Saturday, May 14, 2011

Insights on Mormon culture, thanks to "God's favorite musical"!

I haven't seen "The Book of Mormon" yet, but you can hear the songs online, and people have already started discussing them on Main Street Plaza.

When the reviews of the musical first started appearing, I remember there was a lot of focus on whether they got the doctrinal details right (Is Kolob a planet or a star? Does God really live there? etc.). But it appears that what they really got right is unique character of Mormonism — what it’s like to be Mormon! (And, really, placing less importance on the precisions of doctrines like Kolob and more importance on Mormon practice and attitude is, itself, quite accurate.)

If you have an opinion on any or all of the songs, please vote in our poll and tell us about it. Here's my favorite (followed by what I wrote about it):



A lot of the songs had me going “Wow, fantastic! And so true!” But it was listening to “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” that made my whole youth and childhood pass before my eyes. Standing there, happy to supportively sing “my best friend…” while somebody Awesome! sings his heart out about serving God. And it didn’t hurt that the song kind of reminds me of ’80′s pop, and of “Humble Way” from God’s second-favorite musical:



This same missionary scenario — including the leader/subordinate relationship, and the fact that it’s cute that they’re not really humble about their awesome task — is exactly what the song “Humble Way” was about. “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” is what “Humble Way” wanted to be (if it had been totally brilliant).

I completely agree with Holly’s assessment that this would be perfect sung as a duet between a young LDS guy and his fiancee. I don’t think that’s reading anything into it that’s not there. Hierarchy colors so much about Mormon interpersonal relationships. And the (officially unequal) partnership between missionaries sets the model for marriage.

One point that is pure genius is the fact that their unequal relationship isn’t quite the central focus of the song. The leader’s earnest desire to do something great for mankind and God is as central (if not moreso). And the fact it’s tied in with his own ego is winked at.

You can see this symbolized in the Mormon temple endowment ceremony (which I haven’t been through, but I’ve heard about it). The fact that the wife covenants to obey her husband is OK because the husband is making a covenant with God. If you complain (or do anything other than stand beside him being supportive), then you’re the buzzing fly that’s detracting from a man and his important business between him and God!

I can’t imagine any song could more perfectly capture what Mormon patriarchy feels like.

And I can't wait to see the whole musical!!

10 comments:

jen said...

I haven't listened to all of the songs, but what I have listened to totally reminded me of Saturday's Warrior.

And when I first heard this song, I thought it WAS being sung by an RM and his fiance. Everyone just accepts that his ego is there, and that's the way its supposed to be. No questions.

(And since I have been through the temple, I can tell you that is exactly how it felt. I should be okay, because as long as he is obeying God, its okay to pledge obedience to him... but then, who am I to judge when he's being obedient to God?? I guess I just have to be obedient all the time, and let God work it out later... right??)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jen!!!

That is an interesting data point! I had read about the song before listening, so I knew it was a pair of missionary companions. But I can absolutely imagine that -- hearing it for the first time out-of-context -- that it might be more natural to interpret it as a duet between a young man and his fiancee.

If I were still a believer, I'd love to perform this song for ward talent night (assuming the folks of my ward have a sense of humor). I haven't seen the actual choreography, and yet I can picture it in my mind. Especially the end. They're both standing in the spotlight, and he's holding her hands and looking into her eyes as he softly says, "And there's no limit to what we can do, me and you." Then he turns to the audience, gets down on one knee, spreads his arms wide to belt out "but mostly me!" -- pushing her out of the spotlight as he does.

C. L. Hanson said...

I have one more data point I'd like to share. A faithful Mormon (who hated the songs) posted his reactions and interpretations. Here's what he said about this song:

From the second song onward it is clear that Elder Price has no interest in the glory of God, or bringing people to Christ. In fact, the elders in the songs talk about bringing people to the church, but not about Christ or the Atonement at all. Price‘s primary motivation is to leave his own mark, doing something great, and change the world– and get the credit for it. While he does progress from wanting to do it all by himself and reap all the glory himself to the point of doing it with his companion, in the end he is willing to knowingly perpetuate false teachings in order to do it.

To me, exchanges like "'Cause I can do most anything"/"And I can stand next to you and watch" are not even remotely subtle. Yet the guy who wrote the above perceives the song as being simply about the leader's wrong motivations -- not about the inequality of their partnership.

As I said on Holly's blog, focusing the song on his grand dream -- that is exactly the right way to illustrate it. There are probably songs where the subordinate sings about his/her feelings about being in someone's shadow. But that's wrong. As soon as you shine the spotlight on the subordinate's feelings, then s/he's now in the spotlight -- and you've completely missed the boat on portraying what it's like in the shadow.

The point is that -- in Mormonism -- the focus isn't on the women and their lower status. The spotlight is on the men and the important, serious business they have to do. So if a woman complains about her lot, then she's just one more petty annoyance that men have to worry about as they (the men) carry out the real responsibilities in the world.

This principle was illustrated throughout Johnathan Langford's novel about homophobia and patriarchy, for example in this passage:

Richard’s first few months as a bishop had been a learning experience—for them and for the ward as well. During his first three weeks, he’d offended Sister Archibald, the Young Women president at that time, with a comment about the young men being his primary responsibility, without any mention of the young women. The Relief Society president had been upset when one of her counselors was called into Primary without any warning. And an innocent statement from Richard about how most teenagers didn’t pay attention during Sunday school had been taken as a criticism by one of the Sunday school teachers, who had then insisted on being released. Richard had to spend forty minutes talking with Brother Jeffries before he’d agreed to stay on as a teacher.

BTW, I'm kind of having this discussion simultaneously in at least two places. Please read Holly's post about it -- she has a bunch of great additional insights there.

Holly said...

I haven't seen the actual choreography, and yet I can picture it in my mind. Especially the end. They're both standing in the spotlight, and he's holding her hands and looking into her eyes as he softly says, "And there's no limit to what we can do, me and you." Then he turns to the audience, gets down on one knee, spreads his arms wide to belt out "but mostly me!" -- pushing her out of the spotlight as he does.

I think your idea for staging would work really well. I confess I don't remember the details of the choreography or lighting in the actual show, but I'm trying to remember the stage going dark while there's a highly focused spotlight, and nothing's coming to mind.

I do have a vague memory that Elder Price ("mostly me" guy) is center stage, arms spread, at the end.

But this song didn't actually register fully for me as it happened in the show. It's not one of my very favorite songs--I listen to it over and over--but it didn't hit me when I first heard it the way "I Believe" did. I remember the staging of that one quite well: it ends with Elder Price clasping hands with an irritated warlord ("General Butt-Fucking Naked") who is too astonished at the guy's audacity to shoot him just yet. Elder Price is raising their clasped hands above their heads and swaying along to the intensity of his conviction, and General BFN is rolling his eyes and tolerating it just so he can see what will happen next.

Holly said...

Oops! This

It's not one of my very favorite songs--I listen to it over and over--but it didn't hit me when I first heard it the way "I Believe" did.

is wrong! I meant, "It's NOW one of my very favorite songs."

Holly said...

sorry for the multiple comments--though sometimes I think that's better that one incredibly long one. And I have a thought and then reread a comment after I've posted it, and then I have another thought. So here goes:

Re: From the second song onward it is clear that Elder Price has no interest in the glory of God, or bringing people to Christ. In fact, the elders in the songs talk about bringing people to the church, but not about Christ or the Atonement at all. Price‘s primary motivation is to leave his own mark, doing something great, and change the world– and get the credit for it. While he does progress from wanting to do it all by himself and reap all the glory himself to the point of doing it with his companion, in the end he is willing to knowingly perpetuate false teachings in order to do it.

Well, yeah. But that doesn't make Elder Price an inauthentic example of an elder. I think that's a pretty fair description of what most elders are like.

This is what I'm getting at when I write, "Their interest is in discovering and portraying Mormons accurately--including LDS contradictions, such as their arrogant niceness--instead of reinforcing the basic tenets of the faith and avoiding difficult questions. So it's not surprising that the South Park guys arrive at all sorts of great insights about Mormons, and that their portraits of Mormons and Mormonism are faithful and accurate as opposed to faith-promoting and proper."

C. L. Hanson said...

Yes, exactly.

It's like that famous Spencer Kimball quote/prophecy about how the arts are supposed to inspire people towards fiath in God. The faithful don't want a warts-and-all portrait, even if it's hilariously accurate and insightful. That's "anti-Mormon".

Retief said...

Jen, you ask: who am I to judge when he's being obedient to God?

Umm, somebody who just got told by God that you should be making that judgement? Surely a promise to obey "as he obeys" the Lord is the opposite of a reason to just always obey and instead is a requirement to only obey if in your judgement he is in line with the Lord.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Retief!!!

Does the guy covenant to obey the Lord if and only if he agrees with the Lord's commands? Or does he covenant to obey whatever the Lord commands, regardless of his opinion of the Lord's commandments?

If the woman's covenant to obey her husband is parallel to the husband's covenant to obey the Lord (as described in the New Testament), the wife is hardly encouraged to second-guess the husband.

As an illustration, for a lot of important questions, the LDS church requires a woman to get her husband's permission even if he's a non-member. One of my friends couldn't go through the temple to receive the endowment because her husband refused to give his permission -- and the church wouldn't allow her the ordinance without it. (I hardly have to mention that the opposite permission is not required or requested.)

jen said...

CL - Thank you for your response to Retief. I was having a hard time thinking... Sometimes, old programming runs deep and I find myself nodding in agreement when I don't really agree. Its just what I'm "supposed" to do.

Your reply helped knock me out of that slightly crazy and definitely not-good-for-me place.