Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blasphemy and The Book of Mormon

The highly anticipated Broadway show The Book of Mormon opened on March 24th and has been selling out shows ever since. Before its debut late March, the musical received some negative publicity – with people claiming that the play was “blasphemous” and “boundary pushing.” The play’s masterminds – Trey Parker and Matt Stone – were the reason for most of these accusations. Parker and Stone are the creators of South Park, a popular American animated sitcom often accused of offending various religious practices and beliefs.

After its opening show in March, The Book of Mormon received rave reviews, and did not stir the pot as much as many had anticipated. Rather than viciously mocking the Mormon faith, the musical used subtle and witty humor to take a closer look into the Mormon religion. This, in turn, has furthered conversation about religion, faith and what it means to be religious in society today. According to the show's page on broadway.com:

The Book of Mormon follows two young missionaries who are sent to Uganda to try to convert citizens to the Mormon religion… Upon their arrival in Africa, Elders Price and Cunningham learn that in a society plagued by AIDS, poverty and violence, a successful mission may not be as easy as they expected.

The show humorously assesses the Mormon faith by showing viewers what it’s like to be a Mormon living in society.

In her article for The Huffington Post, Silpa Kovvali assesses the boundary-pushing of The Book of Mormon. After viewing the show, she concludes that although the play does touch on some sensitive religious topics, it does not blatantly cross any serious lines. She said she was “entertained, not insulted” by the boundary-pushing of The Book of Mormon. She believes that the show poses tough questions that require complicated answers, and that there is no holy book “malleable or sophisticated enough” to provide these answers. Kovvali understands that a satirical musical cannot be a primary source for religious truth and understanding. The questions that religious faiths pose are too complex to be answered in a 3 hour musical. That being said, Kovvali appreciates the questions that The Book of Mormon suggests. She says:

How can someone armed solely with his scripture claim to know the best way to earthly salvation? Isn't it cruel in its recklessness to promote the notion that serious problems can be solved through religious belief, which after all can't fill empty stomachs or exterminate the maggots in one's scrotum?

For Kovvali, The Book of Mormon “humanized a religious minority that is often subject to mean-spirited parody and immature, unclever humor…” Instead of blatant name-calling and offensive religious slurs, Trey Parker and Matt Stone cleverly poked fun the Mormon religion, and showed their audience how it can often be tough to strictly abide to a particular faith such and Mormonism.

As we have seen in class, the concept of blasphemy is tricky to deal with from a legal perspective. The potential controversy that surrounded The Book of Mormon before its debut reminds us that religious topics are frequently debated once an issue gets the attention of the public. It also poses many questions involving the Constitution and the ever-evolving relationship that exists between church and state in the United States. Questions for discussion include: 1. Had The Book of Mormon been more blasphemous and offensive, should it have been allowed on Broadway? 2. Where do we draw the line legally with cases involving blasphemy today? Should a line exist at all? 3. Do the victims of blasphemy deserve a say when their faith is directly offended? 4. Should we allow complete freedom of speech regarding blasphemy cases, or should we protect the rights of those offended?

In my opinion, The Book of Mormon has had a positive effect on the often uncomfortable conversation that occurs between people of different faiths. There will always be controversy when people express what they believe in. What Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shown us is that, if done in the right way, we can all express our particular religious preferences without any legal conflict or controversy. Of course, blatant acts of blasphemy should still be reprimanded, but I believe that in order to promote religious freedom and tolerance, there needs to be communication between those of different faiths. The Book of Mormon, in my opinion, provides us with a wonderful way to communicate. The irony around the concept of blasphemy and The Book of Mormon is that three of the most controversial figures in entertainment today have created a show that, rather than being distasteful and offensive, promotes a civilized discussion regarding faith and religion in America, and proves that religion need not be a topic of such controversy in our country today.

9 comments:

Harry R. said...

I feel that the issue of blasphemy as regards this play should not directly control its success. Regardless of the extremity of the play, that does not mean that it should not be allowed on Broadway. There are many different movies, books, and plays which may be called blasphemous, but that should not restrict their stage-time. Were the show too offensive, Broadway would not have shown it or nobody would see it and the movie would fade away. Even so, just because a movie is termed "blasphemous" does not mean it has any less rights than other movies.

PamelaR said...

It seems like there's virtually no constitutional issue at stake here. While plays or productions which exhibit blasphemous or religion-mocking themes may offend some, as we all know, there's no constitutional right to not be offended. There's nothing in the constitution that would suggest that Broadway, a private organization, is bound from producing offensive plays, or even plays that endorse a religion-- they have a right to just as much as anyone has a right to make fun of a religion at a dinner party. If the government started producing plays or movies, that would be a completely different story.

Kathryn M. said...

In the United States, blasphemy laws are referred to within state legislature or statutes; however, one could argue that at the federal level, a law against blasphemy would be contrary to the First Amendment’s assurance of prohibiting freedom of speech and press. Moreover, there are no notable federal laws which protect against religious insult. Broadway is also a privately owned corporation; therefore, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, writers of the Book of Mormon, should not be burdened by a “compelling state interest” to prevent selling their show. Similarly, the Supreme Court ruled that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church had a right to vocalize their beliefs, even within an inappropriate and offensive environment. This case exemplifies that the constitution does not protect against intentional emotional distress in which the plaintiff is not employed in federal or state funded position.

Jean A said...

I agree with Andrew in the view that the Broadway show The Book of Mormon should not be considered controversial or blasphemous. Broadway is a private organization, thus is subject to different standards. It takes a lot to get a show onto Broadway, so like Harry said, if there was any extremely offensive subject matter in this play, Broadway would have either altered the show or never put it on in the first place. People are entitled to their own opinions after viewing the show, but just because one person is offended does not constitute the entire show as blasphemous.

TNTbo said...

This show should certainly be considered controversial, it is meant to make some people feel uncomfortable, that is the point of satirical humor. Just because it is controversial, does not make it blasphemous however. "Of Mice and Men" is controversial, but it is still allowed to be read. Unfortunately, hurting someone's feelings is not against the law, and in this case there is no violation. The writers have their right to free speech and this is how they choose to express their sense of humor.
Unfortunately, this does give others the right to express their beliefs against other minority groups in the country, but that is a risk we are willing to take in our country.

BryceS said...

This is a complicated issue because while the LDS have their freedom of religion, Trey Parker and Matt Stone also have their freedom of speech. As mentioned in a previous comment, there is no law for hurting someone’s feelings. I have not seen the show myself, but critics have pointed out that this show simply “pokes fun” at the LDS church rather than an over slam on the faith. That being said, I do not think this play, although it may be blasphemous to some, is legally violating anyone or religion’s rights. Trey Parker and Matt Stone effectively utilize their right to freedom of speech without infringing upon the civil rights of others.

David P said...

I think that although there is no law directly preventing blasphemy or the protection of parties who blaspheme under their freedom of speech, it could be argued that if the government took action against individuals or groups who mock/criticize/blaspheme against religions, that is a type of establishment. By protecting a religion from negative press, the government is indirectly advocating it. The government would either have to take an accommodationist position of preventing negative press against any and all religions, or take a seperationist position (which it seems they do) and allow negative attention towards all religions.

Christy said...

I think David has a good point, if the government were to protect a particular religion from being offended, it would indirectly advocate it. I do not think this is an issue of blasphemy but rather and issue of offense, which does not have legal backing. There are plenty of other religion/faith bashing books and TV shows. There is no reason why Parker and Stone's Broadway play should be an exception. The creators of The Book of Mormom are solely expressing their freedom of speech through the arts.

Marissa V said...

I agree that there is this play should not be seen as unconstitutional. There is no law that permits satirical humor. It seems the aim of the play is to make people laugh and not take things so seriously. If people get offended by a Broadway play, they simply need to lighten up. As Jean mentioned, Broadway is a private organization. Private organizations are held to different standards then public entities. I am not saying that Broadway can premiere plays that are greatly offensive or controversial but they are allowed to use their own discretion of where to draw the fine line.