In Praise of Imagination

It was our fifteen year-old son’s turn to choose a family outing, and he suggested that the five of us see the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon which was playing just down the road at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. Admittedly, I knew very little about the critically acclaimed musical. Through the grapevine, I’d heard that it was an edgy satire and that it contained colorful language. It was risky, but I was intrigued so I bought tickets to see a matinee.

I’m not sorry I did, but there were a few moments during the show when my husband and I exchanged concerned glances over the head of the nine-year-old seated between us. On the car ride to the theater, I’d offered one of my (in)famous lectures. I prepped them with a cursory history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I reviewed the definition of satire, and prepared everyone for the occasional F-bomb.

Yet when the Ugandan villagers welcomed two young Mormon missionaries with a rendition of Hasa Dinga Eebowai, or “F#@& You God,” replete with hand gestures to match the sentiment, I wondered if our youngest son really understood the context. When the sexual innuendo veered sharply into explicit territory, I sincerely hoped that he did not! I was appeased by the thought that at least there would be plenty to discuss at our post-theater dinner date.

After the show, we made our way through the crowd in silence, walking a few blocks to Yorkside Pizza in the crisp autumn air. Luckily the conversation began to flow once we warmed up over our pie. Everyone agreed that that the show was really funny, but it was our thirteen year-old daughter who spoke up to explain that it was obviously funny in the humorous sense, but it was also funny in the curious sense because there was more to it than what was obvious.

She was on to something, even if it was only to avoid another of my lectures, so I pressed her to say more. “The point of the show wasn’t to poke fun at what the Mormon faith is all about,” she explained, “but at those who get all hung up on the rules.” Then she made her own analogy: “If all you take away from the show is that Mormonism is stupid, then you’re no better than the guy who took a bible [from a missionary outside the theater after the show] and shouted ‘I’m holding an f-ing Book of Mormon!” Spoken like a true teenager, minus the real f-bomb. It was a proud parenting moment.

I instinctively drew in my breath, which both puffed me up with visible pride, and filled me up with hot air for the mini-lecture that was already on my lips. But it was our fifteen year-old son who interrupted me to carry the conversation further, “The only person who looked like a fool was the Senior Elder character who threatened to close the Ugandan mission down because no one there was a real Mormon.” He didn’t have any imagination, and he kind of missed the whole point.”

“Yes!” I practically shouted as I finally exhaled. The young missionary character, Elder Cunningham, used metaphor to help villagers relate to what Mormon faith is really all about: creating community by discouraging the “it’s mostly about me” mentality (which just happens to be my favorite song of the whole show). In community, the villagers found freedom from oppression and hope to empower them to make change for the better.

The littlest guy hadn’t said much yet, so I prompted him by asking if he too thought the show was funny, even if the language was crass. He replied a little tangentially, “Oh, I get it. Crass means inappropriate!” I laughed and conceded that I was a little worried about that, but good theater–like art or even faith–is meant to push us out of our comfort zones so we can imagine things in a new way.

I followed by saying that I can imagine why the villagers–whose lives were full of war, poverty, and famine–might have felt like saying, “Hasa Dinga Eedbowai.” (I decided not to overuse the f-bomb). I told him that I could think of all kinds of people, even in the bible, who might have felt that way time to time. The prophet Jonah came to mind as an example, perhaps because I saw some connection between Jonah’s story and the story of the young elders in the Book of Mormon. “Maybe even you will feel that way sometime,” I said to my son, “but I hope like the villagers and Jonah, you will be able to imagine a new and better way.”

The crowd in the restaurant began to swell as university students filed in to kick off their Saturday night festivities, and we took it as our cue to head home. The conversation in the car was lively. Mostly we talked about whose turn it was to choose the next outing and where we might go. A football game was suggested and it took personal restraint for me to keep my trap shut, for it really isn’t all about me.

Later as I was tucking in our youngest son, I remembered that we hadn’t really discussed all the “inappropriate” topics the day’s events presented, namely the sexual themes. So, I sat on the edge of his bed asked him if he had any questions. He snuggled in, turned over, and yawned as he sleepily replied, “I can use my imagination.”

“Amen!” I whispered as I turned to go.


Notes on In Praise of Imagination

For history of Mormonism and LDS read,

The Politics of Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, by Kathleen Flake;

or listen to her interview on PBS, here.

For tips on talking to kids about religion, click here or read her book, Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious by Wendy Thomas Russell.