The Book of Mormon: Contemporary Christian Album of 2011
Contemporary Christian Music could take a page or two out of The Book of Mormon.
If you’re not familiar with the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, beware: what follows contains heresy and spoilers, and I’m not sure which is worse.
As a straight white thirtysomething Christian, I’m required by law to be a U2 fan. Over the summer, my wife and I cheerfully paid a large sum of money to see U2’s impressive stadium show. From our seats on the roof of the stadium, we had a great view of that famous U2 contraption that served as the stage’s centerpiece, a gigantic spaceship/TV that magnified the band and broadcast all sorts of Important Messages about Social Issues. And God bless ‘em -- did you know U2 sprung Burmese dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of prison? At least I think that’s how it went down. There she was on the spaceship’s screen, wishing us well and thanking us for raising our voices for justice, while Bono stretched his arms wide and sang “Walk On”. True, “Walk On” has zero cool guitar parts, but in that moment we were all citizens of the world.
I know, I know, it’s counterproductive to make fun of U2 for being huge and using their power for good. So I’ve come to an important conclusion: U2 are not vainglorious idolaters who deserve to be burned at the stake, but they could use a good poke in the eye with a stick. (Metaphorically.) And Christians should be doing the poking! After all, we have to put up with U2’s most annoying and hilarious baggage. You know how many times I’ve heard good-hearted brothers and sisters favorably compare U2’s stadium shows, attended almost exclusively by white people with money, to worship services? Or how for 20 years we’ve been bombarded by Contemporary Christian Music that rips off the boys’ chiming guitars and soaring vocals? Much as I enjoy seeing Bono serenade seas of white faces with the MLK anthem “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, I bristle at how he equates acts of charity with grand gestures, as though he won’t settle for anything less than freeing Nobel laureates or saving Africa. Bono’s good works do not inspire me to dream bigger; they make me feel like I’m out on the stadium roof, looking in. But since we Christians are too nice to call him on this, leave it to Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon:
“Just like Bono, I am Africa! I flew in here and became one with this land.”
Later in the song comes this stirring group affirmation, sung by a bunch of white people:
“Africans are African, but we are Africa!”
“I Am Africa” is just one of the many Mormon songs that skewers mainstream Christian hangups. Right off the bat in “Hello!”, as young Latter Day Saints practice their evangelizing (while sounding like the telephone kids in Bye Bye Birdie), Cunningham (Josh Gad) spazzes through his own improvised sales pitch -- “I’ve got a free book written by JESUS!” -- only to receive the reprimand, “No, no, Elder Cunningham! That is NOT how we do it! Just stick to the approved dialogue.” For anyone who’s ever sat through an evangelism seminar or applied Best Practices to develop their church’s Mission Statement, this uncomfortable corporate-ese should hit close to home.
The show goes on to depict Cunningham and his higher-achieving counterpart, Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), departing on a mission trip to a cartoon Uganda. Because Mormon was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q), these Ugandans have a great ear for catchy tunes and English profanity. In words that modernize (let’s say) the Old Testament’s tradition of lament, the Ugandans hurl curses at God for condemning them to a world teeming with AIDS, warlords, baby rape, female genital mutilation, and maggots in their scrotums. Naturally, they sing their rage to a chipper faux-African tune straight from The Lion King.
In the softshoe shuffle “Turn It Off”, our nice Mormon boys celebrate the proud Christian tradition of repressing their problems and desires. (“Imagine that your brain is filled with tiny boxes / Then find the box that’s gay and CRUSH IT!”) During a whiplash Church history on “All American Prophet”, the angel Moroni tells Joseph Smith to hide his famous golden plates, even if doing so causes people to question the plates’ existence. Recalling Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor parable, the angel explains, “This is sort of what God is going for.” Meanwhile, the butt rocker “Man Up” evokes neckless Mars Hill pastor and mixed martial arts fan Mark Driscoll -- and, by extension, those Christians who fetishize the sufferings of Jesus (“He crawled up on that cross and he stuck it out...”). And that’s just Act One!
Here’s where I make two uncomfortable admissions. I haven’t actually seen the Broadway show of Mormon, Tony’s Best Musical 2011, because I’m a cheap Lutheran and I understand they make you pay to get in. Also, I don’t know much about Mormonism’s indigenous American take on Christianity. For thumbnail history, listening to “All American Prophet” and “I Believe” is way more entertaining than Wikipedizing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The songs make me want to read the actual Book of Mormon, just to see how all that crazy stuff about different planets is worded. (This should please Church leadership.) But for spiritual insight and prophetic discomfort, no 2011 album spoke to my faith like The Book of Mormon cast recording.
That wasn’t for lack of trying. The year’s Christian music was rich in spiritual insight, at least for those fortunate enough to find the good stuff. On their self-titled comeback album, bouzouki folk virtuosos Burlap to Cashmere crystallized their visions into melodies that stay on your lips. Gungor’s Ghosts Upon the Earth is an epic consideration of humanity’s need for God and the most endearing all-hands-on-deck Bible School program this side of Sufjan Stevens. The brutal Beautiful Monster, by St. Louis rapper and ex-hustler Thi’sl, wove gunshot noise and thug tropes into pinpoint social critique, and made me re-evaluate Gucci Mane. And for all its beauty, Mary Mary’s Something Big was messy with the paradoxes that define Christian life. Secular artists as diverse as Paul Simon, Brad Paisley, Alexi Murdoch, and David Banner contemplated the divine and asked their audiences to follow. Richard Smallwood and the Blind Boys of Alabama turned out excellent gospel sets, while Cortni, the Ambassador, Deitrick Haddon, and Tedashii made exciting singles. Somebody must have released a good worship music album. (Faith is the conviction of things not seen.)
But man, The Book of Mormon... In a sense, Lopez, Parker, and Stone have the same privileged relationship to Christianity that Jon Stewart has to journalism. They’ve carved out spaces where they can entertain masses by throwing stones at the “real” discourse. They have the freedom to cuss and break the rules. If they manage to slip in some excellent points that the mainstream won’t allow itself, that’s just icing on the cake that they’re having and eating too. Also worth noting, their work is wildly successful -- it’s not like these guys are wild-eyed prophets living in desert poverty. I don’t want to oversell the spiritual import of a show that’s essentially one hilarious provocation after another. On the other hand, maybe that’s a clue to where more CCM should aim. Little of the year’s CCM provoked anyone, and only Thi’sl, Mary Mary, and some of the general market guys made me laugh at their audacity. While hilarity isn’t something I’d expect from the mystics of the bunch (BtoC, Gungor), if you’ve made it your job to describe how God is working in everyday life, which often sucks, you should try to communicate the comedy of our human predicament. If Depeche Mode have taught us anything, it’s that God’s got a sick sense of humor.
Act Two is where Mormon really gets audacious. Elder Price escapes Uganda for sunny Orlando, leaving the spazzy Cunningham to convert his jaded, baby-raping flock. And wouldn’t you know it? Cunningham succeeds by “Making Things Up Again” -- essentially writing a whole new Book of Cunningham, in which Joseph Smith learns to rape frogs instead of babies, and evil genital mutilator Brigham Young gets his face turned into a clitoris. Ewoks and Boba Fett play important roles. You can debate the merits of improving Ugandans’ lives by lying to them; such a tactic would be more patronizing than anything Bono’s ever done. But Mormon isn’t a prescription for real life. It’s more a thought experiment. Just after Cunningham starts lying to the Ugandans by adding Ewoks to his holy book, Price sings about his “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”. He imagines himself consigned to eternal torment for lying about cookies and abandoning his mission. Price’s vision will ring true to anyone raised in a fundamentalist faith, but it’s no more Biblical than the Ewoks. Mormon makes the excellent point that believers constantly write our own books of faith, that we’re all “Making Things Up Again”, and that no orthodoxy will speak beyond its original audience without becoming perverted. Faith is about how you handle the perversions.
Near the end of the show, the converted Ugandans create an endearing Bible school program for the visiting Church leadership. You can imagine the leadership’s response to all this talk of frog sex and clit faces. (Seriously -- I haven’t seen the show, so I have to imagine.) The Book of Mormon’s question is, how do we respond when someone adds to our orthodoxy, whatever it might be? If we worship traditional country music (for instance), can we welcome Taylor Swift or Lady Antebellum? If we’re lifelong Protestants, what do we say when Mormons want to join Christianity’s mainstream, or become President? And if we’re CCM fans, how do we handle a musical that speaks seriously to our faith while cracking profane jokes? CCM artists should challenge themselves to ask these kinds of questions every time out.