Sunday, October 6, 2013

Making Things Up Again (Arnold)

My apologies for the long silence. I have been neck-deep in the job search and preparing for conferences, but that’s no excuse. This particular piece has been rattling around in my head since July, and I somehow never got around to finishing it. Bad blogger!

This summer, I finally got a chance to see The Book of Mormon musical live, after listening to the soundtrack since the day it came out. It did not disappoint, and while it is filthy—just filthy—it also includes several of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on stage. Possibly in any medium.

But more than that, the play has a lot of really relevant (and teachable) things to say about religion. Their vulgarity notwithstanding, Parker and Stone have a remarkably deft and subtle hand when it comes to people’s beliefs, evinced by the fact that the CJCLDS (bless their really polite hearts), rather than condemning the lampoon, bought up ads in the Playbill (“The book is always better!”). The overall theme of the show is remarkably pro-religion (albeit anti-orthodoxy and anti-dogmatism), with a deep respect for the power of belief to improve lives.

Which brings me to my main point. The rest of this entry contains MAJOR SPOILERS for the show, so if you haven’t seen it or heard the soundtrack, I advise you to do so before going any further. I’m giving away the ending, and it’s better if you don’t see it coming.

(Cut for spoilers, naughty words, and deep theological insight)

Still here? OK.

As the second act begins, the endearingly inept Elder Arnold Cunningham has been abandoned in Uganda by his mission partner, Elder Price. Elder Cunningham (who got bored before ever finishing the Book of Mormon himself) finds himself at a complete loss to make a book about lost Israelite tribes in America relevant to a village of people whose main concerns are AIDS, dysentery, and female genital mutilation. After quickly realizing that the “Blackening of the Lamenites!” wasn’t a good place to start, Elder Cunningham finally does what he does best.

He starts making things up:

GOTSWANA: This is all very interesting, but women have to be circumcised if that’s what the General wants! 
ELDER CUNNINGHAM: No, no, doing that to a lady is definitely against God’s will! 
GOTSWANA: How do you know?! Christ never said nothin’ ‘bout no clitoris! 
ELDER CUNNINGHAM: ... Yes! Yes he did!  
ELDER CUNNINGHAM:  “In ancient New York, three men were about to cut off a Mormon woman’s……...clitoris. But...right before they did, Jesus had... Boba Fett turn ‘em into frogs! […] For a clitoris is holy amongst ALL things, said he!”¹
When he starts to be haunted by visions of his father (and Joseph Smith. And the angel Moroni. And hobbits. And Lt. Uhura. Really. Just see it.) for being a “fibbing Fran,” Elder Cunninham finds his resolve and sings:
I’m making things up again...kind of,
But this time, it’s helping
A dozen people!
It’s nothing so bad, because this time,
I’m not committing a sin,
Just by making things up again…right?!
I think this has some fascinating implications for questions of pseudepigraphy and text production. The once-traditional view among critical scholars (especially those with apologetic investments in the received canon) was to excuse the (often blatant) use of assumed names by some authors in the Bible on the grounds that the authors represented (for instance) the “school of Isaiah,” and didn’t consider their ideas their own, but belonging to their “school.”

In more recent years, many scholars (most notably perhaps Bart Ehrman) have pointed out that writing under another’s name was condemned in ancient sources (religious and otherwise) in much the same terms it is today, and accusations of false attribution were indeed used to subvert the authority of contested scriptures.

I think Elder Cunningham presents a third way: not completely innocent, but not bald-faced fraud, either. Religious leaders, faced with a pressing need from their community, appropriated authority from respected figures for the greater good. I can certainly see the insertion of the Pericope Adulterae into John’s Gospel when some early Christian was faced with the challenge “Christ never said nothin’ ‘bout stoning no adulteress!” Similarly, the pastoral epistles are generally thought to have been a response to a need for clearer practical guidance for church governance than Paul’s authentic letters provided, and 2 Peter clearly results from a need to allay people’s worries that the world didn’t end. (Cause... check it out!)

In the play, the villagers accept what Elder Cunningham tells them (although, in a piece of post-modern rhetorical judo, they reveal they always knew the magical AIDS-frogs were a metaphor…), and by the end, they are going door-to-door preaching about the Book of Arnold. Elder Cunningham’s intention was not to create a new scripture or subvert his religion. He wasn’t trying to pass off his words as scripture for his own gain. He was just trying to give some come comfort and guidance to people in need. And it works! The village is helped by the faith and sense of purpose he provides, even redeeming evil warlord General Butt-Fucking-Naked. (No, really, just go see the show.) Arnold Cunningham is, at worst, a pious fraud. And I think we can extend a similar generosity to biblical pseudepigraphy as well.

This is why I think Ehrman’s insistence on calling pseudepigrapha “forged,” while not technically incorrect, conveys the wrong impression. To most people, a forger is somebody who signs other people’s names to checks, or sells fake artwork for personal gain. Some cases of biblical pseudepigraphy may fit this category (e.g., when used to reinforce the authority of specific groups), but I am willing to give the authors the benefit of the doubt.

Because, let’s face it, once the idea of inspired, authoritative texts took hold (evinced by the very practice of pseudepigraphy), everyone writing religious literature knew they were making things up (with the possible exception of a few books written in genuine ecstatic states). Even if the authors believed what they were saying was true (or True), they knew that all the words weren’t coming directly from God.² But they were also aware of the potential that their words would be understood as having divine sanction. (Paul even cops to as much more than once.) Is making up words and putting them in Moses’ mouth so different from redacting two received traditions about him into a single story, then claiming the final product contains the words of Moses? Only by degrees, I would argue.

If The Book of Mormon had a G.I. Joe, knowing-is-half-the-battle lesson to teach us, it’s that it doesn’t matter if a religious text is a fraud. They’re all frauds, in one sense or another. What matters is the positive effect the scripture has on human lives. That’s probably why the LDS was so accepting of the musical: any intelligent Mormon realizes that their scripture can’t hold up to too much historical scrutiny (“Reformed Egyptian”? Really?). But, as the Mormon kid Gary said in the South Park episode “All About the Mormons,” that’s not the point:

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

¹ Amen.

² Nor did Homer really had muses singing in his ear—unless you want to go down the bicameralism rabbit-hole.

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