There’s a bit of a Mormon moment right now. Think me crazy, but I rather like the sound of a life in which men address each other as “elder” and the womenfolk call each other “sister”—or, when circumstances warrant, “sisterwives.” There’s a respect lost when complete strangers who obtain your credit card take to addressing you by your first name. When the HBO series Big Love brought Mormons into our living rooms, I also rather warmed to the idea of receiving testimony. Though Big Love never quite made the notion clear, I think receiving testimony is a moment when what you want to do gets heavenly sanction.
This line of thought accelerated last week on seeing The Book of Mormon, the most sought-after ticket on Broadway. The plot line is an account set to song and dance of some Mormon missionaries taking their message to Uganda. Doesn’t take a high IQ to predict whose side the writers (credits include the animated series South Park) and audience are on. Let’s just say it isn’t God’s. The play is a musical with superb performances, bad music and largely adolescent lyrics. It’s guiltily watchable, rather like the sloth of reading a bad book at the beach on a hot day. Given the sky-high prices of the tickets (don’t ask, but scalpers are getting nearly four-digit prices for back-of-theatre seats), you’d think the audience would be a tad more finicky over the song Hasa Diga Eebowai, loosely translated as “F–k you God,” rather than screaming with joy over the endless repetition of that banal scatology.
Making fun of Mormons is easy stuff. Mainstream Christians and Jews have the mists of time to cushion any inspection of their peculiar stories.We’ve got accustomed to the Red Sea parting, Lazarus rising. It was all so long ago. The patina of antiquity, backed up by great religious institutions reaching back a thousand years or more, bequeaths respectability. Christian congregations don’t sneer when their minister reads, “Behold there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.” That’s the Gospel according to Matthew. But when your prophet is not named Matthew but Joseph Smith and his revelation takes place in the upstate New York of 1823 during a visit from the angel Moroni, who tells him of religious writings buried on gold plates along with two stones called the Urim and the Thummim, the message sounds rather Lord of the Rings.
When a small-time African warlord shoved the Book of Mormon up a missionary’s ass to audience laughter, I took refuge in considering my own beliefs. I had lost my faith at a very inconvenient moment in synagogue during our high holy days. For those who are not religious, this is a meaningless occurrence; for you who believe, I need not explain. For me, it was an incomplete spiritual plasmapheresis—what I believed was drained and nothing infused in return.
In his book The Quest for God, the historian and practising Catholic Paul Johnson asserts that “denial of God has no human appeal. We shrink from it.” Most people, he writes, are believers or agnostics. If so, I fell into a small number of atheists—acceptable in modern times, even celebrated by chunks of Marxist academia at the best universities, unlike earlier times when poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for it. But faith can grow on barren lands. On an Air Canada flight, exhausted after a visit to my husband before his return to prison, my heart did one of its slowdowns. You drift in and out of blacking out. A bit unnerving as the mind fights losing consciousness and the head fears it might not awaken. This time in Air Canada seat 23D was different. Instead of darkness, there was radiance. I knew.
I’ll spare readers any ghastly faith-chat and only say that there was a sense of being gathered into a community of believers. The Orthodox rabbi with whom I had been talking before the flight was now flying about, Chagall-like, in my “vision,” comforting me as I happily faced death and beyond. In actuality, he was sitting a dozen rows away eating his kosher snack. If ecstasy is a feeling in which the gravel and stones accumulated in the vessels of the heart and mind are suddenly removed to be replaced by the embrace of some unknowable other universe, then this was ecstasy. A cynic might argue it was a poorly pressurized cabin and lack of oxygen to the brain. Still, to put it in biblical terms—or in the Book of Mormon, which contains a fair chunk of the Bible sans the beauty of the King James version—I had regained that which I had lost.
True religious ecstasy is far more complex. The closest I come to even glimpsing it is through music. Contrarily, this music is usually Christian. Felix Mendelssohn’s aria from Elijah—If With All Your Hearts Ye Truly Seek Me—sends me spinning, which may explain why Orthodox Judaism avoids instrumental accompaniment to chanted prayers. It’s too misleading a route to belief, though I side with Anthony Trollope’s character, Rev. Septimus Harding, choirmaster and cellist. When faced with the strictures of Low Church evangelicals against music, Harding mused: “If there is no music, there is no mystery. If there is no mystery, there is no God. If there is no mystery, there is no faith. Have I lived for 60 years on a misunderstanding?” Moving from doubt to certainty and from fear to hope is a difficult journey. Speaking as one often marooned on shores of disbelief, you need all the help you can get.