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'Book of Mormon' musical: Humorous hazing or modern minstrel show? National faith leaders consider impact

In the aftermath of "The Book of Mormon's" triumphant night at Broadway's Tony Awards last Sunday, a number of national observers have been considering the sociological implications of an entertainment phenomenon that makes fun of faith while at the same time seeming to embrace it.

The formula worked. The musical has raked in nearly $15 million in ticket sales since March, according to the Los Angeles Times, and both ticket prices and demand for tickets have increased since the play took home nine Tonys. Tickets now retail for between $155 and $477.

In Wednesday's "On Faith" forum in the Washington Post, the question "Is Faith Funny?" was explored by nine respondents from different religious and philosophical backgrounds. Several of the writers seem to espouse the view that "The Book of Mormon" provides people of faith with a healthy opportunity to laugh at themselves.

"There are many reasons to like the play," writes Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, "but the most interesting is that it figures out how to laugh with religion, not at it.

"Faith needs to be able to laugh at itself, and so do the faithful," Rabbi Hirschfield continues. "That happens far too rarely, and when it does, the net effect is largely positive for both the faith and the faithful who can do so. 'The Book of Mormon's' Tony Awards could be a triumph not only for a particular play, but for faith in general, if believers actually have enough faith in the faiths they follow to laugh at what they love even as they continue to love it."

Susan Brooks Thislethwaite, a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, likens the offense taken by some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to "The Book of Mormon" to the sometimes-offensive comments made to women in the workplace.

"When some woman complains about the sexist humor, she's ridiculed. 'Can't you take a joke?'" Thislethwait writes. "Mormons in American society are in pretty much the same position as women in the workplace. They're a minority, but they're gaining in visibility and power. They are now the object of humor because they're moving from margin to center and that makes some people uncomfortable. Hence, the ridicule.

"Note to Mormons: Welcome to the American mainstream. Now, in order to join this fraternity, you need to go through the hazing."

According to Max Carter, a Quaker who is director of the Friends Center at Guilford College, believes that all of the attention the LDS Church is receiving as a result of "The Book of Mormon" production "will probably garner it increased respect, increased visibility and not a little sympathy."

"The question," Carter continued, "is where the line is between acceptable humor and inappropriate attacks on a religion in the guise of humor. There are no easy answers to that one, not only because not everyone's tastes in humor are the same, but also because not everyone feels that religion should be given a 'pass' in terms of being subject to the same blistering humor that most other aspects of life are."

In Carter's opinion, "humor should be respectful even while being critical, should not play into hurtful and even dangerous prejudices, and should provide an opportunity for innocent entertainment and even instruction."

A different point of view was offered by John Mark Reynolds, a professor of philosophy at Biola University and director of the Torrey Honors Institute. According to Reynolds, "theater has an ugly record of pandering to the prejudices of ticket buyers. Minstrel shows produced catchy music and made New Yorkers laugh, but they were shameful and wrong. 'The Book of Mormon' is a minstrel show for our present age, with Mormons as the joke.

"Ugly plays did not by themselves produce the Klan or keep some Americans from voting for African-Americans," he continued. "Original sin was enough for that. But minstrel shows did give racism an artistic and comedic whitewash. When Americans were hurt by the cruel stereotypes, they were told it was 'just a joke' and were painted as petty for not laughing along."

Sadly, Reynolds believes that "The Book of Mormon" will "pander to our prejudices and treat our Mormon neighbors as we would never wish to be treated. Some Americans will allow it to confirm unthinking prejudice, while cowardly Mormons will applaud it hoping for crumbs of respectability.

"Meanwhile, the actual Mormons in our midst will keep paying taxes, making strong families with children, and dying to protect the rights of a decayed and decadent theater 'elite.'"