A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I got a chance to spend the night in San Francisco and see the play The Book of Mormon. The guys who created South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, wrote The Book of Mormon with the genius Robert Lopez who was behind the Broadway show Avenue Q. For those who have never heard about The Book of Mormon, the musical centers around two Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to convert the people of a very poor, war torn village. One of the missionaries, Elder Kevin Price, is upset that all of his dedication to the faith failed to get him sent to be a missionary in Orlando, home of Disneyworld. Elder Arnold Cunningham is a not-so-bright kind of fellow who is also compulsive liar and is picked to be Elder Price’s partner in Uganda. It is clear from the start that Elder Price sees this mission to Uganda as a proving ground for what a good Mormon he is while for Elder Cunningham, the thrill of this mission is a best pal kind of friendship with his mission partner. Hilarity and singing ensue.
Elder Price is quickly frustrated with the people of the village for their lack of desire in being converted. Living in Uganda is hard and there are many challenges in daily life so they have no interest in hearing about the Mormon religion. When Elder Price realizes the missionaries who have been in Uganda for a while have yet to baptize anyone, he is further discouraged. When Elder Cunningham starts talking to the villager Nabalungi about Mormonism, he is surprised by her interest, not realizing that her true desire is not to convert but to leave Uganda for the promise of a better life in Utah (specifically in the “salta-lake-a-seety”). The problem is, as Nabalungi gets more villagers to listen to Elder Cunningham’s teachings about Mormonism, the more apparent it becomes that Arnold hasn’t really ever read the Book of Mormon and it’s scripture. In fact, he mostly makes up parts of the story to tailor it to specific problems the villagers are having. For example, they are up against a warlord who is ordering all of the women to be circumcised so Elder Cunningham tells them the Book of Mormon contains passages about the clitoris being sacred. The villagers all convert to Mormonism based on stories Elder Cunningham has taught them- stories about hope and freedom and having sex with frogs (no joke but you have to see the play to understand why).
Besides discussing what the show taught my husband and me about Mormonism, our post-show conversation centered around what we thought was the main message of the play: is the best part of religion the hope it gives the believer? If, at its basic element, religion (whichever religion) provides its followers with a hope that there is something better out there, something bigger to aspire to, but you have to have compassion for your fellow man, respect for your planet, and a desire to drop your ego, what is so bad about religion?
I understand the arguments atheists have against religion. The belief in something that cannot be proved sounds a bit uneducated and naïve. But I get a little upset when I hear atheists offer arguments against religion by stating that wars, socio-economic divides, and the persecution of one gender over another (or one religion over another) are done under God’s name. The desire for land, money, and power are all inventions of man. And this totally ignores the fact that much good happens in this world because people believe in a higher power. At it’s fundamental form, if a person is truly religious they should be peaceful and encourage that feeling in others. (See this post about why you shouldn’t argue with an atheist anyway.)
This ties into a conversation my husband Mark and I had about Santa. (For those of you reading this who are aged 10 and under, I need to ask you to stop reading. I also need to ask, why are you on THIS blog?) My husband was having slight pangs of guilt for lying to our children about the existence of Santa. We certainly try not to lie about anything else. Our children use the proper names for body parts and our six year old knows (relatively) how babies are made in that I have described the process in a way for her to understand and still be able to look mommy and daddy in the eye. We have no qualms about telling our kids something is too expensive so we won’t be buying it. Even in religion, I have told my daughter that some people think that when you die, you go to heaven, while others believe we come back to earth and still others think nothing happens. We have chosen to be as honest with our kids as much as possible, keeping discussions age appropriate but also feeling that being honest sometimes makes parenting more difficult but is worth it in the long run.
Even with all the truth telling we try to do, Santa is something we have outright lied about. Mark has felt way guiltier about this then I have. But after seeing Book of Mormon, Mark came up with the reason why he started to feel better about the deception: if Santa gives the kids hope and brings them joy, what is the harm? Sure, Santa isn’t real but the feeling the kids experience around him and when talking about him is certainly real. The happiness our daughter has when writing Santa a letter is real. The smile our son had when he approached Santa at the mall is real. This parallels the question of our belief in God. If, as we pass our time on earth, we believe in a higher power and that gives up hope, what is the harm?
We certainly don’t pull out the “don’t do anything bad because Santa is watching” card, because we don’t pull out the “don’t do anything bad because God is watching” card, either. That is not how we want our children to view either Santa or God, as voyeurs waiting for you to fail. It is through the hope and promise of trying to be good in this life, that’s how we want our children to view God. When the time comes to confirm what they will inevitably hear on the playground- that Santa is indeed a fraud- we hope our children will remember the feelings of joy they felt about Santa. Just as when they think of God, we want them to think of the joy he brings, to think about the strength their faith has brought them, and to think about the hope for a better world through God’s grace.
It is my wish for you, during the Advent season that Santa places a little hope in your stockings. Or two tickets to Book of Mormon. But mostly I wish for you to have hope.