A couple of weeks ago Thom and I saw the hit musical play The Book of Mormon at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Written by the guys who created the South Park television show, it was no surprise that the story is a hilarious and irreverent spoof on religion—the Mormon religion specifically. And while they poke fun at the origins and practices behind the Mormons and many people of faith, the real gift of the play is how metaphor and story telling play such a huge role in most of our lives whether we are aware of it or not.
The play starts with two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, Africa to convert the natives. (Sorry! Spoilers included.) The young Mormons are enthusiastically played by bright-eyed and idealistic young men who sing and dance perfectly while the audience is presented with a brief view of some of the more bizarre myths behind the religion. The outrageous performance is enhanced by the hilarious and vulgar song lyrics until everyone in the audience is either aghast or laughing. Even wackier is how the natives in “Africa” take some of the original Mormon stories and translate them into even funnier and unconventional tales until everyone in the audience is rolling in the aisles.
As a testament to the writing skills of the South Park creators, the story ends up revealing that the character’s lives are indeed transformed and uplifted by the experience—even when presented within the most shocking, often-offensive, uproarious narrative you could imagine. And at the core of the story is the power of myth and metaphor.
But what is metaphor and how does it support mythology? A simple definition of metaphor is: an idea or phrase that is used as a symbol of something else (without using words “like” or “as”). Two good examples of metaphors are: “God is love.” Or, “the Universe is a mystery.” Author Erich Vieth goes further by saying, “Metaphors are the lenses through which we view our world. In abstract fields like religion and politics, the use of metaphors isn’t just fanciful (although it can be fanciful); the use of metaphors is absolutely necessary to understand abstract concepts.”
So naturally that got me thinking about how the South Park boys could have just as easily written a musical comedy about any other religion on the planet and made it an equal success. All they would have to do is highlight some of the more bizarre myths and metaphors in any tradition, poke fun at anything that seems unusual to others, add some catchy song lyrics and energetic dancing, and there you have a hit Broadway musical.
Take the Christian religion for example. On a regular basis many followers gather to consume the body and the blood of their savior in a ritualistic manner. Meanwhile, Muslims teach that believing women should wear a veil to cover “their adornment” just to please God. In a Buddhist sect called the Mahayana’s it is believed that the Buddha went to outer space and spoke to angels called Devas who taught him special lessons before he brought the teachings back to earth.
In addition, some Orthodox Jewish sects practice a ritual called Kaparot where they take a live chicken, transfer their sins into him before slaughtering and then donate the chicken to the poor. Certain sects of the Hindu religion practice such rituals as fire walking to celebrate the goddess Sraupati Amman, or bull fighting as part of the harvest festival of Jallikattu. Just remember, in India bulls are sacred so the bull always stays alive—unfortunately those who seek to ride or tame them do not.
Therefore, if we are able to stay open, remain objective and refuse to become defensive, it is easy to see that every single spiritual and religious tradition sometimes asks us to put aside our rational thinking mind, accept the metaphors and myths it teaches, and just believe. And that is where we can often get into trouble. The late Joseph Campbell, mythologist, writer and speaker frequently warned that, “We must remember, however, that the metaphors of one historically conditioned period, and the symbols they innervate, may not speak to the persons who are living long after that historical moment and whose consciousness has been formed through altogether different experiences.”
The way I understand it, Joseph Campbell, most known for the book and television series The Power of Myth, says that metaphors and corresponding myths are the symbols and stories that people use to communicate the utterly ineffable, holy, and overwhelming mystery behind all life. The most powerful of those myths often become entire religious traditions. So while the original experience may have been something true and verifiable, the metaphors and the resulting myth surrounding the story can seem unusual and bizarre. This is especially true when the metaphors came from an earlier culture, background or era. So any one of the world’s religions that contain metaphors and myths—and Joseph Campbell believed they all do—can seem strange and bizarre to anyone who was not raised or converted to that tradition. And dogmatically true to those that were.
Joseph Campbell said, “It made me reflect that half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions… are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.” And that idea brings me back to The Book Of Mormon.
Towards the end of the performance a young Ugandan woman discovers that much of what she has been taught by the Mormon missionaries is a complete fabrication. In despair she cries to her friends that it has all been a lie. She laments that the heaven she sought—Salt Lake City—will never be part of her future. That’s when her friend comforts her by saying, “Salt Lake City isn’t an actual place. It’s an idea, a metaphor.”
That realization highlights the real genius and spirit behind the Book of Mormon. Once the characters in the play recognize that the stories they’ve been taught are a metaphor pointing to a happier life, the tale ends with them also becoming proselytizing missionaries of their own version of Mormonism. It is also likely why The Church of Latter-Day Saints isn’t fighting the performance itself. Instead, their official statement regarding the play is:
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
There is no denying that metaphors and myths of every religion can be helpful and meaningful for certain people in certain places and times. On the flip side, there is plenty of proof in the world that some of those metaphors and myths can be hurtful and destructive as well. However the biggest problems occur when, as Joseph Campbell warned against, those who follow or those who fight them forget that they were never meant to be taken literally in the first place.
There is something very attractive about the fearless ability to ridicule the ridiculous—and that’s what the writers of The Book Of Mormon have done. But instead of making their social commentary a tirade against the craziness of one religion, they bring out the underlying optimism, respectfulness and personal niceness of many who call themselves Mormon. And in true South Park fashion they poke fun at all of us for taking ourselves or the metaphors of our religions too seriously. After all, it’s SMART to remember that Salt Lake City isn’t a place—it’s a metaphor!
* Excerpt of article by Joseph Campbell