Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

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Under the Banner of HeavenJon Krakauer’s 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven is a synthesis of two things — a raw look at the history of Mormonism; and a glaring expose on the 1984 double murder in Provo, Utah carried out by Mormon Fundamentalists.

The thing that Krakauer does best is converts the over-abundant dialogue he gathered through interviews with the individuals involved in the events into a narrative detailing and exploring the overall story in a way that captivates the reader and holds their attention through much of the book. Add to that his extraordinary ability to weave together historical events with his crime-scene narrative and you have a recipe for a highly interesting and entertaining read.

You may be familiar with some of Krakauer’s other books — Into Thin Air, or Into the Wild. The latter of these was made into a movie a few years back (directed by Sean Penn) and reached some acclaim, winning several awards (including a Golden Globe) and being nominated for dozens more. Under the Banner of Heaven is in the same vein as these, and anyone looking for a suspenseful book based on real events should definitely take a look.

Primarily set in Utah, the book follows many paths of various individuals whom are associated with the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints Church (FLDS) as they spiral to a bloody and graphic climax in the murder of a woman and her infant daughter. Krakauer does an extremely convincing job of linking Mormonism’s history (and their violent tendencies) to the modern events of the double murder in 1984. Showing that much of Mormonism’s secretive past has spawned the violent ways of its fundamentalist sects for the last half century, Krakauer superbly portrays how even the smallest event can set a course for the future that ultimately ends in the unintended consequences of violence, greed, secrecy, and power.

The story being told is a maze of creation. The author does an outstanding job of progressing both of his goals simultaneously, alternating between Mormon history and the crime narrative. Moreover, he does it in such a way that both climax at exactly the same time, revealing an almost sexual ecstasy of reading. He creates buckets of suspense by revealing only information that progresses the story at an intended pace, most times syncing a portion of the history with a coincidence in the narrative. Often, it’s as if you’re living out the journey for yourself.

Krakauer also makes a very good case for Mormonism being the true “American religion”. His argument is largely based on those of others, but has enough original flare to come off as his own. The major point being that given the time Mormonism was created (late 1820’s), most Americans were looking for some way to reconcile their Christian beliefs with the fact that the continent they were settling was full of primitive societies very unlike their own. Using this to his advantage, Joseph Smith capitalized by developing doctrines and creeds that catered directly to what the majority of his potential followers would want to hear, or were desiring the answers for. And, as this new faith grew, it became even more convincing to those that came in contact with it. Indeed, Mormonism is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world. Although, Krakauer makes no mention of the fact that the LDS authorities (which own vast amounts of family history records, no the least being has a tendency to not take deceased members off its rosters, as well as adding Mormon family members post-humously to their roles.

But, despite all of the praise I can heap on this work, I felt myself becoming increasingly agitated by Krakauer’s seemingly snide remarks and quotes about spirituality and the existence of a God. Each chapter starts off with one or more quotes from various individuals — Fawn Brodie, R. Laurence Moore, Karen Armstrong, Joseph Smith himself — and they do a great job of foreshadowing the expectations and intents of the chapter they precede. However, at times, they make the spiritual reader feel assaulted by the almost vindictive assertions that the religious among us (namely Christians) are somehow inferior, second rate, in fact… insane.

One quote in particular (by Bertrand Russell) made me take a step back and question the real intent here. As it goes from Why I Am Not A Christian:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it….

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world….

How naive and ignorant? As if early Christians weren’t the first in the ancient world to form orphanages in response to the cruel and inhumane practice of infanticide in the Roman Empire. As if proper justice as prescribed in the Old Testament (which modern law is largely based on) was never taught by the Christian church. As if many groups of Christians through the ages (especially the early ones and some of those during the Reformation) didn’t practice pacifism and refuse military service. As if the abolitionist movement wasn’t spearheaded by radical Christian individuals lobbying Congress, and directly or indirectly assisting renegade slaves in their pursuits of freedom from their masters. As if morality, a highly subjective institution dependent on the world view that beholds it, is somehow lost on the Christian faith despite the fact that said faith strives for the propagation of love and forgiveness and compassion in the world. It apparently never dawned on Mr. Russell to do more than react in writing to his own personal experiences of contemporary religious people, much less open a history book and read the accounts of Christianity’s opponents that upheld all of the above evils which actually support my claims here.

This is not a critique of Russell, per se, but that of the author in question. One may argue you cannot fault Krakauer for the writings of Russell. But one may also argue that the former chose blatantly to confirm agreement with the latter’s words by quoting them in his own publication.

If anything saves Krakauer’s efforts in his composition, it comes in the epilogue. And, admittedly, his revealing words are more than potent enough to pave over the whole mess he makes against religion throughout his work. Upon quoting Dr. D. Michael Quinn, a Mormon history scholar who was excommunicated from the church after publishing many telling and gruesome facts about the LDS past, Krakauer comes clean, thus saying:

[T]hose who write about religion owe it to their readers to come clean about their own theological frame of reference. So here’s mine:

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 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….

[I]f 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 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.

With this, he spoke directly to my heart. He caught me at exactly the spot I have been for the last couple of years. That is, a position of self-questioning; of searching for truth; of attempting to know our creator in a very intimate way. Krakauer, in a couple short paragraphs, dispelled the entirety of my qualms with his earlier anti-religious banter. By opening himself up in this way, he proved to me that he is human, capable of not only failure but also of admission. The amount of respect that I gained for him in reading those words, especially the last few lines, opened me to accepting him where he is, whatever his shortcomings or struggles. Most authors are incapable of being that candid and honest with their readers, and so I admire the courage it took to be that transparent. Even the amount of antagonism Krakauer received from the LDS church authorities in their hostile and vexing critique of his book when it was published (which he copied in full in the appendix of the Anchor Books edition) is not enough to revoke or undermine his blatant self-revelation.

Krakauer delivers a great read for those interested in a suspenseful crime drama, or someone looking to get a slightly subjective, yet extremely revealing history of the Mormon faith. But reader beware:  at times a critique of fundamentalist Mormonism is often seemingly passed off as damning of the entire LDS faith. Whether he intended it to be or not, Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven should not be considered an authoritative history on the church or the events surrounding Joseph Smith’s faith. Instead, it should be read as a supplemental work alongside a more scholarly history. Done in this way, it’s the perfect addition to anyone’s library, and a superbly entertaining read regardless of  your religious affiliations.

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