Atheist Lessons in Faith

The Book of MormonThis past weekend, Jason and I finally got away for a trip with just the two of us. We went to Chicago, where we gorged ourselves on fantastic food, listened to some great live music, spent an hour in the cold waiting to go into an aquarium, and just enjoyed being a couple for a few days.

One of the reasons we chose Chicago for our destination is because Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s acclaimed musical The Book of Mormon is playing there. We are both huge fans of their work and have been looking forward to seeing this show for a long time. I love Parker and Stone because absolutely nothing is sacred to them, which means they are brutally honest in everything they write. On the other hand, nothing is sacred to them, which means when I say they are brutal, I mean, they are brutal.

I was very familiar with the soundtrack before we went to see the show and couldn’t wait to hear the songs performed live with the costumes and dancing. And while I have no qualms about explicit language, I knew that their song Hasa Diga Eebowai would make me squirm. Any song that is a both a figurative and literal middle finger to God is likely to make anyone who holds to any vestiges of faith uncomfortable. A friend told me that she cringe-laughed when she saw it, and that was my reaction as well.

However, later in the show, they come back to this song. And the second time, it made me cry.

At the point in the story where the song is reprised, the lead female character has realized that everything that she believed about faith was a lie, made up by the missionary Arnold Cunningham. She had believed that there was a place that she and her village could go to escape the horrors of life in Uganda, from the AIDS epidemic to female mutilation to murderous war lords. She had believed that Sal Tlay Ka Siti was her salvation. When she realized that it wasn’t an actual place and the people who had promised her this salvation were leaving, she was crushed and her response was one of profound sadness and anger and she sang the song of her people – one that cursed a God who was uninvolved, unloving.

I didn’t expect to have such an emotional response to that, but friends, I couldn’t help but to well up a little bit.

Watching someone’s loss of faith, even if it’s just a character in a comedic musical, can still be painful to behold.

I have written before that one of the most formidable parts about being in an interfaith marriage is determining how to present faith to our children. And this musical reminded me once again that it’s not simply our differences in beliefs that make this tricky, but rather that I’ve seen the process of my husband’s loss of faith and have experienced my own painful evolution of faith.

Sometimes I think that in our desire to present a God that is powerful, we actually do the opposite. We present someone who is unable to stretch to accommodate our doubts. We present someone who is unable to deal with our anger. We present someone who is unable to love in a truly unconditional way. We search for a powerful God, but we end up with one who is limited in all of the ways that we are.

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t rely on people because they will let me down, and I should only rely on God. But when the God that I’m presented with is only able to offer the same level of love that I can get from people, a God who has the same prejudices as people, I find myself wanting to curse that God. And it’s not a God that I want to present to my children.

Because the musical is written by atheists, the point seems to be that any version of God is one that is made up, whether it’s the perfectly reasonable tenets of the faith held to by the good Mormon missionary (or presumably any devout person) or the ridiculous additions of the not-so-good Mormon missionary. And while I do believe that there is value in faith, I will remain wary of a faith that creates a God who is portrayed as weak if coupled with a bigger, more inclusive love.

In one of the last lines of the musical, the song changes from “Hasa diga, Eebowai!” to “Ma ha nei bu, Eebowai!” When people saw that they were accepted and loved, the song could move from one of cursing to one of thanksgiving. Parker and Stone didn’t become people of faith during the writing of this musical, but their work here is one that people of faith should study.

If we are going to share about a powerful love, we need to consider just how powerful we are allowing that love to be. 

  • r.

    Parker and Stone’s faith relationship is more complicated than simple atheism (they’re basically atheists, but interviews are more eloquent than “there’s no god, deal”). One of the things I love about South Park is their ability to skewer those sacred cows, but often show multiple viewpoints, and somewhere in the middle show some real insight or offer a profound reflection. And honestly, as vicious as they can be, it’s rare they are *hateful* towards a topic, especially one as important to people as religion. “All About Mormons” pulls no punches on how dumb Parker & Stone think the Joseph Smith/golden plate story is… BUT at the same time present a very positive view of what it means to be Mormon for the family in the story. The kid’s ending rejoinder to Stan is amazing. I’m glad “Book of Mormon” showcases their heart in the midst of profanin’ and satirizin.’

    That said, they fuckin’ hate Scientologists, and oh mannnn… old news here, but “Trapped in the Closet” is amazing. And the list goes on; “Go God Go!”, “Cartoon Wars”, “Passion of the Jew”, “Easter Special”…

    • Alise Wright

      Like I said, I like Parker & Stone because NOTHING is sacred to them. I think they’re better than everyone else in the game because absolutely nothing is off limits to them. Because they are willing to put everything (!!!) on trial, I think they are better able to tease out what is good. Or at least, make it easier for us to find what is good as they mock. I have nothing but mad love for those guys and this show made me love them even more. (And it doesn’t hurt that Parker KICKS ASS at writing musicals. They were completely robbed at the Oscars back in the day.)

  • Kristen Howerton

    Such good words. I found the ending surprisingly uplifting as well.

  • Matt Appling

    Fantastic, Alise. Trey and Matt are two of the most astute commentators on our culture precisely because they have no sacred cows. Their commentary is skewering, and they show no favorites.

    On another note, you said you’ve been encouraged not to rely on people, but on God because people will disappoint you. But there are plenty of people in the Bible who were disappointed by God. I’ve been disappointed by God! The book of Hebrews says “Look at all these people who followed God and didn’t get to see the fulfillment of the promises!” That sounds disappointing to me.

    I guess I’ve come through disappointment with God with the fresh realization that God’s plans are bigger than my life, and that is precisely why I can’t always see where He is going. :)

    Thanks again, Alise.