Friday, April 20, 2012

Musical Spotlight: The Book of Mormon

I figured it was about time I did a musical spotlight, especially since I've been wanting to write something about this for a couple weeks now and just hadn't gotten around to it yet.

In the last month or so I've become completely enamored with this cast recording. It's funny, but makes a lot of really good points about religion in general. I'm not a Mormon, but this show is definitely not just about the Mormon belief - a lot of its best songs relate very strongly to growing up in the Protestant Christian church as well.

So let me share six of my favorite songs (you get one more than normal because I couldn't narrow it down any further) and what they say to me about religious belief.

In show order:

1. Turn It Off
Although the song names "turning it off" as a "cool little Mormon trick," this is definitely something I hear talked about in the Christian circles I've been in. This song about simply turning off unwanted feelings is extremely cheerful, because of course it's not that big a deal. It's never really that difficult to suppress these things - and it's never an unhealthy way of dealing with it.

Also, I'm kind of a sucker for hearing tap dancing in music. I don't even have to see it. I just have to hear it. No idea why. It just makes me happy.

2. Making Things Up Again
Warning: This one has some very graphic language, so if you're uncomfortable with that kind of thing, you definitely should not listen.

The idea behind this song is that a Mormon missionary keeps finding that people are running into problems he doesn't know the scriptural answers to... so he improvises. He makes up a few scriptures of his own that directly apply to those people. That's OK, right? Well, his conscience (a chorus which includes hobbits and Yoda) disagrees. He wrestles back and forth with them for awhile.

I like how earnest the guy is about just wanting to help people. He can't find a way to connect the holy writings to what they're doing, but he knows it's wrong. This song just makes me think of people who have such good intentions and then violate all the rules to accomplish what they want to accomplish. Although you know it's wrong, you kinda sympathize with them and hope that they accomplish their goals, and then fix their approach later.

3. Spooky Mormon Hell Dream
Warning: This one also has some crude language, some of which is used in a context in which it might be especially... religiously offensive.

I suspect that most people who grew up in a religion which mentioned hell have had at least one dream about going to hell. I certainly did as a child. While I do find this song very funny because of that, I also think it points to a real problem in the Christian church: using hell as a motivator. In this song, the character is prodded toward righteousness not out of an desire to actually do the right thing, but because he envisions that if he doesn't, he will go to hell (where everybody will proclaim him to be even worse than Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer). Although the song handles this in a funny way (if a somewhat irreverent one), I'm pretty sure I've heard some of these same thoughts come from church sermons, with all the emphasis being on do this or you will go to hell. I'm very, very against using fear as primary motivation, especially for something as important to me as God, and this song points to the results of doing exactly that.

4. I Believe
I have a few Mormon friends, and this is the one that is probably going to be most off-putting to them, because while the other songs poke fun at religion in general, this one is pretty much about Mormon-specific beliefs. But I think it does point to an overall truth about religion as well.

The basic idea of the song is of a Mormon singing about LDS-specific beliefs in very simplistic terms. He ends every verse with, "I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes." These beliefs are simplified for comedic effect, and, as I don't hold any of these beliefs myself, I admit I *do* find them funny. However, it's that last line that makes it a more interesting song - the contrast of these seemingly bizarre beliefs connected with the idea of simple faith. First of all, this song reminds me that some of my own beliefs certainly sound bizarre and even silly to people who don't share them. And, secondly, it reminds me that it's important to think through those bizarre beliefs instead of just blindly accepting them. Do I believe most of the traditional church teachings - miracles and such? Yes, I do. But I've thought through them, rather than being someone who "just believes."

The comedy in the song comes from stating all these unusual beliefs and then ending it with the implication that it doesn't matter how strange these beliefs are, they believe them just because they believe them. The beliefs I hold, I hold because I have doubted them, thought through them, resolved my issues with them, and chosen to hold onto them. And that's what this song says to me. Besides just making me laugh, it reminds me that I shouldn't be someone who "just believes," but someone who fights to truly understand what they believe and why.

5. Baptize Me
Sometimes the church has NO IDEA WHATSOEVER what to do with sex and romantic relationships. Heh. Well, of course, people in general sometimes don't know what to do with that either... but adding in religion can complicate it further. I've heard people argue that you shouldn't have close opposite-sex friendships because you might develop feelings for them (which is apparently a bad thing, even if you're both available), and I've heard people argue that it is my duty as a Christian woman to get married ASAP and start cranking out li'l Christian babies. Either way, it tends to be one of the Main Big Things people teach and preach on all the time, so people who grow up in the church sometimes end up with a weird meshing in their minds of religion and sex that leaves them not really sure how to deal with attraction, especially physical attraction, because it's been either pushed or squelched.

That's what I love about this song - on the surface it's all about actual church baptism, but there are all these undercurrents of attraction, unacknowledged, masked behind purity and "religionese." Also, it's kind of hilarious, although full of innuendo.

6. I Am Africa
Just a fun one to close things off, in honor of all the kids who go off on church mission trips and come back claiming some sort of deep intimate knowledge of the culture they spent a week with. Now they speak and think like them and view Christ in the purer, more primitive manner of their brothers and sisters in other countries. (I swore there was a Stuff Christians Like post about this somewhere and it was hilarious, but I can't find it now. Maybe it was only in the book.)

Hands down the best line: "Africans are African, but we are Africa."

Phew. Next time I return to the Musical Spotlight feature, I'm going to pick something a little less controversial. Legally Blonde, perhaps.

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