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David Cook

Single performance tickets go on sale soon for this season's Broadway at the Tivoli program, which includes eight performances of "The Book of Mormon" at the end of February 2019.

Winner of nine Tony Awards, "The Book of Mormon" follows a pair of young and doe-eyed Mormon missionaries as they attempt to evangelize a tribe of Ugandans, who live with near-Stone Age beliefs and tendencies. (Uganda? The two missionaries, the joke goes, had been hoping for Orlando.)

Since it opened in 2011, reviewers have gushed, calling it the best musical of the century. With plenty of R-rated words, the show is accompanied by a warning:

"Contains explicit language," the Tivoli's website states.

This is a gross and dangerous understatement.

The warning should be much stronger than that.

"The Book of Mormon" is not simply a satire with R-rated and explicit language.

The musical will be perhaps the most profane performance ever to be staged in Chattanooga, the cultural equivalent of flipping the middle finger at the American church.

Which, by the way, just so happens to be one of the musical's most rousing numbers.

The chorus goes like this:

"[Expletive] you God!

[Expletive] you!"

That's not even the worst part of the song.

It's a crowd favorite, sung by phallus-wearing Africans as they reject the guileless missionaries' story of a saving God. Sure, there's theological meat here: when surrounded by incredible suffering, it is right to question the presence of God. Look at Elie Wiesel's "Night." Or Gustavo Gutierrez on Job and the suffering of the innocent.

But sincere theological inquiry is not the musical's purpose.

"The Book of Mormon" jokes about baptism as a sex act.

And genital mutilation.

And infant rape.

The musical delights in the worst of African stereotypes.

"'The Book of Mormon's' black people are rural, backwards, poor, violent, uneducated, illiterate, superstitious, gullible, hopeless, diseased. They have maggots. Warlords mutilate female genitalia and rape babies to cure their AIDS," writes author Jared Farmer at religiondispatches.org.

How can left-leaning theater crowds from coast to coast — usually left-leaning and purportedly interested in racial equality — turn a blind eye to such gross racial stereotypes on stage?

More specifically: How will such a musical be received in Chattanooga, once named the Most Bible-Minded City in America?

I saw the musical in Chicago a few years ago; yes, some jokes are hilarious, some songs incredible — there's a reason the musical has earned $500 million in ticket sales — and in the end, both Mormons and Ugandans reach a steady understanding of each other, life and belief.

And yes, satire is designed to offend.

But whether or not I was offended isn't the point.

It's deeper than that.

"The Book of Mormon" felt like the destruction of something very sacred, like cultural vandalism, the theater's version of flag-burning.

The musical felt like a symbolic destruction of the temple, like someone throwing rocks through your church window while everyone laughs and sings along.

To take something as anciently sacred as religion and its rites and traditions and then so cavalierly and recklessly profane them while millions of theatergoers cheer seems like a sad yet powerful barometer about the state of American culture.

Look around. Aspects of American life that once inspired devotion, obedience and transcendence are now mocked, denigrated or weakened. The family. The church. The government. Moderate, quiet, humble lifestyles.

The musical's creators — Trey Parker and Matt Stone of the adult cartoon "South Park"— have made a career of such mockery.

"I've not seen the play and have no intention," said Phil Smartt, who handles public relations for the area's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "However, I think the important thing is for people who show an interest in the play to read the Book of Mormon and get the true story."

With 12 Latter-day Saints congregations in the area, the musical could spur conversation and encounters, Smartt said.

"It could be an opportunity," he said. "We're strong believers in strong families. We believe in taking care of ourselves and being self-reliant and independent. We believe in following the teachings of Christ. We're just down to earth, if people would just get to know us."

The church asks its young men and women to sacrifice two years in service to a greater good. They travel the world. Postpone careers, education and college parties.

"If you meet them, say hello. Be nice," said Smartt, whose grandchildren serve in Honduras, Peru and Brazil. "Sacrificing is an important part of their life."

And that should be honored, not mocked.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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