Godspell. Book of Mormon. Me

18 Jun

1.

I’ve always felt closest to God during musicals. There’s something about the rousing majesty of a great performance that stirs my soul. There’s a healing power in the right kind of musical theatre, and I know it sounds silly but I don’t care.

I just saw The Book of Mormon and I can’t stop thinking about it. Or humming the songs. It’s a wonderful experience, a raging blast of raucous joy and a (misunderstood) testament to the power of faith.

The last play that got to me with such ecstatic spiritual power was Godspell.

I’ve seen Godspell five or six times. It’s the Book of Matthew as acted by urban, possibly homeless, clowns, and it captures—at the time I thought uniquely—the soaring, rousing, sexual feeling, a prolonged adrenaline rush towards the eternal sun that is spiritual belief.

Godspell is mocked, derided, and often dismissed. But it’s a superb, magical play.[1] It pulls off a tricky thing—it separates the Gospel of Matthew from the context of the Bible. So there’s no wrathful God of the Old Testament, no slaughter, plagues, assassinations, animal sacrifices and so on. Because of this, the play feels like a feel-good, free-loving version of Christianity—the love and good works without the steel and blood and spikes. The play doesn’t soft-pedal Christian theology, but rather infuses it with a warm, gentle glow.

And killer songs. The best is probably “Bless the Lord.”

2.

I’ve dedicated myself to Christ, publicly, multiple times. It’s a feeling of great liberation, of sliding through a tunnel of light. Euphoria, sunbeams and spinning galaxies—followed by serenity and a deep sense of purpose. There’s nothing else quite like it.

My relationship with Jesus didn’t last. The predictable forces of history, literature, philosophy and science pummeled my belief relentlessly. At 20, I fought back, re-upped church, stayed away from parties and booze. I prayed. I even joined a Bible study. But eventually I let Jesus go. I didn’t have an epiphany. I didn’t wake up an unbeliever. I just lost my religious beliefs a little at a time. And then, only a dull ache and (rarer and rarer) occasional guilt.

God didn’t last much longer. A few years of straining against the certainty that it was all smoke and mirrors. A yearning for some cosmic certainty of good in the universe. Some painful soul-searching. And plenty of existential angst.

Godspell cast a spell on me, burrowing into my slackening faith. The play stifled my cynicism and disbelief for over a year. It even got me back into church, if only for a little while. The play reignited my passion for Christ.

It didn’t last. I’m left with the gnaw, the absence of the divine, a sense of (measured) peace about death, and occasional rumblings of Gnostic mysticism.

I was probably happier—if also more haunted, worried, anxious, less capable and more unstable—as a believer. For me, the darkness and the light went together.

3.

The Book of Mormon is aggressive, raunchy, hilarious. It’s also the most profound evocation of Tertullian’s assertion: “I believe because it is absurd.”

Mormon follows Price and Cunningham, two teenage Mormon missionaries (but it’s really about all religious believers), on their two-year mission to Uganda. Cunningham is an inveterate liar and socially awkward mess who knows nothing about Mormonism. But Cunningham has an intrinsic understanding of the value of big lies. Price is handsome, driven, and schooled in the church, but he’s blind to the actual needs of real people. Price wants to be important; Cunningham just wants to help. When confronted with the violent reality of a tiny Ugandan village beset by an outbreak of AIDS, immense poverty, and a vicious warlord, Price wilts. Cunningham responds by trying to help, only his head is so full of useless pop culture he begins filling the villagers heads with his own form of Mormonism, a mish mash of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and so on. It’s lies upon lies, but the villagers love it. And, strangely, through their belief in Cunningham’s lies, they begin to find peace and solace, healing and contentment. It’s a cynical, bitter lesson, and yet beautiful. The Book of Mormon offers a radical vision of religion. Lie if it helps people; believe in nonsense if it makes you happy; persevere in the face of overwhelming evidence. Just don’t hurt anyone.

The best song is probably “I Believe.” It sums up the plays essence: belief is ridiculous, but important and sublime.

The play has been characterized by its profane and nasty humor. I found it profoundly moving. The reprise of the play’s silliest and most offensive song—only this time after suffering and loss of faith—was one of the most moving theatre experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not ashamed to admit it; my face was wet with tears.

Godspell is a celebration of belief. The Book of Mormon is, too. I’m (almost) tempted to go back to church.

Almost.


[1] The film doesn’t do it justice, which is often the case with musicals.

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