Midway through the first act of “The Book of Mormon,” the acclaimed new Broadway musical, a warlord swaggers into a Ugandan village. Bedecked in ammo belts, brandishing an assault rifle, he demands surrender and announces his intent to sexually mutilate all the local women.
Trying to Relish the Big Time, Even When It Brings a Cringe (March 31, 2011) One husband, emboldened by a pair of Mormon missionaries from Utah, shouts in response, “My wife’s body is none of your business. And you are no general.” Whereupon the warlord shoots him in the head, spattering blood over one of the missionaries, Elder Price. When the lights come up in the next scene, the elder can say only, “Africa is nothing like ‘The Lion King.’ I think that movie took a lot of artistic license.”
In those few moments, careering between the lethally serious and the cheekily comic, “The Book of Mormon” does something more profound than grip its audience. It provides a sophisticated insight, one of many in the show, into the missionary experience.
For all of its lewd jokes and potty-mouth banter, “The Book of Mormon” commingles the profane and the sacred, dramatizing the culture shock, the physical danger and the theological doubts that infuse what one might call the missionary narrative. That narrative has been lived out for centuries by Western missionaries in a range of denominations, and it has been expressed in recent decades in a spectrum of art and literature.
“The Book of Mormon” forms part — admittedly a loopy and idiosyncratic part — of that corpus of work. Both the musical’s respect for faith-based idealism and its criticism of fundamentalist certitude have informed such films as Roland Joffé’s “The Mission” and Bruce Beresford’s “Black Robe,” novels including “The Call” by John Hersey and “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, as well as nonfiction accounts like “The Rebbe’s Army” by Sue Fishkoff, which is not even about Christians but the Hasidic Chabad movement’s emissaries to wayward, far-flung Jews.
“The missionary experience offers several things from a storytelling point of view,” said Steven D. Greydanus, a film critic for the National Catholic Register and Christianity Today, a magazine geared to evangelical Protestants. “There is the cross-cultural experience, an element of exoticism. There’s a chance to see characters display heroism, possibly even martyrdom. But at the same time, in some of the work, the missionary experience has been problematized with concerns about imperialism, condescension to natives, the religious arrogance of claiming to know the truth.”
Rosalie Beck, a professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., spent the early 1970s in South Vietnam providing support services to Baptist missionaries. For both academic and personal reasons since then, she has kept an informed eye on missionary film and fiction.
“Many works get it right and wrong at the same time,” she wrote in an e-mail. “More thoughtful representations, like Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart,’ have several missionary characters. One is always the stereotypical, Bible-thumping, intolerant and insensitive person. This image is often balanced by a person who is culturally aware, caring, approachable and open to the culture in which they work.”
The creators of “The Book of Mormon” — Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the satiric cartoon series “South Park” and Robert Lopez of the Broadway musical “Avenue Q” — began mulling the Mormon religion as subject matter when they met seven years ago.
They considered and discarded the ideas of building a show around the biography of the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, or the epic battles between the Nephites and Lamanites in the actual Book of Mormon. Instead, they felt drawn to the missionaries. Mr. Parker had first heard their stories from Mormon classmates in high school; as an adult traveling abroad, he habitually chatted with missionaries he spotted in their trademark suits and nametags.
Mr. Lopez was taken with the built-in dramatic potential. “It’s a coming-of-age story and a buddy story,” he said. “They’re 19, coming from a sheltered and naïve place, being sent into the real world. Hilarity is built in.”
So, as the creators came to discover, was risk and challenge, in both physical and spiritual senses. While interviewing returned missionaries in Salt Lake City, the three writers heard one recount seeing a villager stoned to death in Cambodia. He was so shaken that he left Asia entirely for an assignment elsewhere.
The young man’s recollection now has been transmuted into the shooting in Act I. And a detail that theatergoers take as a laugh line — the warlord calls himself Gen. Butt Naked, with a profane adjective not suitable here — is more like a grim hyperlink. As the show’s creators knew, there was an actual Gen. Butt Naked (given name: Milton Blahyi) whose troops killed as many as 20,000 people in Liberia’s civil war.
Viewed only in their vanilla innocence, Mormon missionaries can be “an easy bunch to laugh at, especially to a cynical adult audience,” Mr. Stone wrote in an e-mail.
He continued, “We thought if we could tell the story from inside their experience, then those cynical laughs could be harnessed for greater power.”
In its wiggy way, “The Book of Mormon” also depicts the faith crisis that strikes missionaries when their theological commonplaces prove irrelevant to the problems at hand: civil war, AIDS, poverty, genital disfigurement of women. Elder Price’s partner, Elder Cunningham, winds up improvising a version of Mormon text that addresses the issues, and, coincidentally, leads a visiting Mormon supervisor to fire him.
Where “The Book of Mormon” went genially, other artists have delved in a more critical way. Both the novel and the film versions of “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” by Peter Matthiessen have missionaries bringing ruin onto the indigenous people they purport to help. In Ms. Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible,” a missionary in Congo embodies what she called “the arrogance and misunderstanding that have characterized Western interventions in postcolonial Africa.”
But perhaps because she spent time there as a doctor’s daughter, and perhaps because her novel drew in part on missionary memoirs, Ms. Kingsolver was able to come to a complicated view of her protagonist and the variations on his type in other art and literature.
“It’s probably safe to say artists are intrigued by evangelical people of all kinds,” she put it. “Passion is the ultimate subject, isn’t it? And extremes are irresistible. It’s a great challenge to create a character who is simultaneously charismatic and repellent.”