Monday, September 7, 2009

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

Under the Banner of Heaven - A Story of Violent Faith
by Jon Krakauer
4/5 stars

Lights and Reflections of the Temple Square
(Temple Square in Salt Lake City)

What a book. Krakauer presents the Mormon church through the broad lens of their history, beginning with Joseph Smith and working through to today. He also focuses in on the modern-day story of Dan and Ron Lafferty, two members of a fundamentalist Mormon splinter group who murdered their sister-in-law and niece in cold blood because they believed God told them to.

Although the book is about the Mormon church and the Fundamentalist Mormon church, the underlying theme is Krakauer wrestling with faith. How and why do people believe, and what defines the difference between those who lead peacefully pious lives and those who follow their faith into extreme and sometimes violent acts. Those questions are really what made the book powerful on top of the very interesting history.

Reading about the history of Mormonism is always fascinating - it seems so utterly ridiculous that I just find it stunning that so many people follow it. In any case, most of the history section was well-written and interesting. The description of the splinter groups off of Mormonism was also fascinating. A couple of years back when Warren Jeffs was arrested I was treated to some public display of the Fundamentalist Mormon church, but Krakauer explains their history and WHY they believe what they believe. For the most part they practice polygamy and spurn both the modern-day Mormon church and the US Government. It was shocking to see how these splinter groups are simultaneously twisted together as well as scattered and divided.

Warren Jeffs with a 14 year old bride:
Warren Jeffs

One fascinating section described the trial of Ron Lafferty, one of the murderers described above. Though Ron didn't claim to be crazy, at one point in his trials there was a lot of debate about whether or not his fanatical beliefs and actions made him crazy. There was a huge reaction to this charge because while Ron was certainly eccentric, he wasn't a loner, he wasn't withdrawn or humorless. He was social, a big thiner, loved to laugh and in general couldn't be defined as crazy, only zealous. If the court found him insane, it would be purely for his religious beliefs. While his beliefs were unconventional, believing that God spoke directly to Him, that demons were around, and that he was in a battle for God's purpose in a world controlled by evil is actually the prevailing belief of many, many people in the US and the world.

Interesting, eh? I plan to write a little more about my thoughts on this on my theology blog, but I'll close with Krakauer's own closing words, which explain his own perspective on faith that informed the search and writing of this book.

"I don't know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion. In fact, I don't even know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.... And if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why - which is to say, most of us feel the ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive."


  1. My boss at work was reading this one, and highly recommended it. In light of your review and that recommendation, I'm gonna pick it up as soon as I get some book-buying cash.

  2. Those are beautiful closing words.

  3. I wonder how the main LDS church responded to his book, i.e. did they see it as an attack on faith, a welcome discussion, irrelevant, etc.

    Did you read his book, Into the Wild? or see the movie?

  4. yeah the LDS church formally rebuked the book, and Krakaur includes the rebuke and his rebuttal in this copy of the book. Although any religious person can feel defense about some things in the book, the LDS response was classically unwilling to dialogue about any weak points in their history. They hide and avoid... it hurts their own cause.

    I did watch Into the Wild but didn't read it - did you? I liked it even though it was depressing.

  5. No, not read it but thought about seeing it. Heard an interview with [Sean Penn? whoever played the main role], the director and the man's father and it was very moving. I've wanted to see the movie but I don't think I will for now because in the name of self care I should avoid it (because it looks harsh/depressing and I don't want to add to that).