I take you back to the fall of 1986, where I’m living in a tiny dormitory one the second floor of Marks Hall for Deans Scholars on the campus of the University of Southern California.
Across the hall lived a gaggle of very loud film students, and it was very hard for them to find any privacy, especially in matters of luuuv, if you know what I mean. One guy would constantly bring the phone – pre-cordless era, of course- into the hallway to whisper sweet telecommunicated nothings into his girlfriend’s ear. The problem was that he usually leaned up against my door, which is where my the end of my bed was, along with my head most of the time. So I heard every bit of his often lurid conversations, much to my inexperienced embarrassment.
One night, I heard the conversation proceeding as usual, except every time luuuv matters came up, the person on the other end of the line wanted to change the subject to religion. The guy in the hall was clearly an atheist, and he kept offering up reasons why religion was silly, why the Gospels in the New Testament conflicted with each other and were historically unreliable, and why the idea of all of us descending from a single Adam and Eve from some garden in Africa was absurd on its face. By the time he got to that point, the conversation sounded something like this.
“Oh, you don’t think the Garden of Eden was in Africa, then?”
“Well, so where do you think it was?”
Yep. I knew he had a Mormon on the other line.
Mormons actually believe this, and we’re often mocked for it. Except that if you believe the Garden of Eden really existed and was actually a place and not just a metaphor, then why is Jackson County, Missouri any more ridiculous than Addis Ababa or some other far flung location? (If it makes you feel better, we don’t think it was called Independence or Jackson County back then. As far as we know, the Garden of Eden was unincorporated.)
The problem, then, is the idea of what Charles Dickens called “angels in the age of railways.” The distance of antiquity allows people to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, but the proximity of the now makes it very difficult for people to believe that a modern Moses could part anything but his hair. That kind of silliness is what makes it very easy to make the Mormons look ridiculous in light of modernity, which is one of the reasons why the rancid Book of Mormon musical is such a comedy smash.
I’ve said much about the Book of Mormon musical on this blog – see here and here – but I thought I’d take a moment to get more specific. See, there’s much in the musical that’s offensive to decent people of all faiths – who else wants to sing along to that catchy ditty titled “F@#% You, God?” – but the one song designed to hit Mormons squarely between the eyes is the rousing anthem titled “I Believe,” which is designed to show that all Mormons are gullible idiots who have talked themselves into swallowing angels in the age of the Bullet Train.
The song actually starts off well, with a prologue that parodies The Sound of Music’s “I Have Confidence” with lines like “A warlord who shoots people in the face? What’s so scary about that?” It takes a wrong turn at the chorus, which is where the pseudo-missionary starts listing his catechism of stupidity.
I believe that the Lord God created the universe…
OK, fine so far.
I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins…
Even better! Something to shut the “Mormons aren’t Christians” people up. But then we get to the third-time-pays-for-all punchline…
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America…
Hmmm. That’s followed by the all-purpose summation:
I am a Mormon
And a Mormon just believes.
Ha ha! What a silly thing to believe! Golly, them Mormons is a hoot. Do they actually believe this Jews-in-Sailboats stuff? (And haven’t the ever ridden the Monorail at Disneyland?)
Well, here’s the deal. We do believe that, pretty much. (Quibbles: They were Israelites from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, not Jews; they came to the Western Hemisphere, but not the USA specifically.)
So we have three ideas: God creating the heavens and the earth; Jesus suffering and dying for the sins of all humanity, and sailing Jews on the way to Pittsburgh.
One of these things is not like the other.
The first two of those ideas guide my life on a daily basis. Comparatively, and to the extent that it’s true, the third is little more than trivia. Of course, the structure of the song gets a huge laugh by implying that Idea #3 is at least as important, if not more so, than Ideas 1 and 2.
You can make any faith look ridiculous using the same formula.
Consider this one:
I believe that the Lord God created the universe…
And I believe that one day the Messiah will come to deliver us…
And I believe that one day’s supply of oil fueled eight day’s worth of lamps and therefore guided the Maccabees to a military victory…
I am a Hebrew
And Hebrews just believe.
Ha ha! Those zany, kooky Jewish folk! (It also works with Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists – the whole enchilada. It’s especially effective with Scientologists. Just toss a reference to Xenu in there. Comedy gold!)
The song then tells us that “You cannot just believe part way/You have to believe in it all.” Again, the implication is that we not only have to believe all this nonsense, we have to believe it without perspective or emphasis. We ought to spend at least as much time thinking and talking about ancient Semitic sailboats as we do about Christ’s sacrifice.
But we don’t. From my point of view, we’re the only ones who approach this religion thing with consistency. We believe that God existed before railways, and that He still exists afterward. We believe that in all years of time, He interacts with His children and never leaves him alone. If that makes me a target for mockery, the same way it did to the folks in the pre-railway age, then I’m in good company.
(There’s more of the song to pick apart, but I’m about to fall asleep. So consider this one of those two-part, “To Be Continued” sort of dealies…)