According to many Broadway aficionados, The Book of Mormon is the best musical of the century. The jokes are witty and the music is catchy and the tickets are stupid expensive unless you go with your residential college. The show is also irreverent to the point of blasphemy. Sitting in the very back row with my eyes bugging out from shock, I felt like a parent chaperone at an especially wayward prom. I wasn’t sure whether I should delight in the absurdity or feel existentially offended that these shenanigans pass for acceptable public behavior.
The Book of Mormon is the brain child of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park,” with original music by composer Robert Lopez of “Avenue Q.” Maybe it shouldn’t have come as a shock that Parker and Stone’s Broadway musical could be simultaneously heartwarming and a giant “fuck you” to religion, usually so ardently defended in America. But I came unprepared, and I was shocked.
The main targets of the show’s satirical caricatures are Mormons and rural Ugandans. Since I belong to neither of these communities, I wasn’t sure how to navigate the undeniably offensive but also self-aware and tender picture the show paints. Two over-eager Mormon missionaries are dropped in the middle of a Ugandan village that is dominated by a raping, murdering, maiming, warlord named General Butt-Fucking Naked. The village is filled with animal carcasses and everyone has AIDS. The local doctor’s scrotum is filled with maggots. The missionaries are peppy and naive and their leader is not-so-secretly gay. Baptism is a euphemism for sex. After his first baptism, one of the main missionaries sings a triumphant song called “I am Africa.” Don’t worry, there’s plenty profanity left unspoiled if you haven’t seen it yet. Shocked as I was, I couldn’t fathom what it might be like to sit in that theater as somebody whose community is satirized and even ridiculed in the show.
This is all to say that I was thrilled to meet Sam Rasmussen—a fellow resident of the Forbes annex, a delightful human, and an ultra-friendly Mormon recently returned from his own two-year mission in Taiwan. I met Sam on the way from Princeton to the theater, and couldn’t wait to debrief the show with him. A few weeks after the trip, we sat down over brunch and talked about Mormonism on Broadway, in Taiwan, and at Princeton.
Sam loved the show. He told me, “To go see The Book of Mormon as a Mormon you’re going to have to be not offended. But there were certain parts that were really really funny for me that I think were not as funny for other people. I understood all the jokes, like the bit about the Garden of Eden being in Jackson County, Missouri, I thought that was hilarious, because that really is a big deal in Mormonism.”
Sam mentioned that some of his friends did in fact find the show offensive. When I asked about the difference between his perspective and theirs, he explained, “I as a Mormon take pride in the fact that we’re kind of a peculiar people. You want to be different and good and stand for truth and righteousness and whatnot. I don’t mind the fact that they make fun of us because a lot of it is like ‘Oh, I’m going to be super polite to everyone I meet!’ But I think that’s a good thing. I can see why some people might be offended, but I thought they were way worse to Africans than they were to Mormons.”
But it wasn’t just this inside jokes that Sam found especially hilarious, it was how close to truth some scenes came even while others were so far off. He referenced one scene at the airport where the parents send their over-eager, slightly nervous, kids off on their missions. “I was watching that and I thought, “aw that’s so familiar!” The expectations of your family, and your personal excitement, how little you know what its actually going to be like. I was rolling over laughing at that point,” Sam told me.
Of course, Sam’s mission did not bear much resemblance to the hilarious misadventures of the show. He explained that by the time he was graduating from high school in Salt Lake City, his enthusiasm for the mission wasn’t always as wholehearted as it had been as a child. Princeton was calling. “But,” he said, “the biggest thing that caused me to go on a mission was that I realized how much the church and its teachings had blessed my family throughout the generations of my family. I feel very indebted to my parents and the foundation they gave me, and I feel that without that foundation I wouldn’t have been able to do half of what I’ve been able to achieve. And looking at who they are and how my grandparents raised them to be, it’s all centered around the church’s teachings. So I think I look at that and realize that essentially all the success that I was able to attain in my life was because of the influence of Mormonism in my life.”
Next I asked how much of this good fortune he thinks comes from his community and how much comes from God. He explained that although his community is incredibly strong, his faith in God and in the Gospel is paramount. “Its very rare for me, but I had it a couple of times on the mission, when you really feel that you’re in the right place at the right time to help someone. You feel that God has had a hand in that, and because you were willing to go and try to be a good person he placed you in a position to be of great help. I think that those moments were crucial to me deciding that the Lord wanted me to go on a mission and that since I was willing to go and put in my all he would make that time worthwhile. And looking back on it, it really was the most meaningful two years of my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
While in Taiwan, Sam spent most of his time riding a bicycle around rural neighborhoods, getting to know the local communities and trying to meet as many people as possible. He was allowed to call home twice a year— once on Christmas and once on Mother’s Day— for forty-five minutes each. In response to the panic he saw in my eyes at this information, Sam patiently explained, “They want you to focus on the work. It’s really hard. A lot of people really struggle on their missions, because Chinese is tough and getting along with other people is tough, and not having any success is tough, and having people be mean to you is tough. It would be easy to just rely on your family back home, but you’ve gotta just go out and keep working. You can’t just sit home and talk to your mom.”
He was matched with a new companion every six weeks, often from a wildly different background from his own. “One companion, both his parents were doctors, one of them had parents who were university professors, lots of lawyers, and then I had a guy whose dad was a Corrections Officer, and a guy whose dad worked the factory line at John Deere. You see lots of different ways that Americans live, and then you see places that other people are living, and you see a lot of people that are in crisis points in their lives. Mainly you just figure out the kind of person that you want to be. I think that the mission helped me kind of realize the person that I wanted to be and feel less peer pressure to conform to what the “Princeton Picture” is, if that makes sense,” Sam told me.
When I asked who that person is, he responded “I would always want to be someone who is very grateful for the opportunities that he has been afforded, and is willing to look to use those opportunities to bless the lives of others.”
Despite this strong sense of direction, Sam mentioned that his two years abroad didn’t provide as much insight into his academic path as he’d hoped. “The mission is like the Mormon cure-all, whatever problems, they’ll work themselves out on the mission. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to study,” he told me. Still, the mission prepared him for Princeton in a different way.
“On your mission you pretty much have no free time and no time off, pretty much from 8 am to 10 pm you just work, and then you just have to go to bed at 10:30 and wake up at 6:30, so you have no free time ever, and you’re always driving for more efficiency. Take for instance, if my companion goes to the restroom and I’m just waiting outside, you’ll always take out your phone and start calling people. You’re always busy. And Princeton’s kind of like that,” he said with a goofy smile. The main difference that he’s noticed is that Princeton is mostly about self-betterment, whereas the mission is about other people.
Overall, Sam says he’s found Princeton to be an excellent community. “From the Mormon standpoint, I’m very clear about the fact that I don’t drink, and the fact that I don’t do certain things, and everybody’s been super accepting of that. I do occasionally go to the Street and just hang out with my friends, and I’ve never felt any pressure to compromise my standards. Princeton has been great in that regard,” Sam told me.
Sam seemed to have very few qualms about being part of a tiny minority on Princeton. “At Princeton, everyone’s been really just curious about Mormonism. There are very few Mormons at Princeton and I think it comes up in conversation for me way more than it does for other Mormons because I’m taking rather advanced Chinese,” he explained. “People are curious. I like it— I’ve met lots of really great people at Princeton who are really different and I think that was what I was looking for in a college atmosphere.”
According to Sam, “One of the weird things about Princeton is that nobody smiles or makes eye contact or says hello. It’s weird, because we do have something in common! So I still try to make eye contact and say hello. See, in Utah that would be really weird if you didn’t say “Oh, how you doing today?” as you walked by.”
Maybe we should each take a leaf out of Sam Rasmussen’s book. Most of us would still be far from becoming Mormon missionaries, but perhaps if we were all as friendly as Sam, each of us could find a little more of the wonder that he sees in this place. Also, go see the show.