Contributed by Mike Di Paola

Not long ago a colleague asked me to explain the difference between ‘blasphemy’ and ‘sacrilege.’  I said that sacrilege is what you do, and blasphemy is what you say.  Example: Defecate on a church altar, that’s sacrilege. But say the words “Holy crap,” that’s blasphemy.

Using this standard, The Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical that has been rocking the Eugene O’Neill Theater on West 49th Street since it opened in March 2011, is a blasphemous sacrilege.  Its naughty words include such song lyrics as “Fuck you, God!” in a rollicking Act I number (and with much, much naughtier things to say about the Deity).  Its dirty deeds include premarital diddling, Hitler orally servicing Satan in Hell, and a certain religious text inserted into a missionary’s backside (later shown in an x-ray).

The premise is not complicated.  A pair of likable Mormon lads are sent to darkest Africa for their  missionary assignment and they get in way over their heads. After being robbed by an Ugandan warlord, they learn of the misery of the locals–war, famine, AIDS–and of the inefficacy of the missionaries they have come to replace, who have not converted a single native.  The Ugandans appear to be bored with the story of prophet Joseph Smith–until one of the new missionaries begins larding up the tale with contemporary references cribbed breezily from Star Trek. Soon, Mormon theology starts to make sense and … and, well, hilarity ensues.

The creators of this wicked satire — Trey Parker and Matt Stone of “South Park” fame, teamed with composer Roger Lopez — have pulled off a minor miracle.  The play, while salty and somewhat crass, is never mean-spirited or offensive.  It is in fact quite sweet, and incredibly enough, respectful.  While the young Mormons are portrayed as naive dolts, they are also good natured, well-meaning, and (mostly) pure of heart.

This isn’t the first time Parker has tweaked the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1997 he wrote, directed, and starred in the NC-17 rated Orgazmo, a story of a Mormon whose failed proselytizing efforts morph into a stint as an ass-kicking martial-arts porn star.  (It wasn’t exactly Citizen Cane.) But although Orgazmo had neither the wit nor heart of “Book of Mormon,” Parker said something at the time that explains a lot about the comedy he generates with Stone, something we can see bubbling though their hit musical:

What’s so interesting about humor is that people view it in such a wrong way.  People get so offended because they think if you’re laughing at something, you hate it.  If I laugh at a Mormon, they think I hate Mormons because I’m belittling Mormons.  It’s so untrue. Like I said, every Mormon I’ve ever met is a great person. I totally respect them. But I can laugh at them and they can laugh at me, because laughing doesn’t mean I hate you. It doesn’t mean I think you’re stupid. As corny as it sounds, funny comes from fun.

“The Book of Mormon” is a little corny, and a lot funny.  Sacrilegious blasphemy was never so hilarious.

One thing we can never call “Book of Mormon” is underrated.  It has received near-universal rave reviews, is loved by just about everyone who experiences it, regardless of creed (or lack thereof), and it was handsomely rewarded in June with nine Tony Awards, including “Best Musical.” Not surprisingly, it is still one of the hardest tickets to get on Broadway. The show is sold out until early 2012, though the theater makes a few $32 tickets available each night via lottery (show up two hours before curtain), and Stub Hub usually has a few expensive seats for sale.