Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Book review: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m trying to sell my house. When that happens, Mr. Mouse and I are going to move to Utah, Salt Lake City specifically, and ski our little brains out. Whenever I tell people that we’re moving to SLC, they always go, “Oh. Ooh. Have you read Under the Banner of Heaven?” So I finally did. Holy moly.

On July 24, 1984, in American Fork, Utah, two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, murdered their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her 15-month-old baby daughter. The Lafferty brothers did it because God told them to. Ron and Dan Lafferty are (or were, in Ron’s case, as he was subsequently executed by firing squad) Fundamentalist Mormons.

In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer interweaves this true-crime 1984 murder story with the fascinating history of the Church of Latter Day Saints, showing the undercurrent of violence and bloodshed prevalent in the religion since the early days, a legacy that endures in the Mormon Fundamentalist sect and which the two Lafferty brothers wholeheartedly embraced.

Mormonism is impressive, seemingly a force of nature. A huge and globally important religion – over eleven million members, world-wide - it was begun by the charismatic Joseph Smith in upstate New York, in 1830. Smith was the ultimate salesman, by all accounts handsome, articulate and charming. When he announced that the angel Moroni had given him a set of golden plates written with a sacred text, and had provided him with “magic spectacles” with which to read the sacred text, amazingly, people believed him. And when Smith said that the angel had taken the golden plates and magic eyeglasses back, but he, Joseph Smith, would tell them what had been written there, people still believed him.

Part of the reason people believed Smith was because in the nascent Mormon faith, God would speak directly to anyone, – a freedom most religions of the time would not countenance. Neither was the God of the Mormons a punishing God: He wanted His people to be happy, healthy and productive. These tenets were attractive to folks and Smith drew converts like flies to honey.

Later, of course, Smith had a “revelation” that only specific Mormon prophets, like himself, would be speaking directly to God, thus cutting down on the hoi polloi’s input into how things should be run. Further “revelations” led Smith to incorporate “celestial” or “plural” marriage into Mormonism – that, or because Smith couldn’t keep it in his pants. When the Mormon Church, under serious pressure from the U.S. government, officially denounced polygamy in 1890, the schism between mainstream Mormons and the Fundamentalists began.

Krakauer has a knack for capturing and keeping his readers. Using his by-now familiar prose style - clear, descriptive, unflinching, touched with dry humor and with great compassion for his subject – he goes through the history of the LDS Church which will be largely unfamiliar to Gentiles (according to the LDS, all non-Mormons are referred to as “Gentiles,” even those of Jewish faith), and alternates the historical chapters with more modern chapters, including many candid interviews with both current and former Fundamentalist Mormons. As the book builds, Krakauer shows how the last 180 years have crafted the intensely faithful and violent FLDS: from the Mormons being brutally ostracized and driven across the country until they finally found refuge in the barrens of the Great Salt Lake, to the horrific murder of Gentile emigrants in the Meadow Mountains Massacre, to the seeming abundance of sexual abuse and pedophilia in plural marriage.

Any fundamentalist religious movement – Mormon, Muslim, evangelical Christian, Jewish – is frightening to mainstreamers. Fundamentalists read their sacred texts as literal and wish to return to their church’s earliest state. The Fundamentalist Mormons believe wholeheartedly in the Book of Mormon, no exceptions, and to Ron and Dan Lafferty - extremists even for fundamentalists – that included blood atonement, sanctioned by God, against people who didn’t follow the Work, specifically their pretty, young sister-in-law, who chafed against the plural marriages surrounding her, and their infant niece.

I have enjoyed Krakauer’s previous work and Under the Banner of Heaven didn’t let me down. As an avowed agnostic, this book was a true page-turner, fascinating, horrifying and amazing.

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