Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer ★★★
This is the second book I’ve read by Jon Krakauer, the first being Into Thin Air, a story of a disastrous climb on Everest. Though Krakauer has a very likable writing style, he is not always the best at contending historical facts. The Everest climb story held some extremely slanted and monocular views of events that clouded an unbiased appraisal of what really happened on Mt. Everest. In terms of the Everest climb, Anatoli Boukreev offered a much more believable account. Both of those books (Into Thin Air, and The Climb) have been previously reviewed by me. Krakauer makes similar editorial mistakes in this book.
Under the Banner of Heaven, according to Krakauer, was intended to be a critical historical review of the Mormon church. During his investigations, the book instead morphed into two intertwined stories, both complementing the other, of the development of the Mormon church, and using that history to offer insights into the murder of a mother and child in the heart of Mormon-land. The two main accomplices in the murder, the Lafferty brothers, committed the crime under the rationale that God gave them clear instructions to do so, based on their Mormon faith. While exploring the history of the Lafferty family, Krakauer necessarily unveils a large contingent of strict Mormons that are part of break-away sects that also practice polygamy. The details of these colonies, scattered throughout the Western United States, Western Canada, and Northern Mexico also bring to light the complex thinking that leads people in the Mormon faith to proclaim that God has spoken to them. After all, they are simply following the example of their leader, Joseph Smith. Many of the “fundamentalists” manifest an extreme political viewpoint that fits neither “right- nor left-wing” ideology, that of absolute freedom of the individual with limited government and extreme patriarchy ruling over an extended family.
This book has strengths and weaknesses. Krakauer is a poor historian in not adequately exploring the various interpretations and viewpoints to an event, before discussing why he chose a given viewpoint. Krakauer is superb at writing a good story, and, criticisms aside, does a very capable job of noting how bizarre the Mormon faith happens to be, and how quickly it can transmogrify itself to suit the needs of the moment, such as abolishing polygamy or accepting blacks into the eldership of the church. The story fits other readings that I’ve had of Mormon history, and it defies an explanation as to why Mormons would hold so tenaciously to a belief system that hides its past and pretends it really doesn’t exist. This, in and of itself, makes the book very much worth reading.
Krakauer makes a mistake at the end of the book by trying to wax philosophical. His spiritual mentors, of whom he freely quotes, are Karen Armstrong and William James. Specifically, with James, Krakauer accepts the notion of religious experience being nothing other than a psychological event. Yet, he (and James) fail to notice that all human experience is essentially psychological, including whatever scientific knowledge we may possess. Like the miracle worker who has events come true when commanded, the scientist notes that his theories lead to “events” that come true that further their faith in the religion of science. That is a dangerous road to take, because it deconstructs any possible experience of anything, whether or not you define it as sacred or secular.  The assumption is that since there are  “quack” religious groups, all religious groups must be suspected. Even worse is the assumption that because there is not 100% uniformity of opinion as to truth regarding “god”, “god” must not exist or is at least unknowable. Similar arguments could be made against the sciences since any disagreement suggests that ultimately even scientific truth is unknowable. Epistemological nihilism becomes the only truth. The underlying assumption in all of James’ statements is that God simply does not exist, or is absolutely and totally unknowable.  Thus, his arguments of the psychological nature of religious experience is a circular argument that offers no proof for or against God, nor for the veracity of the experience. Christian doctrine suggests that there is a connection between the “5th dimension”, or the “alternate universe” and ours, and in that alternate universe, a battle is raging with forces both good and evil, the good eventually winning. The religious experience could be encountered from either the good or evil forces, and the ultimate determination for the side may be evaluated through God’s word to man in the form of the Scriptures. Using Scripture as an ultimate reference point, the Mormon doctrines don’t stand, and suggest any religious experience of a Mormon nature be through the evil forces that wage battle against the good.
Krakauer spends a chapter discussing the issue of the insanity defense that Lafferty’s lawyers gave to prevent the execution of Dan Lafferty. This legal argument continues to rage. The public legal assumption is that any belief structures that extremely differ from normative must be proof of insanity. This denies the possibility of a person simply being evil. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Ze Dung, Pol Pot, and W. Churchill all must have been insane since they all lived the most desperately evil lives (though Churchill managed to maintain a sense of acceptability!). It is interesting that even in illiterate third world countries or among savages, a concept of insanity exists, and that insane people are clearly seen and identified without the aid of a psychiatrist.
The appendix offers Krakauer’s rebuttal to a response by a high-ranking elder in the Mormon church to Krakauer. This elder appropriately identifies Krakauer’s weaknesses, yet fails to see his own dismal historical weaknesses. It is clear that the Mormon church will force an interpretation of history that best suits their own agenda, rather than the known facts of the historical events.
All in all, this is a good book to read. It is a good reminder of the consequences of reacting against the whole of society, as many I am personally acquainted with have tended to do. It is also a warning against the Mormon church, which appears quite innocent, yet there is something rotten in the church from its very inception, that troubles the church today.