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Steve Julian: Book of Mormon uses Mormonism to question all faiths

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(The Book of Mormon is at The Pantages Theatre through November 25, 2012.)

Is it okay to kick Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Moroni down the block?

The national tour of Book of Mormon opened this week in LA, after winning nine Tony Awards and a Grammy on Broadway. In the musical, two Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, are sent to Uganda where religious evangelism doesn't capture peoples' attention the same way poverty, war, and AIDS do.

Price and Cunningham have their issues: Kevin Price is an anal literalist and Arnold Cunningham is a sycophant who weaves Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings references into his sketchy understanding of his own faith.

Thing is, Cunningham's ability to morph the real Book of Mormon into a guide that Ugandans can understand makes him a pious prophet -- just how some critics describe Joseph Smith, the man who founded the Mormon faith in the 19th century.

The show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind South Park, say Book of Mormon is nothing more than satire. If the intent is to use wit as religious and social criticism, Book of Mormon works. It also takes on female circumcision and race.

To the dull-minded and un-inquisitive, Mormon stereotypes may be only reinforced. But the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is intent on people walking out of the theater with at least an inclination to read "the book." For the first time, the church bought an ad in Playbill, the program handed to each theatergoer. It invites the audience to read about Mormonism and come to understand its Christ-centered theology.

The church last year released a statement about the Broadway production, noting the Book of Mormon is a volume of scripture that will "change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ."

To me, Book of Mormon is not a knock on Mormonism. It questions all religions. Is it any less credible that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri - as Mormons believe - than that one can die and come back to life as a giraffe or kumquat tree ... or that a crucified man can be transfigured three days later?

The story being told now at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood is clear in this regard: when an African woman questions the use of a frog in curing AIDS, another makes the point: dummy, "that was a metaphor."