascination with the American music scene, skewering many musical genres, and often paying tongue-in-cheek tribute to classic Broadway.
I had the chance to see the show when the tour came to PPAC in March, and I was blown away. I have been listening to the Broadway soundtrack since it came out, and I was shocked to see people walking out of the show, despite having years to learn exactly what they were getting themselves into. Other reviewers will get into why these stuffy souls tuned tail and quit on the show, either agreeing that the show’s scatological moments make it shitty, or agreeing with me that the show has more to offer. I want to go one step beyond the surface.
That Makes Perfect Sense
The show has a lot to say about religion, as you might guess, but you may not guess how sympathetic the musical is to the unique quirks of the “All-American” religion at its center. The idea that Joseph Smith dug up golden plates, translated them into the Bible’s “Part Three” with the help of God’s angel Moroni, and in so doing became a prophet equal to Moses, Elijah, and the rest, was hard to swallow for many Americans of the 1820s, and it sounds just as far-fetched today if not more so, especially to someone raised secular like myself. The show makes use of a classic production number which relates the tale of how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded, to the astonishment of the Ugandan villagers onstage and the amusement of the audience. We have another look at some snippets of Mormon beliefs in the show’s uplifting power ballad “I Believe,” and many of the tenets listed here are odd or shocking to the middle-class sensibilities I grew up with.
The interesting thing is that by choosing a relatively young religion, and one with which most Americans are only glancingly familiar, Parker and Stone free people of non-Mormon religious mores to laugh at the foibles of both Scripture and those who take it literally. If the aforesaid missionaries were mainline Protestants, and the scripture being skewered was the New Testament (and not the Newer Testament, to coin a phrase), the show would raise many more hackles. Bertolt Brecht said that ideologically incendiary theatre should take place in a foreign setting so that people would feel that the play was not being critical of them. For example, the Mikado lampooned the strictures of Victorian England despite its Japanese setting, and many of Shakespeare’s best works were set abroad to avoid seeming critical of the famously paranoid Elizabeth I. Without calling Parker and Stone Brechtian, I can say that they use this idea to great effect. The show never states it outright, but the implication is clear to me that the foibles of religious doctrine are not unique to Mormonism. If people of faith went through their own scriptures of choice, they would find a lot to question and wrestle with – perhaps even to laugh at, but it is much easier to do this with a scripture that you are not emotionally attached to. If you want to then go home and have a good laugh over your own Bible, that’s wonderful, let me recommend a few passages. Likewise, the show exposes a critical flaw in scriptural literalism: every time a new issue comes up, you need a new scripture. But you can’t just make up something and call it holy…. right?
A Bible Full of Hobbits
The show seems to ask the question “what should the function of religion be”? Should it offer a place for a community to gather and celebrate shared beliefs with life-cycle events and other holy days? Should it offer a ruler with which to measure the world and feel superior? Should it offer a point of reference, a leader or teacher to admire and imitate? Or should it address the problems of the community directly?
The show’s main ideological thrust seems to be the assertion that religious beliefs do not have to make sense in the everyday, look-both-ways-before-crossing-the-street way that more pedestrian ideas do — as long as they help you and your world. The more exotic beliefs of a religion seem to be trappings over a deeper current of thought that reflects the first tenet of the society founded in an eighties movie by a metal band known as Wyld Stallions:
“Be excellent to each other.”
In the Egyptian myth of Isis, this ‘being excellent to each other’ roughly translated to, “seriously, guys, stop eating dirt and human corpses and try your hand at agriculture. That river over there? That’s going to flood in a couple days. Plow the fields, plant these seeds, and eat the plants that grow there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a husband to resurrect.”
Mormonism places a few more things on the “do not eat” list besides dirt and human flesh, and it has a lot of other quirky beliefs, but the acid test of this and every religion, according to Parker and Stone, seems to be what kind of a person do your beliefs make you. The loving gay Methodist pastor and the homophobic peons of the WBC read the same words from the same supposed savior. Clearly, it is in the union, the yoga, of the scripture and the heart and mind of the believer that makes the critical difference between follower and fanatic.
In a world where you have an unprecedented smorgasbord of beliefs to choose from, your choices only have to make sense in your own head, and as long as you harm no one (o hai Wiccans), you do not have to answer to anyone about your choice of religion – or your rejection of religion. It’s not what you believe that matters: it’s what you do with it.
This is an amazing message to send out to people who feel stuck or trapped by religion, whether that means a teenager who feels oppressively stifled by her parents’ fundamentalism, or a middle-aged seeker looking for something that fits him. There are of course many people who do not have the freedom to choose – who are indoctrinated from day one and isolated from any dissenting voices. For mainstream beliefs, this behavior is ignored – for more fringe believers, this is the kind of behavior that invites media scrutiny, public speculation, and, sometimes, Broadway musicals. New religious movements and fringe offshoots of older faiths that fight back with violence are often squashed. But the Latter-Day Saints seem to be able to adapt to the world in which they find themselves – giving up ideas like blood atonement and plural marriage and focusing on good works – as well as being able, for the most part, to watch this musical and laugh along.
So, in the world that Stone and Parker have put together, what does it matter if your bible is full of hobbits? Parker and Stone point to a world where, if God exists, He is big enough to see that what matters is how His creations treat one another and their planet. How you arrive at those ethical values and that positive, grateful attitude, is up to you. And if God doesn’t exist, you are still treating yourself and others well, and encouraging others to do the same. Virtues and values remain with or without the Great Morality Playwright in the Sky. And perhaps a God who would damn me for saying that, or for inviting you to entertain that notion, is not worth bowing to.
Tomorrow is a Latter Day
The overwhelmingly nonjudgemental tone of the show regarding Mormon beliefs is a bold choice. It would be easy, perhaps too easy, to out-and-out ridicule the clean-cut Utahn lads and their refusal to swear or drink coffee and suchlike, but the show really just puts those practices and beliefs onstage. It is our sense of their difference from us that jolts us to laugh at them. I don’t say this to rob anybody of a belly laugh, even if it is at somebody else’s expense: I say it in the hope that once you’ve had your belly laugh, you look at yourself and find a belief or practice that you cherish and imagine, even for a minute, how silly it might seem. It’s a world-shaking idea, but you simply have to try it.
For example, I keep writing this blog despite the fact that my following is spotty and small, the topics I write about are obscure and obtuse, and half the time I doubt that anyone anywhere will find it interesting. That’s bloody hilarious! I’m shouting into an abyss huger than I can fathom, and smiling every time I hear the faintest echo.
Oh well. Audience or no audience, God or no God, tomorrow is (quite by definition) a Latter Day. And I am here for you.