Michael Otterson, the church’s Head of Public Affairs, published a blog this week in The Washington Post on why he won’t be seeing The Book of Mormon musical. Perhaps some Mormons admire Otterson for his outspoken response, because they mistakenly believe that he’s going out on a limb to defend what he believes. But anyone vaguely familiar with Mormon culture knows that he’s not actually going out on a limb at all. He’s just adopting the singsongy tone of Mormon moralizing that saturates so many of the pathetic discussions that disapproving Mormons carry on with the world around them.

Otterson, of course, is never above making a show of his own moral convictions, and one can’t help but smile when he describes how different he is from other Mormons willing to tolerate the debasement of their religion:

A few members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have seen this musical and blogged about it seem to have gone out of their way to show how they can take it. That’s their choice. There’s always room for different perspectives, and we can all decide what to do with our free time.

But I’m not buying what I’m reading in the reviews. Specifically, I’m not willing to spend $200 for a ticket to be sold the idea that religion moves along oblivious to real-world problems in a kind of blissful naiveté.

As it happens, I saw The Book of Mormon musical on February 26th. Far from “going out of my way to show how I can take it” (as Otterson artlessly and condescendingly phrases it), I just sat on my opinion. I haven’t blogged about it until now. But now that I am blogging about it, let me say that I positively rejoiced in The Book of Mormon musical. The musical was absolutely brilliant and on par with the finest musicals I’ve seen. The songs were amazing. The story was ingenious. The message was profound. The production was first rate. It was an eclectic mix of vulgar South Park jokes, Fiddler on the Roof, the Hill Camorah pageant, Oklahoma, The Lion King, and The Backstreet Boys. It even had a moment that channelled Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. And it is topped off with cameos by Darth Vader, Frodo Baggins, Attila the Hun, Johnny Cochran, Jeffrey Dahmer, dancing Starbucks coffee cups, and Lieutenant Uhura.

Otterson’s attempt to critique this musical that he’s never seen alternates between idiotic and silly, but at the bottom of it, there’s something feeble, and a little contemptible, about how effortlessly Otterson leverages meaningless abstractions in his misguided efforts to make serious points. Witness Otterson’s dismissive use of the great sweep of history:

…in the great scheme of things, what Broadway does with “The Book of Mormon” musical is irrelevant to most of us. In the great sweep of history, parodies and TV dramas are blips on the radar screen that come and go. Popular culture will be whatever it will be.

Of course, the only reason anyone ever says “in the great scheme of things” is to give the impression that what follows it is quite obviously insignificant. In the great scheme of things, it doesn’t even really matter who’s president. Seriously, does anyone remember Chester A. Arthur?

Quite apart from Otterson’s fictional “great scheme of things,” the truth is obvious: It is quite significant that there is a broadway musical about Mormonism that is doing well and receiving rave reviews. What’s more, a successful musical about Mormonism is eminently more plausible than a successful musical about the followers of Martin Luther, Mary Baker Eddy, or John Wesley.

In the end, irreverent celebrations of the value of religious belief do not threaten people’s understanding of Mormonism. On the contrary, Otterson’s tired (and perhaps dishonest) retread of LDS talking points threatens to make Mormonism irrelevant by advancing a view of Mormonism that has nothing to do with the needs and lives of its members — meaning the predominantly well-to-do ones in 1st-world countries. Observe again how Otterson returns, as he always does, to meaningless abstractions:

…what of those thousands of remarkable and selfless Mormon missionaries who opted to pay their own expenses during the past seven years to serve in Africa while their peers were focused on careers or getting on with life? They have returned home, bringing with them a connection with the African people that will last a lifetime. Many will keep up their Swahili language or their Igbo dialect. They will keep in their bedrooms the flags of the nations where they served. They will look up every time they hear Africa mentioned on the evening news. Their associations with the people whose lives they touched will become lifetime friendships. And in a hundred ways they will become unofficial ambassadors for the nations they served.

It is worth noting that The Book of Mormon musical reserves its greatest scorn for the Mormon tendency to approach the world as a set of concepts and ideals to be harvested for one’s own spiritual and personal improvement.

I certainly tip my hat to any missionary who served effectively and returned without being disillusioned. But it’s troubling that Otterson views this corps of missionaries as a rhetorical tool to be mined for Mormon apologetics. Specifically, Otterson presents a very biased sample, and then he proceeds to treat this sample as though it were representative of the entire group.

For my part, I wonder about those thousands of remarkable and selfless Mormon missionaries who opted and paid their own expenses to serve the church, only to find that the church had frequently deceived them about its history, only to run into Mission presidents who pushed baseball-baptism schemes devised to artificially inflate reported numbers, only to find a miserable experience that left them alone and disconnected from other Mormons because they were too frightened to say that the emperor they saw had no clothes. And I wonder about the Mormons of all walks of life who discover that the world isn’t as black and white as they were taught, and who find that the Mormonism of their childhood hasn’t equipped them well enough to deal with the grey?

I know that these people exist, I’ve corresponded with many them. In the MTC, I had a dictatorial and brow-beating mission president, Richard K. Klein. I’ve grown to realize that Klein was a poor spiritual leader. He later became a general authority, and like so many who rise to leadership in church’s central institutions, he didn’t really care who I was, because he viewed my peers and me as anonymous members of a larger group that he thought best to treat as an abstraction. Every time I’ve written about my experiences with Klein, my inbox fills with emails from people who thank me for talking frankly about my mission, and they express their comfort in knowing that they were not alone.

I know people who have wandered and struggled and gotten lost, and who long to come back to church but don’t know how to approach it on their own terms. They want the comfort that it offers, yet they struggle to understand how to engage the church unless they buy into the simple-world illusion that the church is perfect. This is an illusion that for them has long since been shattered, and Mormonism as they understand it blames them for the gaps that have developed in their beliefs. Otterson’s pathetic post embodies the worst that the simple-world illusion of Mormonism has to offer; Otterson moves along oblivious to the real-world problems of actual members in a kind of blissful naiveté. It’s distressing to think that the guys at South Park get something very important and profound about our religion that Otterson doesn’t.

Here’s the main reason I loved The Book of Mormon musical: It used both humor and poignance to illustrate (a) that it’s the doctrine and the heritage of our church that matter most, (b) that arbitrary tests of orthodoxy exclude those who need spiritual guidance most, and thereby render our religion powerless in the face of many of humanity’s deepest spiritual needs, and (c) that our doctrine and heritage offer spiritual comfort and guidance that improves the lives of others even when they are trapped in shockingly distressing predicaments.