Archive for "religion"
The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, say that The Book of Mormon, their musical satire and first Broadway show about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took seven years to create and was their most difficult endeavor to date. Now a year into its running, The Book of Mormon is the hottest ticket on Broadway, winning nine Tony Awards and selling-out the Eugene O’Neill Theatre night after night. Over spring break I was fortunate enough to make it my first Broadway experience.
The Book of Mormon did not deviate from the South Park-style of humor, which seizes on topics susceptible to acute political correctness or sacrosanctity, and pulverizes them with one of the most brutal strains of Juvenalian satire. The musical comes at a time when the Mormon Church is growing in both members and in influence. This latent (or latter-day) Christian theology founded in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, right here in New York, has shown an impressive ability to gain (or compete for) converts. Mormons started playing a larger role on the national stage, making sizeable political contributions and expressing their beliefs on topics of the day; and the rest of the country has started to take notice, and sometimes pause, as the foundations of the Mormon faith become more publicized: California’s Proposition 8 referendum banning gay-marriage was the result of a grass-roots movement heavily sponsored by the Church.
The success of Prop 8 highlighted what could be described as both a conservative and fundamentalist streak within the Mormon community. Other instances, like the arrest of Warren Jeffs, whose sect of Mormonism practiced polygamy and enlisted underage girls to marry older men, re-dredge some the Church’s history and the difficulties it faced in becoming a legitimate organization. (Only a little over 30 years ago, the Church allowed African-American men to become priests.)
Efforts at the ballot box have proven effective, as there are now 15 Mormons in Congress including the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the 2012 election cycle, Mitt Romney, a life-long Mormon, currently has the most delegates for the Republican presidential nomination. Notably, he has been forced to address questions about how his faith informs his views on abortion, gay-marriage, and stem cell research. Whatever Romney’s views are, Mormons in the political arena have not been as homogenous as one might expect from such a close-knit Church.
With the ostentatious façade of a Mormon temple providing a thematic frame around the performance, the musical begins with a reenactment of Joseph Smith’s encounter with the angel Moroni, who bestowed on Smith the Golden Plates containing the Mormon theology as preserved by Nephi, an ancient and, until then, unknown prophet.
From there, the story follows Elder Kevin Price, the supposed archetype of a young Mormon preparing for his two year mission. Kevin is designated to lead his classmates from the LDS Church Missionary Training Center (Provo, Utah) on the mission, with the goal of spreading the truth of the Mormon faith. All of the missionaries are anxious because they await their orders from the church on where they will spend the two-year mission. Kevin sings with zeal and unstoppable faith as he longs to be stationed in Orlando, Florida, which he believes to be paradise—part biblical, part Disney. Kevin is shattered when he finds out he has been chosen to mission in Uganda. To worsen his lot, Kevin is assigned a mission partner, Elder Arnold Cunningham, a short, round teen who is a compulsive liar as a result of his low self-esteem.
Kevin, Arnold, and the other missionaries arrive in a Ugandan village stereotypically rife with famine and AIDS victims. The missionaries find the natives difficult and unreceptive to the Mormon teachings. The natives go into explicit detail about the reality they live in, having to live with an AIDS epidemic, widespread lawlessness, seemingly permanent poverty, and the terror of being ruled by a local warlord—far removed from the tranquility of Utah. The natives’ existence instills in them a natural doubt that their condition will ever improve, and they see the missionaries attempt to convert them as self-serving, with the theology of Joseph Smith being nothing more than a whimsical fairytale, transparently used to give people a false sense of hope.
In trying to spread the faith, Kevin finds that the story supplied by Mormonism, and to a lesser extent Christianity in general, is a hoax which does not contain the great wisdom and divinity that the Bible and the Church leaders promised. This is contrasted by Arnold’s willingness to take the teachings of Mormonism and refashion them into a new theological narrative, one the natives can relate to in their miserable lives. The natives begin to accept Arnold’s interpretation of The Book of Mormon, but that interpretation is a patchwork of untruths borrowed from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and a host of other references from pop culture, comic books, and science fiction. The great irony is that Arnold is able to relay the spirit of the Mormon teachings even though he discards the boilerplate Mormon theology, replacing it with an amalgamation of pop culture references which—together—somehow retains all the symbols, themes, and virtues typical of organized religions. The lie works better than the truth for accomplishing the mission: The corollary and parallel irony is the ability of a nonsensical theology, perhaps even bold deception, to get people to improve their lives and the lives of others.
The climax of the narrative brings the church leaders to Uganda to observe the good works of their missionaries. However, when the natives are questioned about the tenants of the faith they begin spouting off jumbled tales and stories pulled from pop culture. The aldermen become irate and pronounce the mission a failure and stain upon the Church. Finally, Arnold, being the pathological liar, is able to redeem the mission by making it seem as though the natives really do know the true Mormon faith, with the misunderstanding arising from translation difficulties.
The production aspects of the The Book of Mormon were outstanding and real to the audience. At two and a half hours, there was a lot more singing than one might anticipate. The singing helped to highlight the spiritual conflicts, and certainly reinforced the theme that in order to be a Mormon you must be full of optimism and absolutely free of doubt. In some sense, the performance patronizes and mocks Mormons, but plenty of details in the play allow for sympathy, too—they are portrayed as bizarrely decent people, who have a spiritual mission to improve the world and pick up a few converts along the way.
In the ten years since 9/11, the American government’s willingness to sacrifice civil liberties to preserve security has provoked fierce debate. On September 15, just a few days after nationwide ceremonies commemorated the tenth anniversary of the attacks, a panel of Brooklyn Law School faculty gathered at the Subotnick Center to discuss what freedoms Americans had lost in the war on terror. At the same time, the discussion celebrated the publication of Professor Susan Herman’s new book, Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Professor Herman, who is also the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, began the discussion by sharing excerpts from her book, illustrating the dramatic impact this legislation has had on the day-to-day lives of Americans. “We started all this change in law after 9/11 without debate or discussion. There are lots of reasons to ask questions … and now is the time to start doing that.”
Professor Derek Bambauer shared his thoughts on the impact 9/11 has had on the Internet: “The Internet before 9/11 was the domain of Pets.com, and after 9/11 one of WikiLeaks.” And the ripple effect goes far beyond our Internet domains. As Professor Maryellen Fullerton explained, in commenting on a controversial provision in the Patriot Act that outlaws providing “material support” to a terrorist organization, “the standards of material support have defined terrorist organizations so broadly that almost any group may fall into that category.” Prof. Fullerton remarked that regardless of the immense impact these “material support” laws have had on immigration and the funding of non-profit groups worldwide, unfortunately, “Congress has shown no interest in narrowing the law.”
Professor Nelson Tebbe acted as moderator and discussed the effects of anti-terrorist legislation on the free exercise of religion: “How easy is it to tell if government is targeting terrorists or Muslims? … The power of [Professor Herman’s] book is that she shows through stories of real people … how difficult it is to [distinguish] between these two things.”
The well-attended discussion sparked a stimulating conversation between panel members as well as members of the audience. “It was a great mix of perspectives on a topic we’ve already heard so much about,” said Jason Stewart, ’13.
Sean Hymowitz, ’12, asked the panelists to comment on the TSA Secure Flights program. “Is it going to get better? Because I don’t like taking my shoes off,” he said, generating laughs from the audience. Prof. Herman responded by pointing out that she covered that topic in her book, and referred specifically to one story of one twenty-two year old who was interrogated for five hours by a TSA official because he carried Arabic-English flashcards onto the plane.
As the discussion drew to a close, Interim Dean Michael Gerber asked a poignant question: is there any optimistic outlook we can take from the current trend? The panelists looked to one another before Professor Bambauer spoke up: “It’s hard to tell anything but a pessimistic story … but perhaps our lens is not broad enough yet.” To this Professor Herman added, “if we can’t change these laws while we have a former Constitutional Law professor in office… it’s not going to happen. This doesn’t mean change isn’t possible [but] politicians are not going to do it. It’s up to us.”
Listen to a podcast with Prof. Herman about her new book, courtesy of the BLS Library Blog.