Book Review: “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer (2003)

“A Story of Violent Faith”

Two years ago, I spent a full month traveling from one corner of Utah to the next, visiting my sister’s Evangelical Christian family who’d just moved there, as well as a series of Evangelical churches struggling to grow midst the thick weeds of Mormonism. For this trip, I brought along Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven for its journalistic account of the history of Mormonism fit snugly inside a true-crime murder mystery from the 1980s. Knowing that I’d be surrounded by kind Mormon folks, cross-less steeples, and a barren land with a long history of trouble (though maybe not as long as the Mormons believe), I wanted to get a better understanding of Mormon history and culture.

I chose the non-Christian Krakauer for this outsider’s look into Mormonism simply because he does not claim to hold to any particular faith. It’s been my experience that apostates (a Mormon term for anyone who was once devout but has since left the faith, Kindle loc. 378)—whether those who have left of their own volition or if they’ve been saved by the veracity of God’s true Word, the 66 books of the Bible—generally have an ax to grind against their former faith, so their recollections are often tainted by bitterness and anger. Krakauer instead approaches the Mormon cult neither with personal bitterness nor with an ulterior motive of swaying his readers away from the cult to a more reasonable faith, and his journalistic characterization of both mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism thus has more authentic ring to it. While the reader can tell that he’s certainly not a fan of either branch of the cult, his attitudes against them stem from practical rather than philosophical arguments.

The history delivered in this book is couched inside a murderous feud between mainstream Mormons and the fundamentalist polygamists that have branched off from there. In Krakauer’s own words, “It is the aim of this book to cast some light on [the killer] and his ilk. If trying to understand such people is a daunting exercise, it also seems a useful one—for what it may tell us about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith.” (Kindle loc. 194-196). Krakauer then traces the history of the cult from Joseph Smith’s own sordid past, through the religion’s early scandals and arguments, to their moves across the nation and their battles against the U.S. government. He confronts the reader with the church’s teachings about prophecy, their scriptures, and such unique teachings as polygamy, and he then traces when and where the fundamentalists diverged from their mainstream mother. It’s a fascinating ride that answered many of my own questions about this mysterious religion, and I’m definitely glad that I held on til the end.

Throughout the book, Krakauer shares insights into the church and its members that—if factual—shed a good amount of light one of the world’s most close-knit religions. Regarding the most basic concepts of Mormon justification, for example, he writes:

In Joseph’s more optimistic cosmology, God’s chosen people—the Mormons—were inherently virtuous (albeit surrounded by wickedness) and didn’t need to atone for anything. Making money was a righteous pursuit: the Lord smiled on the rich, as well as those who aspired to become rich. And anyone who elected to obey church authorities, receive the testimony of Jesus, and follow a few simple rules could work his way up the ladder until, in the afterlife, he became a full-fledged god—the ruler of his very own world. (Kindle loc. 1755-58)

Regarding church government, he writes:

Control of the LDS Church resides in the hands of fifteen men. At the top of the hierarchical pyramid is the “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” who is believed to be God’s direct mouthpiece on earth. The LDS president appoints two trusted apostles to serve as his first counselor and second counselor; collectively these three men function as the First Presidency. Immediately below the First Presidency is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and, together, these fifteen men (they are always men; women are excluded from positions of authority in the Mormon Church) hold sway over the institution and its membership with absolute power. All fifteen men serve for life. At the time of the president’s death, the Quorum of the Twelve appoints as new president the apostle from their ranks who has served the longest; hence the exceedingly advanced age of most Mormon presidents. (Kindle loc. 217-223, footnote)

About Joseph Smith, he writes: “He conducted his life impulsively, acting according to instinct and emotion. The Lord, it seemed to him, must surely have intended man to know the love of more than one wife or He wouldn’t have made the prospect so enticing.” (Kindle loc. 1835-36) And in a more cynical voice, Krakauer adds: “Joseph repeatedly managed to sweep unsavory charges under the rug before irreparable damage could be inflicted—a talent he shared, of course, with many successful religious and political leaders through the ages.” (Kindle loc. 1884-86) Such cynicism from Krakauer is not uncommon, for he also paints all religions and faiths broadly by writing:

All religious belief is a function of nonrational faith. And faith, by its very definition, tends to be impervious to intellectual argument or academic criticism. Polls routinely indicate, moreover, that nine out of ten Americans believe in God—most of us subscribe to one brand of religion or another. Those who would assail The Book of Mormon should bear in mind that its veracity is no more dubious than the veracity of the Bible, say, or the Qur’an, or the sacred texts of most other religions. The latter texts simply enjoy the considerable advantage of having made their public debut in the shadowy recesses of the ancient past, and are thus much harder to refute. (Kindle loc. 1160-65)

While I truly did appreciate Krakauer’s unbiased look at the Mormon cult, his opinions break down at the very point of his inability to distinguish a cult like Mormonism from a true faith that’s subject to the only Creator God and His Son Jesus Christ. Krakauer would suggest that no human being has the right to determine why one man’s faith is valid while another’s is heretical and false, though such a suggestion stems from Krakauer’s own apparent belief system, a system of relativism and disbelief rather than one of morality and belief/unbelief. Krakauer states as much in this following extended quote (and please, make sure that your hat of discernment is placed securely on your head!):

If Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of his God, isn’t everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well? In a democratic republic that aspires to protect religious freedom, who should have the right to declare that one person’s irrational beliefs are legitimate and commendable, while another person’s are crazy? How can a society actively promote religious faith on one hand and condemn a man for zealously adhering to his faith on the other? This, after all, is a country led by a born-again Christian, President George W. Bush, who believes he is an instrument of God and characterizes international relations as a biblical clash between forces of good and evil. The highest law officer in the land, Attorney General John Ashcroft, is a dyed-in-the-wool follower of a fundamentalist Christian sect—the Pentecostal Assemblies of God—who begins each day at the Justice Department with a devotional prayer meeting for his staff, periodically has himself anointed with sacred oil, and subscribes to a vividly apocalyptic worldview that has much in common with key millenarian beliefs held by the Lafferty brothers and the residents of Colorado City. The president, the attorney general, and other national leaders frequently implore the American people to have faith in the power of prayer, and to trust in God’s will. Which is precisely what they were doing, say both Dan and Ron Lafferty, when so much blood was spilled in American Fork on July 24, 1984. (Kindle loc. 4465-75)

For an outsider’s look at Mormonism, I highly recommend Under the Banner of Heaven for its riveting history and investigative journalism. For a defense of and a confidence in your own faith, I recommend looking elsewhere.

©2016 E.T.

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Gallery | This entry was posted in American History, Book Review, History, Mormonism, Non-Fiction, Religions. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer (2003)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer (1996) | Elliot's Blog

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Shipwrecks, Monsters, and Mysteries of the Great Lakes” by Ed Butts (2011) | Elliot's Blog

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