Friday, May 20, 2011

Returned Missionary ...

First, I love NPR.

Second, I love the content of Fresh Air but I wish the host was more like Diane Rehm or Doug Fabrizio.

Anyway, the other day the creators of South Park were on the show talking about their new musical "The Book of Mormon" and the 14 Tony nominations that it's received.

It was fascinating and I laughed through the whole program. There is no doubt the pair are talented and funny comedians.

What really got my attention, though, was their fascination with missionaries. There was a lot of talk about Mormon doctrine -- whatever, I really could care less about that. Just about every Mormon I know has a different interpretation of LDS doctrine so some variation among a couple of writers wasn't anything to really interest me. There was also a lot of talk about musicals and the way they kept telling their writers and composers to "Make it more Disney! More Rodgers and Hammerstein! More Mormon! Really cheeze it up!" and when the writers or composers would say, "Well which one do you want?" they would smile knowingly and say, "It's all just different words for the same thing." That was funny, but not all that interesting because I already knew that -- Mormon culture is cheezy, it's pageant-like (heck, the Church itself pays for and produces several pageants every summer), and it's definitely Disney-like ... we are all about princesses and happily ever afters. And all in all, they sincerely meant it as a compliment. The world could use a little more optimism they said, but it would be a comedic shame not to capitalize on all the possibilities for mockery there.

But the missionary thing ... their thoughts piqued my interest. This idea that 18-year-olds from sheltered, predominantly white Salt Lake City, Utah would have anything to offer starving Africans was ridiculous to them. And they're right ... it is a little absurd. But is it really that much more absurd than 18-year-olds from predominantly white Denver or Pittsburgh thinking they will single-handedly changing the world joining the Peace Corps? Or going with a local Baptist church to build churches in Mexico? Or heck, a 25-year-old from Utah County thinking she'll make a difference by working on women's rights legal work in Samoa for six weeks? What's wrong with wanting to change the world even if your efforts don't quite live up to expectations? I think it takes a pretty serious cynic to think it would be better for all those 18-year-olds to just sit back in Utah and decide not to do anything with the knowledge they think they have. And was the culture shock the two are sure that every missionary experiences ... do they really think it's because Mormon kids have never lived outside of LDS-land before? From the way they describe the musical and the situations the pair of missionaries find themselves in, it sounds like ANY white kid from suburbia ... whether Salt Lake, Seattle, or San Antonio, would find themselves just as shell shocked by virtue of the fact they are middle class and American. Uganda isn't different from Utah because the majority religion isn't LDS, it's different because it's Uganda. I really enjoyed the interview but I was so perplexed why they thought putting two Mormon kids in a foreign country was funny simply because the kids were Mormon -- as if it was the religious difference that created all the dramatic conflict. As if it wouldn't have been equally strange or incongruous to drop two white, middle class Protestant kids in the middle of Africa? I get that the story might be funny ... I just didn't understand their reasoning for why it was funny.

The pair explained there are two great premises of their play that everyone can relate to. First, missions are a great "coming of age" story ... one of the main reasons they chose the Mormon missions as the backdrop for their story. What's better than watching two young people out in the world away from their parents on their own for the first time find their way? It's classic Broadway. And second, missions provide a great backdrop for the classic "fish out of water" storyline. Two kids from suburban America coming face to face for the first time with disease, and hunger, and war in a culture very foreign to them.

I agreed with them completely on those two points. I grew up a lot on my mission. I didn't go to Uganda. I didn't even leave the country. But I still had my eyes opened in ways I didn't expect. Who knew that there were places in the U.S. with literacy rates as low as other third world countries or where poverty could exist just miles from a thriving American city? What I didn't agree with was their conclusions: Missions are a waste of time for the missionary, the Church, and the communities they are sent to.

They expressed to the host of the show what a shame it was that these young naive missionaries get so excited and then show up in another country and realize that everything they thought was wrong and their preaching is pointless and they go home either deflated, disillusioned, or even more pious than when they left and nothing has been gained by anyone. They made it sound like coming face to face with things like hunger, disease, or war were bad things and that the Mormon kids would have been better off just staying home. For all their gentle ribbing of Mormon naivety at the beginning of the interview and the "Utah bubble," they were oddly not on board with any young Mormon actually escaping the bubble for awhile. If Mormons are too sheltered, what would be better than throwing them into third world countries or making them learn foreign languages or interact with others from a different culture? Why wouldn't sending our young men and women out to see things be good? Not just for the Church, but for them as individuals? And so what if they don't change the world or convert anyone while they're there? If religion is the sham they say it is, they should be grateful no converting occurred, but at least recognize that all the service they did along the way was at least worthwhile.

I have no issue with the two writers thinking that all religions are just interesting cultural studies in human delusion or fascination with a non-existent power. I'm woman enough to admit my beliefs are totally based on a spiritual belief and not in any kind of scientific logic. However, people aren't going to give up believing in God just because the creators of South Park told them to, so as long as they are hanging onto their "delusions" why not do some good with it along the way? I think they'd be hard pressed to find any other religion with a portion of their American believers who know as many languages and have an appreciation for as many cultures as the Mormons.

I really liked this response printed in the Washington Post:

I loved the part about them becoming ambassadors. The returned missionaries I know who served in other countries ADORE the places they served. They often have flags from the country hanging in their apartments. They still cook exotic foods to remind them of the two years they spent from home. They watch the news carefully for news about the places they served. Jon Huntsman, who is anything but an Orthodox Mormon, ended up returning to the culture he gained appreciation for on his mission as a real American ambassador. You might think the preaching is a waste of time, but can anyone really argue that sending young people, regardless of their faith, out into another culture for a couple of years is really useless? Well, apparently the South Park writers can. They made a whole musical out of it. Your thoughts?

(You can listen to the full interview HERE.)


Ru said...

(As a preface, I totally want to go see The Book of Mormon musical, so maybe I'm already a biased-pants.)

I like Matt Stone and Trey Parker - I think they're super clever people. But on some level, I don't think they're comfortable reaching conclusions with their jokes. Everything is an endless satire. For example, if The Book of Mormon musical is supposed to be about how the missionaries don't accomplish anything, why is the final song a reprise of the missionaries' first song -- all the villagers lives have become better and they are now proselyting themselves? (I've listened to the soundtrack already - and while it sounds like one of the two missionaries had his faith severely shaken, both of them remain committed to helping others.) Is the joke that only these two missionaries had a relevant experience? If so, no one is going to get that joke. I think it's probably more like how Maureen Dowd interpreted in her review:

"In the end, the message is not against Mormonism but literalism: that whatever our different myths, metaphors and rituals, the real purpose of religion is to give us a higher purpose and a sense of compassion in the universe."

Or, on the flip side, David Brooks:

(Too long to quote, but basically said that all the jokes aside, there's something 'off' about a message saying 'This doesn't make a difference' when it obviously did.)

When your primary focus is telling jokes (and I'm not saying it's a bad focus) it can be hard to come to a final, serious conclusion - so while South Park even usually ends with a "serious" monologue, even that is usually a joke too.

So I think we just can't take MS and TP's thoughts on religion too seriously - for all their pontificating, I'm not sure they even want us to.

And as a random sidenote, this is one of my favorite quotes:

"On a September 2006 airing of the ABC news program Nightline, Parker articulated his position on religion. He stated that he believes there is knowledge that humanity may not yet possess, and cautioned that it would take a long time to explain exactly what he meant by his belief in God. Parker further remarked, "Basically ... out of all the ridiculous religion stories which are greatly, wonderfully ridiculous — the silliest one I've ever heard is, 'Yeah ... there's this big giant universe and it's expanding, it's all gonna collapse on itself and we're all just here just 'cause ... just 'cause'. That, to me, is the most ridiculous explanation ever."

(This may be the worst comment ever ... so random. Haha, sorry.)

jdust said...

Very interesting write up. Thanks. I enjoyed reading it.

Di said...

I like what Ru said, but also I think part of the assumption (whether correct or not) is that Mormons are naive. And also that someone from small-town Idaho is probably more naive than a white, middle-class Protestant from Pittsburgh.

I personally see a lot of value in the mission aside from whatever religious value people gain. I think that taking (most) people outside their comfort zones is a good thing. I think exposure to people who look and/or think differently than you do is helpful and almost all missionaries come back with a little more respect for other places.

Miranda said...

I told Di that I think that Mormons (especially Utah ones) should have their own version of rumspringa so they get some exposure to new things.

Maybe I'm a little bitter but I really don't like guy pre-missionaries. I found they were real jerks and full of themselves before they left and I always enjoyed Tue smackdown they got when they finally got to their missions. Maybe that's just because the guy I was dating did.

Anyway, here's the article my brother wrote:

Miranda said...

*the* smackdown. Damn autocorrect.