Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven tells three interwoven true stories: the history of the Mormon faith, the current life of Mormon fundamentalists, and the 1984 murders of an innocent woman and her baby daughter at the hands of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, two such fundamentalists. The implication is that the Lafferty murders were not an isolated incident, and indeed, the history and current practice of Mormonism are littered with acts of brutal violence.

Krakauer writes as if he takes the insane things that the killers and other Mormons believe at face value. It's sort of an inside perspective, describing not what is objectively true, but what the major players believe to be true. This can be humourous when writing about, say, Dan thinking that his bowel movements are a sign from God. Krakauer doesn't need to inject his own opinion into the descriptions; the stories are ridiculous enough in a straight telling.

That same matter-of-fact style can also be heartbreaking. Like when describing the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia slaughtered an entire wagon train of innocent travelers. Or when the timeline of the Lafferty murders is described in great detail, partly through Dan Lafferty's own unrepentant words (Krakauer interviewed him directly in prison, where as far as I can tell, he still lives to this day). It's hard to understand how any sane person could murder a baby.

Yet Krakauer argues that the Lafferties are not insane. The take-it-at-face-value writing underscores that, given what the brothers believed and their rationalizations for any setbacks, they acted rationally. At worst, he identifies Ron as having symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The combination of the radical beliefs of Mormon fundamentalists, coupled with an extreme personality — the same sort of personality that has fueled the prophets behind all of Mormonism's violent history — can be a dangerous mix.

This quote illustrates some of the workings of extreme religious minds:

"In one of Ron's revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse to race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn't lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn't resist telling the brothers 'I told you so,' causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further."

With examples like these, on top of more serious ones, it's difficult to imagine how anyone could believe in prophets. In the history of mankind, no prophecy capable of coming true has ever come true. Ever. The bickering and splintering of the church over whose "divine" revelation is better further emphasizes that they are pure fantasy. Yet people do believe. There are over 13 million Mormons worldwide, their faith based on a prophet who, less than 200 years ago, claimed to have "translated" a book of golden plates an angel showed him in the woods, by putting a magical rock in a hat then stuffing his face in the hat. And these are the less delusional, non-fundamentalist ones.

What may disturb readers is that their own beliefs — especially other religious ones, but this applies to some atheists too — could be just as unfounded and dangerous if left unchecked. Krakauer briefly makes an explicit link with Christianity, but I think the lessons of this book are even broader. All beliefs should be questioned, as should all sources of authority - be it the voice of God, a charismatic prophet, or Richard Dawkins.

If I had to complain about one aspect of the book, it would be its overemphasis on polygamy. The polygamist relationships of both modern and historical Mormons are whipped out as if the mere mention of multiple partners should send shivers up the reader's spine. I may write a follow-up post to this, but my opinion, in short, is that it's not polygamy itself that is troubling. Rather, it is the irrational beliefs that are the cause of polygamy in Mormons, and the monumental abuse of women and girls that polygamy often (but not always) leads to, that should be eradicated.

Sarah lent me this book, thinking it'd be up my alley, and she was so right. It's hard to say I "liked" it, since much of my reaction to it is jaw-dropped horror, but especially in the early chapters when both the historical background and the murder story are fresh, it is an astounding, mind-blowing read. Anyone with any interest in religious belief, true crime, or both, should pick up Under the Banner of Heaven immediately.


sarah said...

I'm glad you, uh... I'm glad the book was up your alley! Polygamy on its own and out of context is not totally wrong your right, but the brainwashing that starts in Mormon families that normalizes rape, pedophilia and control of women and girls is what Krakauer focused on and that is totally violent and completely relevant to the story being told. Especially because treating women like property and extreme sexism is part of what lead to the murders. I think it's totally on point and he never just "whipped out" polygamy by itself as if by virtue polygamy was bad. I disagree with that critique.

I would have liked to read more about the crazy racism that is such a large part of the Mormon faith, but basically there is so much crazy, interesting stuff going on in other areas, that it could be an entire other book probably.

I agree that he tied it all up very nicely and brought it all back to a comment on faith in general. So great I thought.

sarah said...

ick, sorry, i was in a rush and meant: "not totally wrong, you're right," I was just excited and wanted to get it out really fast!!

Phronk said...

My criticism is more of the tone and omission than any underlying points Krakauer makes. Like, he often refers to people or groups of people as "polygamists"; sure they're polygamists, but that's not their defining feature and not the worst thing about them. Maybe I'm off base, but I just got the feeling that polygamy was assumed to be intrinsically bad.

And he never explicitly separates polygamy from sexism and abuse. In Mormonism especially, they are all related, stemming from the same source, but I think it's important to emphasize that they can be separated and one does not inevitably lead to the other.

The racism is interesting too. I bet a case could be made that racism is also an integral part of Mormon history (e.g. darker skin = bad being right in their sacred texts). It's nuts that they now allow black people into positions of power in the church, but interracial marriage is still forbidden.

But yes, the book was so great! Thanks again, Sarah.

Anonymous said...

Yep, the thing that is tricky about "rationality" is that it is always dependent on where you "start" from... or, anything can be rational with the necessary presuppositions in place. In this sense, rationality is a presupposition, since everyone generally claims their views are indeed rational. Who gets to "choose" what "rational" means for everyone?

Thanks for the review. I'll definitely add this to my reading list. Sounds like an intriguing read.

Tatiana said...

The only thing I can think of when I read books dealing with any religion (esp. fundamentalism) is

Faith conquers all, especially logical thought.

On a corollary, I'm currently reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali which is no less disturbing in its own right, and highly recommended.

Although in defense of religion, it's only a symptom of the general human condition not the cause of it. Many problems in the name of religion would be problems anyhow simply through the virtue of being human.

Phronk said...

James: True. But to answer your question somewhat tongue-in-cheekily, reality chooses what rational means. That is, we can't take your points so far as to say that every viewpoint is equally valid. There is an underlying reality that exists apart from human experience, and some beliefs necessarily correspond closer to it than others.

Tatiana: Thanks for the recommendation of Infidel; I'll have to look into that. And I agree that human nature is the root cause of many of our problems. Although I also think religion can be both a symptom and a cause, sometimes feeding the destructive side of human nature (but sometimes the constructive side too).

Hey Lady! said...

I will have to look into this book. Though it does worry me that it might villainize Mormonism and other religions. I think some people use religion as an excuse to act on the evil impulses they have, which is absolutely wrong and I believe totally not the point of religion. And it's these people who make other believe that all religion leads to destruction. I feel religion does far more good then bad in the world.

Phronk said...

I don't think it villainizes mainstream Mormonism; it's careful about distinguishing it from fundamentalist Mormonism (which he comes down hard on, for good reason I think). Though they share the same history, so it's hard not to be critical of both.

sarah said...

The sexism and abuse is implied in Mormon polygamy. I think he uses polygamist to differentiate between fundamentalist and mainstream Mormons, where polygamy is erased from and no longer ecouraged in their beliefs. This is a book about Mormonism, not about alternative lifestyles in free-thinking sub-cutlures relating to open relationships. In this context, polygamy is never a rational relationship entered into freely. Anytime polygamy is referenced in this book, it's always in this context and the sexism and abuse is intrinsic.

This book doesn't unfairly villianize Mormonism, it is just honest about the historical roots of the religion, which are, unfortunately filled with villainy... and corruption. If you are interested in it, I suggest you do look into it. I am very open to others and their religious beliefs and this book was extremely eye-opening to me. I think anyone who is interested in religion in general will be really glad they read it. :)

Hey Lady! said...

Thanks Sarah, and Mike, of course, I think I'll add this book to my "to be read" pile. I'm always interested in what people believe and more importantly why.

Hey Lady! said...

Speaking of Mormons...

Phronk said...

Mmmm, muffin recipes and hot chicks! Bought. :)