Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion
You can feel a jolt of energy surge through the audience of “The Book of Mormon” about a quarter of the way into the show’s first musical number. It’s a jolt of joy, gratitude and laughter — a confirmation that this Broadway production is going to live up to its rave reviews.
The jolts keep coming and the audience I was part of rose up at the end with a raucous standing ovation of the sort I’ve rarely seen. There are four musical numbers that are truly fantastic, and the rest of the show is clever, fast and surprisingly warm. The play is about Mormon missionaries who find themselves in an AIDS-ravaged, warlord-dominated region in Uganda. It ridicules Mormonism but not the Mormons, who are loopy but ultimately admirable.
The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.
But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.
This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.
The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.
The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon” ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.