Through several interactions with various people about my faith, it occurred to me that the primary source of information about Mormons for many in the 18-40 age segment comes from a South Park episode (Season 7 Episode 12) “All about Mormons.” So, I watched it.
South Park is a cartoon sitcom created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the Comedy Central Network. It is known for very crass humor, but to their credit they have established themselves as some of the greatest satirists of our generation. With that said, I think most LDS members would find the language and much of the content of the sitcom distasteful.
The creators of South Park certainly could have done worse in portraying Mormons. In the episode, a Mormon family moves into the neighborhood. They are over-the-top friendly and accommodating. One of the neighborhood kids who was assigned to beat him up, Stan, is disarmed by his niceness and in the process is invited to the Mormon family’s dinner. He happens to come over on Family Home Evening night, where it is described as a time where “we don’t allow television and just entertain each other with music and stories.” This segment was portrayed by a family laughing together as every child performs some kind of musical number. Eventually, Stan asks about Joseph Smith, and throughout the episode they recount the First Vision and the Translation of the Book of Mormon. Finally, Stan tells his own family about his amazing experience with the Mormons and Stan’s beer-drinking dad gets offended. He stomps over to the Mormon house to give them a piece of his mind about brainwashing his kid. He, too, is overwhelmed and disarmed by the Mormon family’s welcome and niceness. When he gets back to his own family, he proclaims, “You should see how loving and together their family is. I think there’s something to that religion.” And then he resolves to become Mormon (until the end of the episode).
Not all of the episode is so positive towards Mormons. The segments describing Joseph Smith (in the First Vision and the Translation of Book Mormon) is done in a musical format. The background music repeats “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb” after every stanza. Joseph Smith is visited from Moroni in what appears to be an alien ship. He is found digging all over Hill Cumorah looking for the Book of Mormon. He is shown translating the Book of Mormon using the Urim and Thummin by putting his face into a black hat and dictating to Martin Harris. The story of the lost 116 pages is shown as a ploy by Lucy Harris to disprove Joseph Smith’s revelatory gifts (which is the only point in the musical where “dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb” is replaced with “smart smart smart smart smart”.) And Joseph Smith is portrayed developing an elaborate ploy to elude Lucy’s test. The presentation was engineered in a way to say – This is obviously a sham, and what person with an ounce of common sense could believe this.
I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to believe that South Park’s primary goal is to espouse the truth. In fact, most people realize their job is to create satire by exaggerating and taking things out of context. It makes for funny cartoons. With that said, I thought it might be appropriate to provide some commentary around the depiction of Mormons in South Park, in case the viewer ever wants to seriously investigate the church, but the only information they are familiar with is this South Park episode.
First, South Park paints a portrait of the Mormon family that seems perfectly loving in almost every way. To me, this was very flattering. How I wish this was true. I think most Mormon families would agree that it was a reasonable depiction of what we want our families to be like, but at the end of the day, Mormon families suffer from all the same ailments as non-Mormon families – teenage rebellion, overbearing parents, broken families, workaholic dads, neglected children, etc, etc. With that said, the message of the church has always been to prioritize family, and it is a core value of every faithful Mormon to strive to develop excellent families. Also, it is true, that most Mormon families reserve one night a week (typically Monday nights) as Family Home Evening night (FHE), where we reserve time for each other. In our family, we take about an hour to sing a musical number, say a prayer, teach a spiritual lesson, participate in a family activity together, then enjoy refreshments together. I hear that a lot of families will also use this time to coordinate family schedules as the children grow older.
South Park is not so kind with the re-enactment of the Translation story. Again, I understand that South Park’s aim is not to tell a balanced story; it’s to tell a funny one. In this case, South Park’s funny conclusion seems to be – Mormons are nice people with loving families, but boy are they dumb.
I’ll be the first to admit that I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but hopefully the viewers will have given us Mormons some benefit of the doubt that the South Park depiction was taken a bit out of context for the sake of humor. For those who are investigating the church, I assure you that you do not have to declare intellectual bankruptcy to become a member of the church. First, it’s probably good to review the various portions of the South Park depiction and distinguish what is true, and what is artistic license. A site that has answered a lot of these questions can be found here.
What I hope to contribute is to provide an introduction to a few additional contextual pieces of information that makes the translation story not as easy to dismiss as a hoax.
1. Joseph Smith had a 3rd grade education. The Book of Mormon (530 pages) was translated in about 65-75 days. It was dictated to a scribe from beginning to end – some of it while looking into a hat. No Internet. Limited library, if any. No rewrites.
Here is an excerpt from Hugh Nibley, putting what Joseph Smith has done in context via an assignment to his class:
“Since Joseph Smith was younger than most of you and not nearly so experienced or well-educated as any of you at the time he copyrighted the Book of Mormon, it should not be too much to ask you to hand in by the end of the semester (which will give you more time than he had) a paper of, say, five to six hundred pages in length. Call it a sacred book if you will, and give it the form of a history. Tell of a community of wandering Jews in ancient times; have all sorts of characters in your story, and involve them in all sorts of public and private vicissitudes; give them names–hundreds of them–pretending that they are real Hebrew and Egyptian names of circa 600 b.c.; be lavish with cultural and technical details–manners and customs, arts and industries, political and religious institutions, rites, and traditions, include long and complicated military and economic histories; have your narrative cover a thousand years without any large gaps; keep a number of interrelated local histories going at once; feel free to introduce religious controversy and philosophical discussion, but always in a plausible setting; observe the appropriate literary conventions and explain the derivation and transmission of your varied historical materials.
“Above all, do not ever contradict yourself! For now we come to the really hard part of this little assignment. You and I know that you are making this all up–we have our little joke–but just the same you are going to be required to have your paper published when you finish it, not as fiction or romance, but as a true history! After you have handed it in you may make no changes in it (in this class we always use the first edition of the Book of Mormon); what is more, you are to invite any and all scholars to read and criticize your work freely, explaining to them that it is a sacred book on par with the Bible. If they seem over-skeptical, you might tell them that you translated the book from original records by the aid of the Urim and Thummim–they will love that! Further to allay their misgivings, you might tell them that the original manuscript was on golden plates, and that you got the plates from an angel. Now go to work and good luck!”
To believe that Joseph Smith made everything up, you have to believe that Joseph Smith was a man of incredible talent. Not only the required talent to dictate a 400+ page book in two months, but also one of astonishing managerial talent. The infrastructure of the church that he set up during his short tenure has lasted with little change over 150 years and scaled to almost 14 million members. He inspired thousands to leave their families and travel by their own means to distant lands to preach the Gospel and assist other people join the church. The Church that he founded is full of members striving to better themselves, love their families, and serve the community. Not bad for a prankster.
I think Joseph Smith was an admirable person, but I don’t think he could have done all of this without divine help. In my opinion, believing that Joseph Smith did all of this by himself takes a lot more faith than believing that this is God’s work. As a final note, looking at Joseph Smith’s personal correspondence, the genius required to have single-handedly created an organization like the LDS church is not obvious.
A book titled, “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” is a balanced biography of Joseph Smith by an LDS scholar – Richard L. Bushman. It is not a book that espouses blind admiration of Joseph Smith. It delves into his many imperfections as well as controversial events and aspects of the church. After reading the book, the reader is compelled to reconcile if he was truly inspired of God, or a man of extraordinary talent.
2. In the introduction of the Book of Mormon, 3 other men claimed to “…have seen the plates which contain this record…” Then, 8 additional men claimed that Joseph Smith “… has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold… we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon…” I don’t think it’s difficult to get 12 men to collude in a hoax. However, the interesting part is that several of these men later parted on very bad terms with the church, but none has renounced their testimony of having seen the gold plates.
3. Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon – Chiasmus is a form of symmetric poetry with ancient Semitic origins. Examples can be seen in Psalms, Isaiah, and Leviticus. Chiastic characteristics were discovered in the Book of Mormon in the 1960’s. That Joseph Smith was aware of this ancient poetic form is unlikely. That he was able to create and recite the Book of Mormon story in this poetic form is also unlikely. That he actually did deliberately make this up, but then didn’t disclose the effort, so that it was discovered a hundred years after his death, seems nonsensical. For more about Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon please look here.
These are just a few choice tidbits to consider when investigating the LDS faith from an intellectual perspective. If the reader is interested in pursuing further intellectual rigor in evaluating the Book of Mormon and the LDS faith, I would recommend perusing through the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship to start. For when we are converted to Christ, it should be with both our mind and heart. However, it should be emphasized that conversion will never be complete with only our mind, also. It is only when we hear the voice of the Lord through the Holy Spirit that we become truly converted. Then, we can begin the work He has prepared for us with all of our heart.