Jon Krakauer's literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this ₃divinely inspired₄ crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith. Along the way, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America's fastest-growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief. Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty-thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five "plural wives," several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamentalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers, and preach that any day now the world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents. Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fanatical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism's violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the most successful homegrown faith in the United States, and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism. The result is vintage Krakauer, an utterly compelling work of nonfiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behavior.
So, Krakauer's book is biased; I'm sure that a similar book written from an LDS or FLDS perspective would be equally biased in a different direction. I see the bias more as a missed opportunity than anything else; I would have liked to see some more presentation of other perspectives, particularly those of female Fundamentalist practitioners of polygamy who approve of the practice. We occasionally encountered one of these women in passing, but I would have liked a chance to get further into their heads--I guess I'll have to find another book for that.
Krakauer has also been accused of making numerous factual errors, and he does acknowledge some of these in a response to a critical review included at the back of the book. For example, he misinterpreted a respectful use of the term "president" to suggest that the person referred to was actually the LDS president, when in fact he was only one of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and he conflated the Laban of the Old Testament with the Laban of the Book of Mormon. These sorts of errors aren't particularly interesting to me, since they didn't have any impact on the overall narrative; the greater concern is the charge of serious misrepresentations of various historical events. Krakauer denies error in these cases, maintaining that this is simply a case of differing historical interpretations. As someone with no personal stake in the matter, I'm less concerned about the "correct" understanding of these apparently debatable events than about having a general awareness of what the different positions are, so I'm glad that Krakauer included a discussion of these things in the appendix.
I want to get one point across: I didn't come away from Krakauer's main narrative with any negative feelings toward Mormons in general. Krakauer made it clear that the crimes that played a central role in the book were committed by fundamentalists who had been excommunicated from the mainstream church. However, I was extremely unimpressed with the high-up church official who reviewed the book (a review that Krakauer includes in the appendix before addressing the various points it raised) and made the following statement: "Although the book may appeal to gullible persons who rise to such bait like trout to a fly hook, serious readers who want to understand Latter-day Saints and their history need not waste their time on it." That one sentence attacking readers of the book has done more harm to my impressions of Mormonism than an entire book about the connections between Mormonism and murder.
I look at history as a process of inquiry. The goal isn't to present one undisputed truth, which is generally impossible, but to investigate the different perspectives with their inherent biases and at least gain some understanding of how different observers view the same events. I'd be happy to read another book about Mormon history from an approved Mormon viewpoint as a counterpoint to this one. I am not happy to be told that I'm an idiot for finding anything of value in Krakauer's book. While Krakauer may not provide all the answers, he at least offers interesting questions, which alone is enough to make this a worthwhile read. I was struck, for example, by the question of whether a religious fanatic could be guilty of murder or should be considered insane, which has all sorts of implications for how the courts view religion in general.
In brief, Krakauer's book gives the reader plenty to think about. It generates good discussions. It's readable and interesting. This is exactly what I want in a book. I don't see this as the definitive portrayal of Mormonism, but since it left me with a curiosity about the religion that I didn't have before, I'd say it's a decent starting point.
I particularly appreciated Krakauer's treatment of the tension, in religion, between faith and verifiable fact. After describing the origins of the Mormon faith in Joseph Smith's experiences -- his communications from God, his discovery of golden tablets and interpretation of their ancient script through miraculous insight, and his ability to persuade others that he was a prophet -- all of which sound absolutely unbelievable to me (I mean, the story is unbelievable enough, but the fact that other people believed the story is incredible!), Krakauer nudges the reader's likely incredulity. He notes that, indeed, The Book of Mormon, the religion's sacred text, is "riddled with egregious anachronisms and irreconcilable inconsistencies." He tells us how Mark Twain ridiculed the text. Then he says:
"But such criticism and mockery are largely beside the point. 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 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."
That is certainly true and I, as a relative nonbeliever, appreciated Krakauer's clear attempt to provide an objective history of Mormonism while exploring the emergence of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. Virtually all religions have fundamentalist fringes, and we can hardly judge all of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints based on the FLDS, but Krakauer is committed to understanding how this fringe of radical fundamentalists have developed, and how they produced the Lafferty brothers, Dan and Ron. Yes, it was Brenda's brothers-in-law who murdered her and her child, and they did it in the apparent belief that they were following the commandments of God. Many other radicals have killed in the belief that their actions were holy, but the intimate nature of these murders and the specificity of Ron and Dan's apparent communications from God make these murders particularly good territory for Krakauer's brand of storytelling.
This intimate and specific nature also make these murders ripe territory for exploring the intersection between radical faith and insanity. The chapter in which Krakauer tells of Ron Lafferty's retrial (his initial conviction was overturned because the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the prosecutors had not adequately proven that Ron was competent to stand trial) was particularly interesting. How do we determine where lies the line between radical faith and madness? If Ron Lafferty is determined not guilty by reason of insanity, are we never able to find someone guilty if their actions are based in religious conviction? Is anyone who talks to God crazy? If Ron Lafferty is insane, are not millions of Americans who hold as firmly to improbable religious convictions (such as, for example, the notion of immaculate conception) also insane? The testimony of the psychiatrists and psychologists, for both the defense and the prosecution, is fascinating.
I'm leaving out all kinds of important issues in this review. The role of polygamy in the history of the Mormon church, and the associated ethical and legal issues, are infuriating and interesting. Krakauer fails to full separate the issue of plural marriage from the issue of age-of-consent, but this may be because our society has not adequately separated these issues, one from the other. I suspect that most of us would have a less extreme negative reaction to the concept of plural marriage if so many of the "wives" were not so young! Still, this is a difficult facet of Joseph Smith's original doctrine to present objectively and Krakauer acknowledges this. His concern about the possible future in which Smith's orthodox (fundamental) theology dominates is evident. And I admit that it's a concern I share.
I read Krakauer's Into Thin Air and was riveted by his writing on the subject of Mt. Everest. I would not place this work in that category, but found it be a very instructive primer on the origins and background of the Mormon religion and its various fundamentalist offshoots.
The book essentially tells two stories, the threads of which alternate throughout the book. In one thread, Krakauer tells the story of Joseph Smith, the founding of the Mormon religion and its evolution to the present day. In the other thread, he explores the various fundamentalist offshoots of Mormonism through the prism of a vicious double murder committed by a pair of its proponents.
It is difficult to argue with most of the facts presented in relation to the founding and evolution of Mormonism. As Krakauer points out, it is a religion of such recent vintage that the historical record is quite clear. He does make a few assumptions and extensions which have earned him the ire of the official church. In those cases, however, he states his grounds for doing so quite well. It is doubtful that anyone except a true believer in Mormonism would ever write a history to the liking of the church.
The beliefs and practices of some of the fundamentalists profiled in the book are scary in their level of extremism, however, they take their beliefs directly from the pages of Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion. Polygamy, or plural marriage, was one of the chief tenets of his church, and one that was stubbornly clung to for many years by the leaders of the church. It can hardly be argued that many heinous instances of statutory rape and sexual child abuse have resulted and continue to occur.
While Mormonism has come under attack throughout its history, both for some of its practices and the highly dubious circumstances surrounding its founding (Joseph Smith was likely no more than a charlatan and a fraud who concocted a religion that guaranteed him access to a never ending cache of nubile virgins), very few of the world's religions have better legs to stand on. Old Testament Christianity is filled with barbarous practices and outlandish fables (Noah's Ark, parting the Red Sea, burning bushes). Islam, ditto. I'm not even going to mention Scientology.
So, before anyone tears off on a rant concerning Mormonism, just make sure your own house is in order. If you want a quick and dirty outline on Mormon beliefs and foundations, this is a good place to start. If you want a good example of the effects of extremism (not limited to Mormonism) this is also a good example.
What I found most fascinating, though, is the theological issues that this book brings up. Krakauer does not denigrate religion per se but poses the question of what is the dividing line between faith and fanaticism. If we can believe that God told Isaiah to kill his own son, why can't we believe that he didn't also tell Dan Lafferty to kill his brother's wife? It's an unpleasant question but it makes you think and that is something Jon Krakauer is very good at.
This wasn't my favorite Krakauer book by a long shot, but it was worth the time it took to read it.
Krakauer is very clever in the way he presents Mormons as deluded, incestuous, immoral nutcases. Part of the book is aan apparently objective presentation of the church's founding and subsequent history. Interspersed, often chaotically, these historical sections, are chapters on depraved polygamists, one of whom plans to imregnate each of his many daughters when they turn 12 years of age in order to produce a pure Saint. The implication is strong that only in Mormonism could such a disolute and crackpot circumstance occur. As I recall, the ancient Egyptians allowed only brothers and sisters of the highest royalty to produced children on just those grounds. To my knowledge Mormons don't advocate incest. If they do, then Krakauer should have cited chapter and verse to prove it. Alernatively, he should have cited statistics showing that Mormons do actually commit incest more than any members of other religions today. I know that incest occurs among Christians of all stripes and it probably occurs among people with no religion at all. If that supposition is wrong, it was up to Krakauer to preset the data that dispoves it. Instead, he implies that it is a result of being Mormon interspersing anecdotes about incest in between chapters of apparenty objective, researched history of the LSD.
Similarly, he cites the story of one family of fanatical Mormons, showing how they went from being mainstream Mormons to believers in polygamy. Five brothers became fanatical, one of them hearing the voice of God, which his younger, adoring brother believed. Again, this story is interspersed between non-sensational chapters.
Eventually, the two oldest brothers murder their youngest brother's wife and baby, while in the grip of delusions of grandeut. Again, Krakauer implies strongly that had they not been Mormons, they wouldn't have done this. Funny, I didn't know that delusions of grandeur are peculiar to Mormons.
To show how disjointed this book is, Krakauer again intersperses the arrest and second trial of one of the elder brother in between other topics. He forgot to mention the first trial at all, and although we figure out that Dan, who actually committed the murders got life imprisonment, we don't know why. All that Krakauer recounts is how Robert acted in the second trial when the judge upheld his death sentence. Pretty strange omission.
Krakauer shows his bias in throwaway remarks like, "Robert was no more crazy than anybody else who believes in God." I am not a Mormon. I did hear the story of the twelve tablets and Joseph Smith from two young missionaries and wondered that people could swallow such a thing, but then again, I have friends who believe things in their religions that I find equally improbable. However, they are intelligent, civilized, cultured, delightful people. They certainly aren't crazy.
This book is like anti-Jewish tracts, describing the worst behavvior of people who call themselves Jewish in order to inflame hatred against all Jews. Hitler would have loved this book. Another group to be fodder for his killing camps. Hitler had delusions of grandeur, too. He was a Catholic. The Germans and Ukrainians that acted as Hitler's willing executioners were Christian, too. Would anybody dare write a book lining their behavior to Christianity? I sure wouldn't.
The book is well documented, includes a bibliography, and a helpful index.
I am a Buddhist of mainly the Tibetan Vajrayana variety. We've certainly got beliefs and practices that are about as nutty as anybody else's. There are lots of warnings and tales about the dangers of an overly literal interpretation. I'd like to think that'll inoculate us against the kinds of abuses portrayed here, but probably not. Too many of those tales are non-fiction, and too many too recent.
Where Krakauer's book falls short - he really doesn't analyze the tale in any depth. These days there is a lot of anti-religious sentiment around. Krakauer asked Dan Lafferty if he could see the parallel between his violence and that of Islamic terrorists. But what, after all, is religion? For example, is Buddhism even a religion? Or, might we ask, can science, hmm,. become an object of religious faith? Krakauer includes some nice epigraphs from William James, but he doesn't really engage with the matter. It's OK, it is an excellent book as it is. The book poses a crucial question for our time, but doesn't really attempt to answer it. That'd take a whole other sort of book. We may not be ready for that yet. It's like, Montaigne wrote decades after Luther. We're just entering the Savonarola era. Fasten your seat belts! Yeah, how about a book like this about the Bundy family?
While Under the Banner of Heaven was a true crime book in the sense that it does mention rather frequently the Lafferty brothers who murder their sister-in-law and her 18 month old daughter, but it also mentions the beginning of Mormonism. This book also mentions how it's now diverged with the Latter Day Saints Church in one end and the Fundamentalists Latter Day Saints church in another end. I'm not a particularly religious person, but I've always been interested in learning about the different types of religions in the world and try to keep an open mind. That being said, reading about the FDLS church just seemed to make me a more than a little angry.
I found myself on the verge of tears as Krakauer described how the fundamentalist Mormon groups treat women. They practice polygamy and more often than not, the men take underage girls as their wives, all in the name of God. It was disheartening to read that the fundamentalists Mormon sects are growing and I would like to see the government take a more active role in putting away the pedophiles who say that they aren't actually perverts just following the written rule that God himself put out for them.
There are some people who say that Under the Banner of Heaven paints a bad picture of the Latter Day Saints church, but it doesn't, unless of course you're trying to deny the history within the Church itself. Krakauer makes sure to mention that the problem lies not within the current LDS church, but with the fundamentalists sects, and how the LDS make sure to excommunicate anyone who practices polygamy. So, I really don't see how this is bashing the LDS church.
Anyway, one thing that I can say about this book was that it was enthralling. It read faster than any non-fiction I've ever read (though I haven't read much) and really did read like a novel. There were some parts that dragged in recounting the history of Mormonism, the whole book was an amazing page-turner. I definitely plan to pick up Jon Krakauer's other books because this one was so great. I also recommend it to anyone who wants a good read.
The book centers around a story of the fanatical faith of Ron and Dan Lafferty who, in the summer of 1984, felt compelled by God to murder some of their own family. In the process of telling that story, Krakauer tells the history of the Mormon religion and of Mormon fundamentalism from the early 1800s until today. In the process, he provokes many thoughts about the role of religion in America: What does freedom of religion mean? When someone claims to murder in that name of religion, how does American law deal with that, seeing that the right to faith - no matter what faith - is enshrined as a fundamental right in our Constitution? If someone wants to resurrect a religion that requires animal or even human sacrifice, how do we balance those rights with the other values of our society?
The answers to these questions will be different in each generation. In this generation of eroding faith, the fear of people of faith is that faith is coming to be seen as opposed to and even dangerous to a "rational" society. This book stops short of making that statement, but clearly puts us on that road. It is very thought-provoking from that standpoint as well as interesting for the history that it tells.
Krakauer does a sterling job of presenting his story here. He traces the roots of Mormon fundamentalism and the reasons behind the ongoing practice of polygamy within many different sects of fundamentalists.
However, while this book is focused on the Latter Day Saints, there is a bigger focus...and that is the nature of religious fundamentalism in general. It also tackles the question of if people claim that God speaks to them, are they insane? How do we as a society separate the kooks from the true believers?
This is an outstanding book, one that should be read & discussed by everyone.
Having taken a course in world religions back in college, I've always been interested in why people choose particular faiths. Because I live in Utah, the LDS church is woven into the fabric of most communities. In southern Utah, fundamentalist LDS and extremist groups can be found in rural areas and generally stay away from the mainstream communities. Most residents can trace their roots to polygamy. I view myself as open-minded, so I try to get along with everyone even when I'm the only non-LDS in the room. Krakauer poses interesting theological questions in a balanced ways.
Although Krakuer's book provides a brief history of the LDS church, a majority of the book focuses on religious zealots and specifically the Lafferty brothers. The narrative is well-written and moves seamlessly from the present (early 2000s) to the past. However, I found the historical aspect much more interesting than the focus on the Lafferty brothers. Unlike some true-crime books, I never sympathized with the murderers and was never really understood how they rationalized the killings.
Having enjoyed both Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, I enjoy Krakauer's writing style. I'd like to see him write other books that merge historical references with modern issues.
I'm not a Mormon and I'm not familiar with their beliefs; however, I do know some Mormons and they are certainly nothing like the individuals portrayed in the book. Yes, this book is about the extremists -- the fundamentalists, but by pulling out what seemed to be nothing but negative elements of their history, it certainly paints a grim picture of the entire denomination. I'm sure if one looked, one could find radical individuals in almost any belief system; there's probably a militant Methodist out there someplace. This "guilt by association" went over the top in one short paragraph on page 294 when Krakauer compared George W. Bush to the Lafferty murderers. Oh, come on, Jimmy Carter also claimed to be born-again as do many other respectable individuals. Krakauer was attempting to get philosophical about the role of religion and mental health, but I found it very disconcerting that in the middle of a book in which the author claims is factual that he would inject such a blatant political barb.
With that aside, the book is interesting and readable and does shed light on a unique American-born religion. The lifestyle of the fundamentalists is sad but intriguing. The book was worth the time to read and does provoke interest in radical religion.
For someone who may possess only a cursory knowledge of Mormonism, there's a great deal of material in this book that is worth discovering. Personally, I knew the basics of LDS history, but was still shocked to learn the details of the Mountain Meadow Massacre. I was more surprised, however, to learn the present-day state of polygamy in this country. There's no question that Krakauer draws a very creepy portrait of Mormon Fundamentalism and its mainstream antecedents; and it is a portrait that I judged to be eminently fair.