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Review: ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ by Jon Krakauer

May 27, 2015
Under the Banner of Heaven

This book was a wonderful look at fundamentalist belief that really got me thinking. I grew up LDS, so a lot of what this book covered resonated with me. Krakauer goes into a lot of detail about the history of the Mormon faith, so it was interesting to see the differences in the way people react to that history. In my case, it led me to Atheism; how could something that started with so much lying and dissembling possibly be true? In the case of the Lafferty’s, who’s heinous crimes are the subject of this book, it drove them to fundamentalism, as they saw the church’s history as truth and mainline Mormonism as a departure, therefore an abomination. The current, mainstream LDS reaction to church history is usually to claim that most accurate history of the founding of the Mormon religion is ‘anti-Mormon’ literature and discouraging its members to delve too deeply in to any historical research, however recently, with the publishing of official essays on Church history they have made an attempt to address these historical issues in a world where information is increasingly right at our fingertips.

Under the Banner of Heaven

What really struck me about Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven was his complete lack of judgement. When writing about a double murder, child abuse, spousal abuse and religious fundamentalism it is easy to become emotional and angry in your writing style. Krakauer, however, remains an impartial writer, presenting the facts as they appear, whether it be from the mouth of the victims, or from the perpetrators. Even the Mormon history he presents is in a matter of fact style, rather than lending any kind of emotional indignation to the founding of the LDS church. The early Mormons do not come across as blameless in some of the atrocities they perpetrated in the founding of their church, but then neither do the early Americans, who committed equally horrendous crimes against the Mormons. I found it quite refreshing. These topics can be quite emotionally charged.

What really struck me, was how Krakauer just understood what was relevant, and conveyed it in a way that can appeal to every reader. He understands what it is to be driven by faith and does not judge it. He also understands the pain and emotional trauma that comes with leaving one’s faith. But where this book really shines is in its study of the rationality of faith. To outsiders, the Lafferty murders seem to be the product of madness. Two men truly believe, without regret, that they were instructed by God to kill a woman and her baby. When it comes to prosecuting, however, it raises all kinds of question about madness vs. belief. Just because faith turns violent, does that make it a product of insanity? And if you apply insanity to it does it then, by extension, mean that all religious faith is a product of insanity? When is faith mad, and when is it rational? Neither I, nor this book professes to have those answers. “How can a society actively promote religious faith on one hand and condemn a man for zealously adhering to his faith on the other?”

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was deep, truthful, thoughtful and for me at least, highly personal. I will leave you with the parting words of a fundamentalist apostate. Like so many of us who leave our faiths, we go through a period of questioning, confusion, and indeed unhappiness while we find ourselves in a world that essentially has a far different reality to the one we grew up in. “But some things are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself.” To all of you struggling with your faiths out there, I promise, the unhappiness of uncertainty will pass. The ability to think for yourself is well worth the uncertainty you will face.

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