Last week, the Huffington Post ran an article comparing the Book of Mormon musical to the Qur’an burning by the (my words here, not HP) crazy pastor in Florida. While I appreciate what they were trying to do and I do like the attitude they had toward the Church’s reaction to the musical, I felt that the comparison was inappropriate. Marilyn Manson tearing up a copy of the Book of Mormon in Salt Lake is a more accurate comparison to the (again, my words) crazy pastor burning the Qur’an. So what’s the comparison to the Book of Mormon musical?
Enter Salman Rushdie.
And while I don’t ever think it’s in any way acceptable to condemn someone to death based on their artistic work, I do understand why they felt the way they did. (I also recognize that this was a political move on the part of Ayatollah Khomeini, but the people in Britain and other parts of the world who responded in kind weren’t thinking politically.) It’s weird to see multiple sides of an issue where people demand you take just one.
Which brings me back to this lovely (slight sarcasm) new musical. I’ve been thinking about the two in relation to each other, and I’m having a tricky time resolving both. We took a quiz in my literature class in which our professor asked us if the content of The Satanic Verses is inescapably blasphemous. I responded as follows:
Since we first discussed Rushdie and the fatwa, I have been struggling with the motivations that Rushdie had for writing this novel. He has said in interviews that he didn’t mean to intentionally offend anyone but he did want to talk about subjects that are often considered taboo. While I understand that and think that it is absolutely worthwhile to discuss issues people often think are off-limits, I can still see how some of the scenes in the novel can be very offensive to some devout Muslims and considered blasphemous. Is the controversy inescapable? No. Any time you engage a religious topic there will be controversy; he just sparked a lot more controversy than other writers have. But is his project inescapably blasphemous? I’m not so sure about that one.
Roughly a month ago, a musical opened in New York called The Book of Mormon. Written by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q, it has been described by critics as very funny and entertaining, but also highly irreverent. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (very commonly known as the Mormon Church), and it has been interesting to me to hear about this musical and read reviews while also reading Satanic Verses. From what I have read and seen, I suspect that I would find parts of this musical very funny and clever; however, I am certain I would also find many parts of it completely inappropriate and perhaps offensive. I struggle with the idea of free speech and using whatever material you want in an artistic endeavor—ideas that I strongly support—at the expense of a group of people, particularly if it’s a group I am a part of or care for. And while I do support people’s freedom to express themselves, I also feel like there are boundaries that should not be crossed (how to define them is another matter entirely).
The only way I’ve been able to (partially) resolve this issue for myself is to look at the writer’s intent. In an interview on the Daily Show (starts at minute 14), the writers of The Book of Mormon mentioned how they do poke fun at everyone, but ultimately they are just interested in Mormons and the culture and it was their way of saying something like, “Hey, we don’t understand them at all but we think they’re fascinating.” Their intent wasn’t malicious or destructive in any way, and so even though I’m sure I would see some of the content as irreverent and inappropriate, I am willing to let those things go because they were not trying to cause harm. However, I am not so sure about Rushdie’s intent. Some of the scenes hit too close to home, especially considering he was a part of the Muslim world and knows how important Muhammad and the Qur’an are. His writing is very powerful, and it might have lost some of its power if it were not so blasphemous. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it right.
So, Salman, I do love you, but I’m still on the fence. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love The Satanic Verses, because I did. And you all should read it.
As for the Book of Mormon musical, I think I’ve landed pretty much in line with the Church’s response. But they usually get things spot on.