The Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City, Heaven & Imagination

I have a confession to make.

I am a Book of Mormon junkie.

No, no no! Not THAT Book of Mormon. Not at all!

I’m a huge fan of the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.

Yes, I know it is quite crude–it’s got lots of bad language, inappropriate references to God, seedy plot lines, and goes too far sometimes (just like its cousin South Park). But I love the idea of the story: two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their Mormon evangelistic ‘mission’ and are intent on making a difference in the village in which they find themselves. What follows is a comedy of epic proportions as they misunderstand the villagers and the villagers fall for their ’embellished’ story of the American prophet (complete with Brigham Young’s nose being turned into a female anatomical part by a God who also cured Joseph Smith’s AIDS).

But what I love the most is the way the writers have so cleverly sent up a religious system and its eccentricities. From the Opening number ‘Hello’ which introduces the missionaries to the approved doorstep dialogue to the positive, forward-looking ‘Tomorrow is a Latter Day,’ I laugh (until I cry, maybe) at the way strange Mormon beliefs are woven into common, stereotypical Christian creed (Speaking of creed, have a look at the performance of ‘I Believe’ from this year’s Tony Awards here. This is The Book of Mormon’s equivalent to The Sound of Music’s ‘I Have Confidence.’ Even the phrasing is the same. Language warning.)

Here’s one of my favourite parts: the song Sal Tlay Ka Siti (read: ‘Salt Lake City’)

My mama once told me of a place
With waterfalls and unicorns flying
Where there was no suffering, no pain
Where there was laughter instead of dying
I always thought she’d made it up
To comfort me in times of pain
But now I know that place is real
Now I know its name

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Not just a story mama told
But a village in Ooh-Tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat-meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case
The war-lords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat!

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
Where flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
It’s as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

And I’ll bet the people are open-minded
And don’t care who you’ve been
And all I hope is that when I find it
I’m able to fit in
Will I fit in?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
A land of hope and joy
And if I want to get there
I just have to follow that white boy
You were right, mama
You didn’t lie
The place is real
And I’m gonna fly!
I’m on way

Soon life won’t be so shitty
Now salvation has a name
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

How misguided! How totally misinformed, naive, ignorant . . . trusting.

I want to grab her and give her a good shake and tell her ‘That’s not real. They’re having you on.’ Oh, it’s just a play. (Ahem…) Moving on…

Yet . . . how many times have I (and possibly you too?) heard the same sort of talk?

Not about Salt Lake City. No. Another ‘city’—or at least another place which has entered the imagination of many as being a city.

Streets of gold.

Gates of pearl.

Mansions.

Paradise.

Home of the tree of life.

Nothing made by humans contained therein.

Angels.

White robes.

Bejewelled crowns.

Choirs singing.

No pain, sadness, death.

Unicorns.

(OK. I haven’t actually heard that last one . . .)

How much is real? How much is interpretation of the little we think is in the Bible? How much is fiction?

Are we like the natives in The Book of Mormon (I’m still talking about the musical) who have envisioned paradise from the context of their own experience: unlimited goat meat and vitamin shots, friendly war-lords, and a ever-present Red Cross with plenty of flour for everyone? Is what we imagine paradise to be simply an extension of our own human experience? This is possible, else how could we comprehend it without some point of reference?

I think the afterlife must be something far better, far beyond our grandest imagination, so fully not-of-this-world that we cannot even imagine such a place. I won’t know this with any certainty in this life because I can’t talk to someone who has been there. There are no eyewitnesses. (And don’t start with St John because I haven’t got the time to go through the historical context and Jewish apocalyptic nature of The Revelation.)

Truth is, we all want to believe that there is some utopian paradise, a place like Sal Tlay Ka Siti. We all wish to be in a place of joy, peace and prosperity. And we have a name for that: heaven. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But perhaps we should be less dogmatic about the picture we paint for ourselves and more at rest in the knowledge that God has promised to be with us now and into eternity–and that is enough. We do not know with any certainty what form eternity in God will take. But we trust.

And whatever it is, it surely will be better than Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

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