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: