Faith in a post-development world?

By James Copestake

Still from the Book of Mormon

Still from the Book of Mormon

Musicals aren’t really my thing, but reviews of The Book of Mormon were intriguing and we went. It lived up to its billing: fast, foot-tapping fun; irreverent and unrestrained in lampooning zealous religiosity and revelling in our bodily obsessions. But what, you may ask, has it got to do with international development? The answer – whether by accident or design (or perhaps what we development junkies now call ‘problem driven iterative adaptation’) – is a surprising amount. A couple of freshly faced young Americans set out for two years of missionary work. Kevin Price exemplifies one – admittedly rather quirky – post-colonial vision of modernity, incorporating both his idealisation of Orlando, Florida, and the vanity behind his own ambition to save others. His irritation at the social inadequacies of his companion Arnold Cunningham, plus fleeting references to the “sad bits” of American history hint at the hidden violence behind such visions. Arriving in Northern Uganda they encounter poverty, AIDs, female genital mutilation, the murderous warlord General Butt-Fucking-Naked and other “maggots-in-my-scrotum” realities that don’t quite fit with their Lion King expectations of Africa. The prospect of converting any of the villagers is doomed until Arnold starts improvising around the official mission school script. In doing so he befriends Nabulungi, and through her connects with her neighbours’ creative energy, dreams of earthly paradise and critical appreciation of potent metaphor. His message (incorporating characters from Tolkien to Star Wars) is appropriated into a play that the villagers perform for a visiting party of the Latter Day Church hierarchy. Excommunication swiftly follows. But the two young missionaries elect to stay on, and in the birth of a new religion the musical reasserts faith in universal human values, celebrates the triumph of hope over experience, and hints at the possibility of solidarity between rich and poor.

Of course, this is hopelessly romantic. Youthful exuberance is rarely so resilient, nor are Ugandan thugs likely to retreat so fast from the threat of a lesbian invasion. Notwithstanding a link up with Comic Relief, the show can be viewed as the sexually and racially charged musical commodification of an exotic neo-colonial encounter to entertain and extract serious cash from affluent global cosmopolitans in London and New York. But what hope is there for confronting global cock-ups (religious, neo-liberal or other) without art, and art that is confident and ambitious enough to tango with capitalism rather than cower from it? (On such a challenge to the art – and the artist themselves – I am reminded of Lewis Hyde’s The Giftfor whom a work of art is essentially a gift and not a commodity; read the Guradian review of the book here). Music and satire can speak truth to the comfortable as well as to the poor and powerful, confronting us not only with poverty in northern Uganda but also with the failings, courage, contradictions and creative quirkiness of our own inner Arnolds and Nabulungis. It won’t transform the world, and it hasn’t even changed my life (yet!), but The Book of Mormon got me going more than the World Cup final did.

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