Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Book of Mormon Musical

I just read the New Yorker's review of "The Book of Mormon." It was nice to see a review that wasn't gushing, since that's all that's crossed my desk so far. The reviewer, John Lahr, acknowledged its popularity but was also critical of that popularity.

I'm really not happy about the fact that this musical is turning out to be popular. From what little I know of the plot, it sounds like it's just waiting to be eviscerated from the left, and I hope that when that happens, it happens in a way that can temper some of the public enthusiasm—i.e., make the play controversial in a way that forces Parker and Stone and their fans to put real effort into shrugging off the play's unintended political incorrectnesses.

But I'm really unhappy because of the way this musical will reinforce the trivialization of a religion—let's say, a spiritual tradition—that to me is decidedly not trivial. I say this as someone who laughed uproariously at the South Park episode where it turned out that the Mormons were the ones who had the right religion and went to heaven. I say it as someone who was impressed with the effort to accurately depict Book of Mormon origins in "All About the Mormons" and thought that they treated us with uncustomary respect at the end. Think about how South Park has depicted Judaism, or Catholicism, or Scientology. In their way, Parker and Stone like us. That's why they were so passionate about making this musical.

And I hope that Mormons will have the good sense to either go to the musical and laugh along with it or just keep away and keep quiet. No sanctimonious letters to the editor—or worse, sanctimonious press releases out of Salt Lake. The best way LDS Public Affairs can respond to this musical is to keep their damn mouths shut so they don't put their feet into them.

With all those caveats out of the way, it pains me that this musical is going to further enshrine Mormonism in American popular culture as a sign of Christian fundamentalism that, viewed in the most positive light, is quirky in its teachings and quaintly if endearingly earnest. But, of course, that's not really Parker and Stone's fault. It's the fault of the fundamentalists who dominate Mormonism—who insist on the literal truth of incredible doctrinal claims and pride themselves on their allegiance to 1950s-era (if not earlier) mores. They're the ones who've generated the Mormon image that Parker and Stone are now taking over for their own comedic purposes.

It pains me that the images of Mormons and Mormonism that have greatest currency in American culture are missionaries who want you to join their church because it's the only true one; Proposition 8; the black priesthood ban. (I'm actually not so bothered that polygamy's on that list, but I'll have to analyze that later.) I wish that in that mix there were a Mormon equivalent to Mother Teresa, or Desmond Tutu, or Oscar Romero, or the nuns marching for black civil rights. Our religion would be taken more seriously if that were the case—still made fun of and criticized, too, to be sure, and for perfectly good reasons. But people would know that this religion is capable of spiritual greatness, too.

This is not, I hasten to clarify, a public relations problem. It's not something that will be fixed by LDS Public Affairs working harder to publicize Mormon humanitarian initiatives. You don't earn the kind of respect I'm wishing we had through calculated publicity. You earn it by just being out there, doing good, so consistently and regularly that you just become a familiar part of the social landscape—the way Mormon missionaries are now simply by virtue of the fact that there are so many out there, all the time, knocking on doors and passing out pamphlets on streets. That's what people know Mormons for because that's what Mormons have decided to dedicate premium energy and resources to. If we dedicated that much energy to other causes—building schools and clinics in developing countries, or showing up to peace rallies, or whatever—if those were our top priorities—then we'd be known for that. And depending on what we established as our priorities, we could command more respect.

Not that commanding respect is the most important thing. The most important thing is to do God's work. But the Spirit that is given to everyone who comes into the world helps people recognize God's work when they see it. There's a reason that outsiders as a rule aren't all that impressed with Mormons trying to stop them on the street to tell them about the one true church, or setting out to vicariously baptize all the dead, or evading conversations about the black priesthood ban. Like fundamentalists of all stripes, the fundamentalists who dominate Mormonism haven't figured out what God's work is really fundamentally about.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Prophets at the Daily Show

The Daily Show just did one of the best bits I've seen from them: "Freedom Packages." UPDATE: Watch it here.

It stabbed at my conscience. It made me feel ashamed for my sense of self-congratulation: "We're doing the right thing in Libya: we're backing up people who are putting their lives on the line to resist dictatorship, and we're doing it the right way, as part of an international coalition," etc.

Now everything's more complicated for me. Not that I'm turning against the intervention in Libya. But I'm more inclined now to pray that this is the right thing with fear and trembling, not to pray for its success on the confident assumption that it is the right thing. And I'm feeling my complicity in the hypocrisies that are being enacted here, whatever good may come from it.

What I watched tonight was prophetic. It was a voice in the wilderness, criticizing the powers, calling for justice, using theater to drive home truths people don't want to see. God bless the Daily Show staff.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Libya and closer to home

I give thanks that the UN agreed to call for a no-fly zone in Libya, though I wish that decision had been made sooner.

I give thanks that this isn't being done unilaterally by the U.S. but in tandem with other nations, including especially Arab countries.

I pray that somehow a just peace and an effective democratic government can be established in Libya.

May the stone roll forward.


Much closer to home, and on a much smaller scale, I'm praying for Grouchy Mama. I've finally buckled under to sentimentality and named the dozen-or-so feral cats we're now feeding each night. Grouchy Mama, unfortunately, had the epithet attached to her back when I was still just working by descriptions instead of names. Anyway, she's been hugely pregnant, then she disappeared for a few days, and now she's back—not pregnant. This is not a good situation, demographically, and everyone might be better off if most of the litter doesn't survive. But I'm praying for them anyway. I'm too sentimental not to.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mormons in Japan

An update at says that "approximately 95% of the Latter-day Saints in the affected areas have been contacted, and initial reports indicate there are no confirmed deaths." I have to say that while my own experience of the church's record-keeping, member-monitoring machine has been decisively negative, this is certainly a time when the church's ability to contact, and account for, and provide support for individuals is a good thing. The church can become a safety net for people at times like this.

(I also have to say, though, that I wonder exactly what it means when the church says it's accounted for 95% of its members in these areas. I'm inclined to assume that this means 95% of currently active members. I think about the branch I served in as a missionary in the Dominican Republic, where our membership rosters showed 200+ members, of whom maybe a couple dozen were active. If a disaster had struck, and we'd had to account for "our members," I imagine that we would have gone accounting for the two dozen members we thought of as active. What I guess I'm saying is, I'm glad the church safety net is there, but I'm also wondering how many people are falling through holes in that net. It could be a lot.)

I looked up some data on Latter-day Saints in Japan. While my prayers are with all those affected, of course, my prayers are especially with Latter-day Saints because that's the closest I come to having a personal connection with Japan. These data help to make that concrete for me. I'd like to have more data about the Sendai region particularly, but this is the best I have. Sources are a combination of the LDS online newsroom and the 2007 Church Almanac.

125,000 Latter-day Saints in Japan
29 stakes, including a Sendai stake
7 missions, including a Sendai mission
2 temples, one in Tokyo and one in Fukuoka (which is at opposite end of Japan from Sendai)

Boyd K. Packer was a soldier in Japan, where he performed at least one of the first baptisms since the church had abandoned missionary work in Japan during the 1920s. I assume that because of that connection, he feels particularly troubled by this disaster. Thinking that humanizes for me somewhat a man I'm generally inclined to despise.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Damaged nuclear reactors

O God—

You have made the earth tremble; you have broken it.
Heal the breaches thereof, for it shakes.

You have shown your people hard things;
you have made us drink the wine of astonishment.

That your beloved may be delivered,
save with your right hand!

Give us help from trouble,
for human help alone is vain.

In Christ's name, amen.

(Psalm 60)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake in Japan

God of restoration—

Provide comfort where now there is grief.
Restore beauty where now there are ashes.

To those who mourn, give reason for joy.
To those with a spirit of heaviness, give reason for praise.

May they rebuild what has been left in ruins.
May they raise back up what has been felled.
May they repair the desolate cities.

In Christ's name, amen.

(Isaiah 61:3-4)


I, the Lord your God,
have created all people,
and I remember those who live
on the isles of the sea.

(2 Nephi 29:7)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Peter King and Wisconsin Republicans

For Peter King:
Have mercy, O Lord, upon the rulers of our land.
May their prejudices give way before the truth.
(D&C 109:54, 56)
For Wisconsin Republicans:
I will come near to you to judgment;
I will be a swift witness against those
who oppress the hireling in his wages,
says the Lord of Hosts.
(3 Ne. 24:5)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Attended an Ash Wednesday service—I'm sitting at the computer with the little ash cross still marked on my forehead. Until this year, the church we attend had always had the custom of wiping the cross off when you went up to commune, because the Gospel reading for the service is the passage from the Sermon on the Mount about not showing off your piety to be seen of others. This year, they announced that we could wipe the cross off or keep it, according to our own discernment; they put out towels by the basin of holy water for people to use if they wanted. It looked to me like most people left after the service with their crosses still on their foreheads.

During the Eucharistic prayer that they like to use for Lent (there's a variety to choose from), there's a passage about "God of our fathers, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." These days, I usually hear that read as "God of our fathers and mothers," or "God of our forebears," and then sometimes the priest will start plugging in the names of wives: "God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and..." And then things get tricky. "Jacob, Leah, and Rachel," is how I seem to remember hearing it done. (One year I heard a priest take an entirely different tack: "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God of Deborah, Ruth, and Mary.")

Last year, I was teasing the priest here, who adds the names of the wives, by daring her to add the concubines as well. So she did, much to my surprise. All through Lent last year, she read, "God of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah; God of Isaac and Rebekah; God of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah." That's one name short of being able to constitute a new Quorum of the Twelve. She did it again tonight. Afterwards I told her, "You know, you don't need to keep doing the polygamous thing on my account." She laughed and said, "But it's so much fun—all those Hebrew women."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tim DeChristopher

I've been hearing in the news about Tim DeChristopher. My prayers are with him. What he did was courageous or foolhardy or some combination of the two. But he was fighting the good fight. And now he's suffering the legal consequences, which is the risk you take on when you undertake civil disobedience.

Comparing him to Jesus sounds unbearably pretentious. But the comparison is perfectly valid, and not really all that aggrandizing, if it's understood that lots of people have performed this kind of Christlike action—disrupting the powers of this world in some small but dramatic way (you remember that incident with the moneychangers, yes?) and then being crushed by those same powers as the price of their witness.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting to see people go to prison for criminal negligence in the Deepwater Horizon spill, or the housing crash, not to mention the architects of the last administration's policies on torture.

There are times when the conspiratorial populism of the Book of Mormon speaks to me, and this is one of them.

Those Gadianton robbers had filled the judgment seats,
having usurped the power and authority of the land,
condemning the righteous because of their righteousness,
letting the wicked go unpunished because of their money—
to be held in office at the head of government,
that they might get gain,
and do according to their own wills.
(Helaman 7:4-5)

Taize service: Christ the Living Water

I'm back from the first-Friday Taize service. I chose as the theme for this month's service "Christ, the Living Water." In addition to the usual icons and candles, the focus of meditation included a little fountain Hugo bought for me to have running near my desk as I work on my dissertation.

Here are the readings and intercessions I prepared.



O God, my God, how eagerly I watch for you!
My soul thirsts for you,
my body is weak for want of you,
as in a dry, barren land without water.

Your loving-kindness is better than life itself!
I will sing your praise.
I will bless you as long as I live.
I will call on your name with uplifted hands.

As I lie in my bed, you are the focus of my thoughts.
Late into the night, I lie awake thinking of you.
For you have been my help:
I rejoice under the shadow of your wings.

My soul clings to you.
Your strong hand holds me close.
Keep me safe! Let me live without fear
of those who would do me harm.


ISAIAH 35: 4-7

Say to those whose hearts are sinking,
“Be strong! Do not be afraid!
Here is your God!
God is coming to administer justice.
God is coming to rescue you.”

Then darkened eyes will see.
Closed ears will hear.
Enfeebled legs will leap like the gazelle.
Muted tongues will sing for joy.

Fountains will gush forth in the wasteland.
Streams will flow in the desert.
The burning sands will be transformed into a pool;
the parched ground, into springs of water.
The arid habitat of jackals will become a marsh.
Desert grasses will give way to reeds and rushes.


JOHN 4: 6-11, 13-14

As Jesus rested by the well,
a Samaritan woman came to draw water.
Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

The woman replied,
“How is it that you, a Jew,
are asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?”
(She said this because Jews would not use vessels
that Samaritans had used.)

Jesus answered,
“If you knew who I am,
you would have asked me for a drink,
and I would have given you living water.”

The woman said,
“You have no bucket, and the well is deep.
Where do you get this living water?”

Jesus said,
“Water from this well
will quench your thirst for a time.
But the water I give
will quench your thirst forever.”



Jesus Christ—you are the source of living water.
You alone can satisfy our souls’ thirst.

Refresh all who are weary, sad, or suffering.
Immerse them in your loving-kindness.
Wipe away all tears.

Rain down gifts of grace on every person.
Nourish them in their needs.
Cultivate their possibilities.

Teach us to love others as you love us.
Make compassion well up in us like an overflowing fountain.

Make all that is barren, fruitful.
Make all that has been laid waste, flourish.

Make justice flow like a river.
Sweep away prejudice and oppression as with a flood.

Fill the earth with knowledge of your goodness
like water fills the seas.