Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer (2004)

Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

A study of religious zealotry by way of Mormonism

five out of five stars

Under the Banner of Heaven” isn’t so much an indictment of Mormonism (mainstream OR fundamentalist) as it is an illustration of how excessive faith in ANY religion can lead to corruption, immorality, and unreason. Although author Jon Krakauer does focus his discussion on Mormonism – or, more accurately, fundamentalist Mormons – he takes great pains to stress that the story of the Lafferty brothers could just as easily be rooted in Christianity, Wicca, or Buddhism.

Krakauer begins his story with some background and expertly delves into the history of Mormonism. Mormonism, he points out, is a unique religion, in that its relatively recent beginnings leave a more detailed record for scholars to examine. The Bible has been rewritten and reinterpreted countless times in the past two millennium, and little is known about Jesus or his contemporaries. In contrast, Joseph Smith is only recently departed, and he left a long paper trail, as well as a wealth of ancestors, behind. Because so much more is known about Mormonism, its history and beliefs are easier to dissect (and refute) than are those of more ancient religions. Thus, while “Under the Banner of Heaven” may seem like an “attack” on Mormonism, it is not; rather, it’s an attack on religious zealotry, one example of which is fundamentalist Mormonism.

After outlining the current state of the Mormon Church and religion, Krakauer turns his attention to the case of Dan and Ron Lafferty. The brothers were tried and convicted of murdering their bother Alan’s wife (Brenda) and baby (Erica) – because God “told” them to. We gradually come to learn that Ron’s wife (Dianna) left him (and took their youngest children with her) when he, along with his brothers, began to get involved in fundamentalist Mormonism. Brenda, the youngest of the Lafferty wives, was also the most outspoken, and she actively encouraged Dianna to divorce Ron. Thus, Ron blamed Brenda for his plight. As his hatred festered, he had a “revelation” in which God told him that he needed to kill Brenda and Erica, along with several more of Dianna’s supportive friends. After murdering Brenda and Erica, the Lafferty brothers instead flee to Las Vegas without carrying out the rest of their “instructions” from God.

Krakauer expertly weaves these two narratives – the history of Mormonism and the plight of the Lafferty clan – throughout the text. It’s apparent that he’s done his research; he’s interviewed a number of subjects, from Dan Lafferty and other excommunicated Mormons, to prominent members of the Mormon mainstream. Krakauer also hit the stacks; he refers to a volume of previous research and discourse that’s already been written on Mormonism, as well as more general tomes on the role of religion in society.

Especially interesting is his account of Dan and Ron’s respective trials. Ron, during his second trial, pleads “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Thus follows an intriguing analysis of religion, rationality, and insanity. For example, how is a man who hears murderous instructions from God any crazier than an elderly grandmother who talks to God every Sunday? Ron’s beliefs may be fringe, but they’re no less rational than those of any religious adherent.

While atheists will find much to savor in “Under the Banner of Heaven,” non-atheists would be incorrect in dismissing the book as an unbeliever’s attempt at defaming religion as a whole. In his “Author’s Remarks,” Krakauer identifies himself as an agnostic who grew up envying his Mormon neighbors. He enjoyed their sense of community, their cohesiveness, their untiring friendliness and optimism. When he began researching “Under the Banner of Heaven,” he intended to write a very different book:

“I was irresistibly drawn to write about Latter-day Saints not only because I already knew something about their theology, and admired much about their culture, but also because…the creation of what became a worldwide faith was abundantly documented in firsthand accounts…As originally conceived, it [the book] was going to focus on the uneasy, highly charged relationship between the LDS Church and its past…In intended to explore the inner trials of spiritual thinkers who ‘walk in the shadows of faith’…”

This doesn’t exactly sound like a man who was “out to get the Church,” as some critics have noted!

Nonetheless, after conducting more than three years of research (and spending another year writing the book itself), Krakauer gave birth to a completely different entity. He spoke with Mormon women who were held captive, beaten by their husbands, sexually abused by church leaders, and married off to men twice their age; he met more than one man who claimed to be “the one mighty and strong,” sent to save humanity; and he came face-to-face with one brother who slaughtered his sibling’s family in cold blood. “Under the Banner of Heaven” is the only logical response a rational person could have in the face of such nonsense and hypocrisy. The fact that so many individuals are slamming Krakauer for telling a truth that they have been brainwashed into disagreeing with (or praised him because they’ve been indoctrinated to believe another version of the same basic absurdity) doesn’t bode well for the future of our species.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)