Somewhere at the end of Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer writes:
“…those 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…There are some ten thousand extant religious sects … most assert that the other 9.999 not only have it completely wrong but are instruments of evil, besides. None of the ten thousand has yet persuaded me to make the requisite leap of faith. In the absence of conviction, I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life.”
And this is coming from a man who survived getting stuck on Mount Everest during the heaviest storm in recorded history while his oxygen ran out, mind you. One visit to the always bubbly christianforums.com will confirm that he’s right about different sects loathing each other, too.
I’m familiar with quite a few of those sects, even if the finer theological differentials escape me, but not with the one that is the subject of Under the Banner of Heaven: Mormonism, or the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
I am from the Netherlands. The Dutch don’t do Mormonism. There’s one temple and I’m betting it’s kept up with money coming in from Utah and not from donations of the local patrons, who are far and few in between. My only personal experience with Mormons is seeing a few of them standing in a market square in the city of Eindhoven, enjoying the sun while holding some books and patiently waiting for people to approach them. They looked friendly enough, in their shirt sleeves and ties. I remember thinking “Oh, look. Mormons. How quaint” before they vanished from my mind.
My experience with Mormonism is limited to this, that South Park episode, and Big Love, as, I suppose, it is for quite a few people.
In that sense, Under the Banner of Heaven is quite an eye-opener. The narrative has a wide scope and roughly examines two timelines simultaneously. The book begins and ends with the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her young daughter Erica by two fundamentalist Mormon brothers. In between we find the story of the Mormon church, its Genesis at the hands of prophet Joseph Smith and its Exodus throughout America before settling in Utah. The book focuses, somewhat predictably, on polygamy, though it doesn’t skimp on details in other areas. It is entertaining enough; Krakauer’s prose is fluent and rich and the disbelief that occasionally shimmers through is quite entertaining.
What did make me wonder, though, is that though Krakauer expresses his admiration for Mormons and their church, this book focuses very much on the negative tenets. There are stories of Mormon vigilantism, rape and forced marriages, teenage pregnancy, great poverty, and mental illness. Some of this comes from Krakauer’s focus on fundamentalism, but also because he moves away from mainstream Mormonism as soon as it decides to abandon polygamy; there is no redemption for mainstream Mormonism. This is understandable as the book’s main goal is to explore the effect of polygamy and why the fundamentalists feel the way they do, but it did make me wonder about his self-professed admiration of team LDS.
Oddly, though the ills of polygamy are well-documented in this book, one thing Krakauer never discusses is the banishment of young boys that results naturally from having at least three women to every man; or the rampant infant mortality leading from generations of inbreeding occurring on the dreary, impoverished compounds he describes.
Nevertheless, Under the Banner of Heaven is a good read. I especially enjoyed his description of how the church came to be, as I kept thinking to myself that this would make a cracking HBO miniseries, full of dark humour, rich narrative scope and cracking adventures.
Then again, I now know about Blood Vengeance. Maybe not.