“All About Mormons” (712) Is South Park’s Explanation of Joseph Smith and Mormonism

I know that on a blog called The Zen of South Park, a blog dedicated to a book on religion and South Park, you would expect a pretty long post on South Park‘s episode about Mormonism. But you’re not going to get it.

This episode is incredible, relatively accurate and an amazing portrayal of Mormonism for a few reasons that I will list succinctly.

1. It totally calls out the bullshit story.

2. It doesn’t actually judge Mormonism’s quality based on it’s bullshit story as evidenced by the kind behavior of the Harrison family and this speech at the end by Gary:

“Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls.”

3. A religion is judged based on the quality of the religion to its adherents, not the veracity of its story. Mormonism makes it out on the good side of this dividing line during this episode.

What did you think of this episode? Are you Mormon? Can you shed a little light on the accuracy of the story as believed by Mormons for us?

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11 Responses

  1. A religion is judged based on the quality of the religion to its adherents, not the veracity of its story.

    Don’t forget this passage:

    Then woe to those who write the Book with their own hands, and then say:”This is from Allah,” to traffic with it for miserable price!- Woe to them for what their hands do write, and for the gain they make thereby. (2:79)

  2. I’m Mormon, and I’ve seen this episode. It was very entertaining but contained many, many inaccuracies. Come on, this is South Park, right? If you’re learning about any religion through the eyes of South Park, you’re obviously not getting an accurate view.

    I’ve blogged about this episode. Feel free to read it here: http://www.allaboutmormons.com/Questions/truth_south_park_episode_mormons_ENG_202.php

  3. Hi JDD – thanks so much for commenting on this episode. I was hoping that you could actually fill us in on more. I found this on your blog about this episode and I wanted to follow up with a few things:

    I’ve seen the All About Mormons South Park episode. There were some elements of truth, but the story was grossly simplified and omitted important parts of the history. For example, the story implies that only Joseph Smith saw the metal plates on which the Book of Mormon was engraven, but in reality over a dozen people saw them. It also inaccurately suggests that all Mormons believe that Israelites are the sole ancestors of Native-American peoples. It portrays Martin Harris as a simpleton, but in reality he was a decorated war veteran described as industrious, honest, sincere, shrewd in business, and devoted to civic affairs by his contemporaries. These are only a few of the many inaccuracies.

    1. I would expect that the story of any religion interwoven with a modern storyline that has 23 minutes to be told would end up getting simplified. Could you tell us what other parts of the story are so important that our understanding of Mormonism is warped because South Park left them out? I appreciate the example about others seeing the plates, but is it really over a dozen? I thought that eleven people signed a statement saying that they’d seen these plates and what is still around is this signed statement (not that anyone can just go see it for himself though right?). Is that untrue? Is a signed statement really that much additional proof of the plates (not to question the religion but just to ask if there’s more I should be aware of)?

    2. I do recall the idea from the episode that Native Americans are the descendants of Israelites but I don’t know that the episode insinuated that they came from no where else. Even if it did suggest such a thing, I hardly think that viewers would have dwelt on that idea.

    3. Concerning Marvin Harrison, I don’t know one way or another but a decorated war veteran and a simpleton are not mutually exclusive. More importantly, that description of him – who described him like that? Other Mormons who appreciate the things he did or some unbiased third party source? I think that’s crucial to evaluating the usefulness of that description. You say, “by his contemporaries” but I’m not sure who such people are in relation to the religion. Moreover, those qualities don’t preclude him from being credulous when confronted with Joseph Smith’s charismatic nature.

    4. South Park left a lot of additional things out that appear in the Mormon scriptures that were probably to the benefit of Mormonism’s portrayal: e.g. the wars that allegedly took place in America between different tribes despite there being absolutely no archaeological evidence or otherwise to show that they happened at all. Are there things that were left out that are probably for the better?

    Now, none of these challenges to what you’ve said are meant to be affronts or knock your religion. They’re merely meant to open a further dialogue about this episode and Mormonism, because I’m very curious what about this episode is so very inaccurate and I want to learn more about Mormonism. Faith is a very important and beautiful thing and I’m not questioning that – just curious for more information.

    Thanks so much for commenting!

  4. Hi Jay. When I tried to submit my comment, it says only that it was “discarded.” To see my response, please visit http://www.allaboutmormons.com/Questions/truth_south_park_episode_mormons_ENG_202.php

    Sorry for the inconvenience.

  5. For the convenience of readers of this thread, I’ve posted below the follow up comments of JDD – I’ll respond accordingly as soon as time permits (but thank you for replying so quickly!):

    Hi Jay. I do appreciate your respectful comments. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to get into a lot of detail here. I’ll address some of your specific questions and try to point you in the right directions elsewhere. I don’t think I really need to defend the idea that South Park does not accurately portray any of the religions it “spoofs.” That fact is pretty self-evident. 🙂 Exaggerating and misrepresenting things is what South Park is all about!

    1. Yes, there were over a dozen people who saw the plates. Eight of them signed an affidavit. Another three signed a separate affidavit. History records that a few others likewise saw the plates (Joseph himself being one such example), bringing the total to over a dozen. A signed statement by eleven people does constitutes substantial evidence; if a defense attorney could find eleven witnesses to all testify they saw a crime, for example, he’d have a pretty solid case. That’s not to say that that “proves” that the Book of Mormon is true; of course there’s an element of faith in any religion. But it’s also not rational to dismiss the Book of Mormon witnesses as not constituting any sort of evidence at all. What’s more, even though some of these witnesses eventually left the “Mormon Church,” they never denied that they had seen the Book of Mormon, even when it would have been convenient to do so.

    2. I disagree re. the Native American thing. It’s a solid example of how South Park was trying to make Mormons look ridiculous and, in doing so, oversimplified and misrepresented things a bit. It’s hardly the only example.

    3. Fair enough evaluation. I don’t believe the positive description I cited was limited to fellow Mormons, but I don’t have time to follow the paper trail back to the source, so I might be wrong. I’m sure one could find negative references to Martin Harris from his contemporaries as well. Regardless, South Park makes Harris out to be a complete fool, and that is at best a gross simplification, and at worst an outright lie. All these characters…Joseph Smith, Martin Harris…were complex people. You can’t reduce them to a cartoon character without loosing a lot of accuracy. If you’d like more details re. Martin Harris from a Mormon viewpoint, try visiting these sites:

    http://www.lightplanet.com/mormons/people/martin_harris.html
    http://www.mormonwiki.com/Martin_Harris

    4. I’m not a huge fan of “proving” that the Book of Mormon (or the Bible) is true, as I think there’s real value in simple faith. Nevertheless, your fourth point is not accurate. It is true that there are wars described in the Book of Mormon; it’s also true that history records wars in ancient Mesoamerica, where most Mormon scholars believe the Book of Mormon took place. It’s also not true that there is “absolutely no…evidence” in favor of the Book of Mormon. This very brief summary of the recent research may interest you. Again, this evidence doesn’t “prove” the Book of Mormon is a true account; faith is still required. At the same time, though, it’s silly to pretend like there’s no evidence at all.

    I do wish time would permit me to describe more about Mormon theology, which, in my opinion, is even more interesting that early Mormon history. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, entire books have been written on this subject, and it doesn’t lend itself well to brief blog comments (or thirty minute T.V. shows, for that matter). If you really want to know more about my faith, feel free to browse through the pages of my website. You can even ask specific questions if you like.

    If you’re really hardcore, I recommend the book “Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard Bushman, the Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press. That book gives a far more in-depth, less caricatured version of early Mormon history.

    Best of luck to you.

  6. While I will grant much of what you said, I would like to argue the notion that South Park intends to misrepresent the religions it discusses. I think the show is actually an excellent jumping off point to begin understanding religions. South Park simplifies for the sake of creating a 23 minute show, but the exaggeration is not meant to misrepresent. Rather, it is meant to draw us quickly to certain points by making them more extreme – that’s the beauty of satire. There’s just no beating around the proverbial bush. That’s not to say that this is the best way to learn everything about a religion, but it certainly provides a good place to start.

    As for your emphasis on faith in order to believe that what happened in the book of Mormon is true, I agree. All religions require faith and Mormonism is obviously no exception. What’s more, it’s the faith of a religion that makes it particularly unique and interesting – and in a certain sense, divine, as faith ensures that religions do not strictly adhere to the confines of logic. That’s important, and I do respect and appreciate that aspect. As a practitioner of a religion, there is less of a need to prove the veracity of the alleged historical events it recounts. I was merely noting additional elements that the show left out rather than exaggerated and mocked.

    Concerning the signed affidavits, I agree that in a court of law, that would hold up and constitute evidence, and though dismissing truth based on the notion that they could have been signed without the plates being real is not reasonable, as you say, a 200 year old signed affidavit, while evidence, doesn’t constitute proof. But like you said, you’re not trying to prove anything – just comment on the episode – and I appreciate that since I’m not trying to disprove anything.

    One thing I would like to do is round out South Park’s portrayal of Mormonism, both through this episode and another episode (504 – Super Best Friends) that I think is very important to understanding the way the show is discussing Mormonism. Within this episode we see that the Mormon family is comprised of wonderful, good-hearted and charitable people who recognize that their religion is about faith and that others should be able to see past their religion and recognize that they’re good people. Quite a message, I think, and a call to respect Mormonism for the good it provides its adherents. And it’s in that vein that we see the show’s criteria for how it evaluates a religion: not based on the veracity of its story, which clearly South Park thinks is dumb (for most religions), but on its value for those who practice it.

    This point really shines forth in episode 504, when we see that Joseph Smith is a member of the Super Best Friends, a league of religious prophets that includes Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Moses and others. I think it’s highly relevant that Joseph Smith is in this league which is described as fighting for justice and the power of good over evil. This sets Mormonism in the group of religions that were founded with good intentions and that had good leaders who believed in what was right – this contrasts with those excluded from the Super Best Friends, like say, L. Ron Hubbard, who made up an unbelievable story but started a religion with malevolent intentions (money).

    Now obviously no one could be reassured by the quality of his/her religion because of South Park’s placing a prophet in the Super Best Friends, but it could be very important for the way others perceive that prophet and religion. People who watch these episodes, whatever they think of Mormonism’s founding story, understand that they should show respect for a religion that believes in justice and doing good.

    Thanks again for your helpful comments and pointing us towards other resources!

  7. Thanks for posting my comments. I don’t know why I was unable to post them myself.

    Let me say that, while I “officially” disapprove of South Park, I secretly love the show. 🙂 However, as a South-Park fan, I couldn’t disagree more with your suggestion that South Park does not misrepresent the religions it describes. I’ve seen the show enough to know that it misrepresents just about everything, from religion to politics. Satire and exaggeration by definition are forms of misrepresentation. That’s why the show is so funny. I suppose I can’t comment much on other religions, as I am not intimately familiar with them, but I can say quite definitively that South Park did not get Mormon history exactly right.

    As you alluded to in your post, though, what I think the show did get right is Mormon culture and the influence for good the church has on its members. We’re far from a perfect people, but I know I’m personally grateful for that influence. It’s a religion that really works for some people.

    I should say that overall I’m very pleased with the way Mormons are represented on South Park. The idea that only Mormons go to heaven (an idea that even Mormons do not espouse) is funny on so many levels! 🙂

    I’ve sincerely appreciated the respectful exchange we’ve had. I hesitate to mention this, but might I invite you to revise your blog article? Referring to the ethnic history of another group as “bullsh**,” regardless of whether that history is true or false, is quite offensive. It may be that more Mormons have not commented here for that very reason.

    Best of luck to you! Thanks again.

  8. @ JDD: It’s also not true that there is “absolutely no…evidence” in favor of the Book of Mormon.

    Jay said there’s “absolutely no archaeological evidence,” not just that there’s no evidence. As someone who’s long been interested in archeology, I’d like to see what “evidence” there is that corroborates the Book of Mormon’s story. Can you name any specific digs that do this?

  9. For someone who claimed not to have much time to dedicate to this subject, I sure have been sucked in! 🙂

    As I stated in my previous post, there is not “proof” demonstrating the Book of Mormon is true. The same could be said of most of the stories in the Bible. All religions require faith. There nevertheless is some interesting evidence, even a bit of archeological evidence, corroborating the Book of Mormon account. I noticed now that a link I had included in my original post was not shown above. The link is here: http://www.allaboutmormons.com/Blog/evidence_authenticity_book_mormon_investigate_ENG_4.php . It is true, though, that most of the academic “evidences” in favor of the Book of Mormon are linguistic, not archeological.

    Several other links were not included in my post above. You may wish to read the post in its original form, published here: http://www.allaboutmormons.com/Questions/truth_south_park_episode_mormons_ENG_202.php

    Best of luck to you.

  10. Thank you for adding more info about the archeological evidence, but I would just like to point out for the record that many parts of the Bible can be confirmed both with archeological evidence and other external proof (linguistic, other people’s records, geographically, etc.). In fact, I’ve spent the better part of my higher education and post-graduate studies learning about such things. I’m not religious and have no interest in defending the Bible’s veracity – I recognize what didn’t happen and what did (and try to find the value in all the information in there to understand why it was written in the first place). There’s no proof for Genesis through Deuteronomy as facts (i.e. no Abraham or Moses or Exodus – which isn’t to question their existence, only to note that the evidence isn’t there), but after King David a great deal of the Bible can be confirmed. Just because it’s written through a religious lens (i.e. x happened because God was peeved) doesn’t mean the events it describes didn’t happen to a greater or lesser extent. If anyone asks I’d be happy to provide some examples, but for now suffice it to say that much of the Bible did happen.

  11. Hi Jay. I don’t dispute at all that much of the Bible did happen. I believe even in Abraham and Moses, the ones whose existence is not academically provable. I obviously have no interest in knocking the Bible, as I consider it to be a divinely inspired holy text.

    There is in fact academic evidence to corroborate the existence of some of the cities and people described in the Bible, but virtually all portions of the Bible that are theologically interesting (the life-changing details in the stories, i.e. divine communication through prophets, miracles, visions, atonement, etc.) are not corroborated by academic evidence. Faith is what motivates my belief in these Biblical details.

    The same is true for the Book of Mormon. For example, I find it interesting that archeologists have discovered a city called “Nahom” in precisely the Arabian location that the Book of Mormon indicates, but that’s hardly the reason I believe in the Book of Mormon. Faith is required to accept the theological elements of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. That’s all I wanted to imply. 🙂

    Thanks again for the interesting conversation.

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