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Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

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John Krakauer chronicled his personal experience of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy in the book Into Thin Air. He followed that with Into the Wild, the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from an affluent family in Washington DC who, upon graduating from Emory University, hitch-hiked to Alaska and set out alone, on foot, to live in the wilderness north of Mount McKinley. Four months later, his decomposed, emaciated body was found by a hunting party.

Krakauer continues on the theme of apparently rational people undergoing tragic circumstances with Under the Banner of Heaven – A Story of Violent Faith. As his primary case study, he examines brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, former members of mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who left the church to join a fundamentalist LDS sect. According to the brothers upon a revelation from God they were commanded to “remove” an impediment to the establishment of the “one true church”, their sister-in-law and her 16 month old daughter.

The genesis for this book was a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief. I’ve spent most of my life in the West, in the happy company of Latter-day Saints. I decided to narrow my subject to a more manageable scope by examining belief more or less exclusively through the lens of Mormonism. I grew up with Mormons in Corvallis, Oregon, which had (and has) a robust LDS community. Saints were my childhood friends and playmates, my teachers, my athletic coaches. I envied what seemed to be the unfluctuating certainty of faith professed so enthusiastically by my closest Mormon pals but I was often baffled by it. I’ve sought to comprehend the formidable power of such belief ever since.

With the backdrop of the murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty, Krakauer examines the evolution of the church from its beginning with Joseph Smith through it is violent and bloody migration to Utah. He discusses the pervading mysticism which led to controversial practices such a polygamy and blood atonement. This exploration probes fundamentalist Mormon movements, the resultant schisms of different interpretations of church doctrine.

Krakauer is pretty fair in his assessment of the church and remains impartial in his accounting of how the church came into being, despite condemnation of the book as “anti-Mormon”. The book actually has three distinct narratives: the story of the Lafferty brothers; the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; and the prevalent fundamentalist movements. By presenting the subject in this manner the intertwined nature of belief put into practice is put together in an engrossing package.

Through interviews and exhaustive research, Krakauer does a good job of presenting the circumstances which have made the church such a lightning rod for criticism. The accounts of life within polygamous communities provide a fascinating insight into faith gone awry and the tragic consequences.

I read this book basically coming from an agnostic viewpoint with a similar background as Krakauer as quoted above. I came away from it with a much better understanding of the church, its history, and what can happen when faith is compromised. Definitely worth reading for the compelling insight into this most American of religions.

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About Joe McNally

  • Paul Machesky

    I’ve read Jon Krakauer previous book “Into Thin Air” and I personally think it was of the best books ever written about the Everest disaster and I am sure his new book will be no less great so if you want a good book i recommend “Into Thin Air” or “Under the Banner of Heaven”.

  • Hank Thierry

    Jon Krakauer is the guy to get to the bottom of the 2004 election fiasco and the lead up to it. He does his homework and tries to give a balanced view. He would do a great job of finding out what really happened to the U.S. voter in 2004! Hank

  • Rebecca

    Would love to contact Jon Krakauer. I think he should write a similar book about the SDA church.

  • Ananda

    I would love to contact Jon Krakauer, simply to hear what his experiences are beyond what is expressed in his writing. I was first introduced to him in college, when I was taking a seminar course on existentialist writing. Alongside Kafka and Dostoevsky, we read Into the Wild, which has quickly become a haunting favorite of mine. I know that his experiences transcend well beyond what he can put to page, and his writing continues to hold me hauntingly spellbound. As I have traversed through his retellings of religious fanatacism in Under the Banner of Heaven, and of the intense demeanor of the formidable entity that Everest truly is, I continue to find myself compelled to really find out more about Krakauer’s thoughts.

    I continue to look for literture of his, as I feel that my own insight into humanity and our most priomordial drives are best brought to light through Krakauer’s intense yet approachable writing style. If I ever get the chance to interview him for my own personal endeavors, I know I will be standing in the shadow of true greatness.

  • http://www.globalthink.net Laina Farhat-Holzman

    I would like to talk with Krakauer about doing a book together that compares the theology of Mormonism with that of Shiite Muslims. I am a specialist on the latter–and noted astonishing similarities. They may well be coincidental–but maybe not.

  • Vicky Campbell

    Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air were spellbinding. Jon Krakauer is a superb writer who captures the reader from beginning to end. I’ve read Into Thin Air three times and at each reading I have learned a little more about the tragedy surrounding the May 10, 1996 attempts to summit Everest. From my perspective the author told a straightforward, unbiased, and fair account of what happened. Krakauer has been criticised by some participants for presenting the facts as he saw them. Yes, some of them come across as less than heroic, and he includes himself in that category. But in most cases Krakauer’s criticism is tempered by favorable appraisals of their best qualities, ie: i.e. Boukreev’s bravery, Pittman’s sunny disposition, Hall’s compassion, Beck Weather’s perseverance, Fischer’s determination. To blame an exhausted, ill, and disoriented Krakauer for being unable to join in rescue operations or to faulting him for mistaking another climber for Harris is totally unfair. No one who has not experienced the physical and mental stress of high altitude mountain climbing is in the position of judging the reactions of the climbers. The exceptions are the out-and-out disregard for others, ie the South African leader, Iam Woodall, and those who passed by injured climbers without any attempt to offer aid. I believe that Krakauer suffers still from his experience in that fateful climb and he has all my sympathy. As the niece of a professional mountain guide who lost his life leading a group in the Swiss Alps I can only empathasize with the victims of any mountaineering accident. And one does not have to die to be a victim; many times the survivors are victims too.

  • cj

    I’m a little baffled, after reading ‘Under The Banner of Heaven”. My father met Mr. Krakauer and even had him inscribe a copy of this book in memory of Rev. Spaulding, but not once is the writer of ‘The Book of Mormon” mentioned therein. Mr. Spaulding and his wife, Matilda Sabin, as well as many, many members of his comminity wrote this book as an historical romance, written after Rev. Spaulding was limited in his preaching by illness to the area of OH where the Indian Mounds were being uncovered. Inspired by the discoveries there, he began a series of chapters, freely shared with area residents in meetings every couple of months. Each time they met, he would read his latest chapter, and all would critique and expand on it, and thus would begin the next. All is well documented. While I certainly cannot cast aspersions on the LDS faith for the way that it’s members comport themselves, I find it sad that all is based on a lie. When Mr. Smith convinced Mrs. Spaulding (after the Reverend’s death) to lend him the book, who could predict what havoc he would wreak? Mr. Smith was diagnosed as schizophrenic, as was his mother, and maternal grandfather. I’ve no doubt he heard voices telling him he was the prophet, but I do think those voices were no more divine than those that told him to take many wives, an idea his grandfather had, as well. Research is always a good thing. Follow the court records, and the handwritten letters and afidavits of all the townsfolk who participated in the writing of the ‘Book of Mormon”, and then judge for your selves. Shame on you, Jon, for not doing the same. This has been common knowledge in the Sabin, Cole and Spaudling families since the early 1800’s and easily accessible.