Monday, June 13, 2011

Decoding "I Believe" from the Musical "The Book of Mormon"

This particular entry is less a story and more a service project directed at you non-Mormon lovers of musical theatre. Mormons are big (one might say immense) on performing service. For my act of service, I'll decode the song "I Believe" from The Book of Mormon.

The Tony Awards were presented last night, and The Book of Mormon won a slew of awards, including the one for best new musical. Since there is so much profanity in The Book of Mormon, there was a lot of guessing before the awards about which number from the show would be presented as the showcase song during the televised ceremony. It turned out to be "I Believe," a touchingly funny song sung by Elder Price after he reclaims his faith and recommits himself to his missionary work. As is true for many things in the musical, this particular number is a lot more enjoyable (and a lot funnier) if you understand the references. The creators of the show (who are not themselves Mormon) clearly did their homework, and in this particular entry I'll do yours for you (think of it as reciprocal service - yours to me can be sharing this post). Below are some of the more inaccessible lyrics from "I Believe," with explanations (and explications) straight from Sunday school (yes, Mormons have Sunday school as part of their three-hour block of meetings on Sundays).

I believe that the Lord God created the universe.
I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.
And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America.
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

The first two and last lines are pretty straightforward, but it's nonetheless worth noting that, whatever mainstream Christians may think about the soundness of Mormon doctrine, Latter-Day Saints do literally believe that God is the creator and that God sent his son, Jesus Christ, who took upon him the sins of the world and atoned for the sins of all mankind. But it's surely the third line that catches the attention of most folks. That third line is a reference to The Book of Mormon (the book), which purports to be a record of ancient Israelites who, guided by God, crossed the ocean and landed in the Americas. The book opens around 600 B.C. with a prophet by the name of Lehi (pronounced Lee-hi) who, inspired by God, leads his family out of Jerusalem to the Promised Land (that's what America is, after all). According to Mormon belief, Native Americans are in part descendents of these Israelites. Incidentally, the name of this blog you are reading comes from an L.D.S. children's song called "Book of Mormon Stories" that talks about these ancient Isrealites crossing the sea. It is sung to the beat of a pseudo-Indian (that is, Native American) drum rhythm. In retrospect, the actions that we were taught to do as we sang the lyrics when I was a child were a bit offensive. We patted our mouths quickly with one hand and held two fingers up behind our heads like feathers whenever the word "Lamanites" (prounounced "Lay-mun-ites," with the stress on the first syllable) came up in the song. Laman (Lay-mun) was a son of Lehi, and Mormons believe his tribe is the one from which Native Americans are descended.

I believe that God has a plan for all of us.
I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet.
And I believe that the current president of the church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God.
I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

The plan of which Elder Price sings is the "Plan of Salvation," a central component of Mormon theology and a mainstay of the "discussions," or lessons, that Mormon missionaries present to "investigators," or those interested in hearing about the church. The Plan of Salvation maps out where humankind was before the creation of the earth, why we come to earth, and where we might go after death. In short, there was a war in heaven, and everyone who is born on this earth chose the side of Jesus over the side of Satan (who revolted against God and his firstborn son, Jesus). Because we chose the side we did, we are born and gain bodies. We are tested here on earth by having our memories of the preexistence removed from us. If we live by faith and do our best, then we may, because of Jesus's sacrifice, have our sins atoned for us and, in a resurrected state, return to God. There are different levels of glory after this life, and the best of the best (those who end up in the highest level of glory, called the Celestial Kingdom) may continue to progress throughout eternity, until they reach Exaltation. That is, they may at some point be exalted to become gods and goddesses themselves. Mormons believe that marriage between a man and a woman is so important because only through eternal couplehood is Exaltation possible. God, a loving father, wants his children to have all that he has. Since he has created worlds (including the one we happen to live on), the most faithful of his children might, at some point in the eternities, have that opportunity as well. If exalted, Elder Price (along with his eternal companion, his wife) would in fact get more than just his own planet; he would create his own worlds, his own humankind, and his own Plan of Salvation. Mormons know about all of this because there are, since the restoration of the true church by Joseph Smith, living prophets who continue to speak to and for God. Thomas S. Monson (Mormons are big on including middle initials or middle names when referring to church leaders) is the current mouthpiece of the heavens.

I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.
You can be a Mormon, a Mormon who just believes.

In fact, people of African descent could be Mormons before 1978, so Elder Price's line to the African warlord about his ability to be a Mormon would have been true even in 1977. Before 1978 black people could be baptized into the church and attend Sunday services. But until an official church proclamation in 1978, black men could not hold the priesthood (which is a lay priesthood, meaning all worthy male members hold some office of it), and black people could not enter the temple (the place Mormons go for the most holy rituals, such as eternal marriage). In other words, those of African descent had second-class status in the eyes of the church, and the greatest promise of all, Exaltation, was not available to them. The proclamation that did away with this inequity was issued by Spencer W. Kimball (note the middle initial), who was the president (and prophet) of the church in 1978. His proclamation is included in all post-1978 editions of Doctrine and Convenants, the book that contains modern-day (or latter-day) revelations (Joseph Smith's revelations make up the vast majority of that book). Black folks were singled out because they were believed to be the cursed descendents of Cain. Other peoples of color were not singled out. In fact, Native Americans and Latin Americans have historically been sought out by Mormons, since it is believed that these groups have the diluted but real blood of Israel in them (see above).

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob.
I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well.
And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri.
If you believe the Lord will reveal it.
And you'll know it's all true; you'll just feel it.

Joseph Smith did teach that God, who is an exalted man, has a physical presence (one we mortals can neither see nor truly comprehend), and that the closest planet to him is one called Kolob (pronounced Coe-lob, with the stress on the first syllable). For the more precise of you out there, you should note that Joseph Smith never taught that God lives on Kolob itself. Incidentally, there's a really beautiful part of Zion National Park (in Southern Utah) that is called Kolob Canyon. If that's what heaven looks like, sign me up for some Celestial glory (but don't make me take a wife!). As for the bit about Jesus having his own planet as well, I have to admit that that particular line confounds even me. Either these non-Mormon writers know something I don't, or they just went a little overboard. I will say that Mormons believe that God created many worlds (and many universes), and that Jesus is a co-creator. So maybe it's something to do with that. And now for the really interesting part: Missouri. Yes, Joseph Smith did teach that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Jackson County, Missouri, specifically in and around the town of Independence. (Obviously the flood that Noah survived moved things around a bit, and postdiluvian Old Testament events happened in ancient Israel. So Lehi and his family were really just getting back to their roots by crossing the ocean to the Americas.) When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden they ended up in a place Joseph Smith called "Adam-Ondi-Ahman," which is in Daviess County (a few counties over). This area, which is today owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is rolling farmland with a river running through it. I went there on a church history trip as a teenager, and it was there that I first saw fireflies (there are no fireflies in Utah), so it's a pretty magical place in my memory. The name "Adam-Ondi-Ahman" is supposedly from the ancient "Adamic" language (that is, the language that Adam spoke), and its meaning is usually given as something like "the place where Adam dwelt with God." Both Independence and Adam-Ondi-Ahman were gathering spots for Mormons in the early days of the church (they were forced from place to place a lot; Missouri was particularly unkind to the Mormons, with the governor of that state declaring war on them). Mormons believe that the Saints (that is, members of the church) will again gather in Missouri when Christ returns. Independence, in Jackson County, will be the New Jerusalem (this in addition to already being the childhood home of Harry Truman). And how, might you ask, can Mormons believe all this? Well, Elder Price gives a solid missionary answer. Mormons believe that you can pray to God and ask whether these teachings are true. He'll reveal it to you through a warm feeling, and when he does you'll know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that his teachings are true. You'll know that the book of scripture he brought forward, The Book of Mormon, is the word of God. You'll want to join the church he established. And if you want to go hardcore (converts are always the worst...), you'll probably want to prepare for the Second Coming (of Jesus) by purchasing land in Missouri, which could offer an incredible return on your investment: a whole planet of your own!