Book Review

 


Under the Banner of Heaven book cover
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

Author:  Jon Krakauer
Publisher:  Doubleday
Page Count:  372 pages (hardcover)

By Rev. Mark Ralls

(UMC.org) -- When we think of violent religious extremists, typically what comes to mind is the Islamic fundamentalist on some foreign shore. Yet, in his latest book, Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer explores how a “home-grown, corn-fed” variant of religious fundamentalism led two seemingly ordinary Americans to commit a horrible murder. Krakauer uses this act to investigate the close connection between religious belief and violent behavior or what he likes to call “faith-based violence.” 

This may seem like an odd departure for the best-selling author of Into Thin Air (an enthralling account of a fatal attempt to climb Mount Everest), but Under the Banner of Heaven is no less adventurous and chilling.

Krakauer begins his investigation with the bizarre crime of two brothers named Ron and Dan Lafferty who shared a strictly fundamentalist adherence to the Mormon faith. In March 1984, Ron Lafferty received a message from God (appearing on the screen of his home computer) directing him to kill his sister-in-law, Brenda, and her 15-month-old daughter. Four months later, he and his brother, Dan, carried out this mission by slitting the throats of both mother and child. While both brothers are now incarcerated (Ron is on death row and Dan is serving two life sentences), neither feels any remorse for their actions. They both believe that they were simply carrying out the irrefutable will of God.

Mormon fundamen-talists aren’t Mormons in the strict sense of the word. They don’t belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But, they do share the same history.
Throughout the rest of the book, Krakauer places their bizarre crime in the context of Mormon history. Mormon fundamentalists aren’t Mormons in the strict sense of the word. They don’t belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But, they do share the same history. In fact, fundamentalists view their lives as a mission to restore two historic beliefs rejected by the official LDS church even though they were fervently upheld by both Joseph Smith (the nineteenth century founder of the Mormon faith) and his famous successor Brigham Young. 

The first of these beliefs is the well-known Mormon practice of plural marriages or polygamy. Krakauer provides a fascinating glimpse into the historical antecedents of this doctrine. He goes into great detail about how Joseph Smith came to the conclusion in 1842 that men should marry more than one wife as well as an illuminating portrait of Smith’s relationship to more than forty of his own spouses. The second belief is nevertheless a vital part of early Mormon history. Both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young preached a doctrine of blood atonement, specifying that those who oppose the purpose of God could be cleansed through the spilling of their blood.

As Mormon fundamentalists, Ron and Dan Lafferty were committed to restoring both plural marriage and blood atonement to their rightful place in the faith. And, when Brenda Lafferty voiced her disapproval encouraging Ron’s wife to leave him, the brothers became convinced that she must atone for her sins with her own blood. 

Combining the skills of a hardcore investigative reporter and a consum-mate storyteller, Krakauer shifts back and forth between the early history of the Mormon church and the bizarre crime of the Lafferty brothers with relative ease.
Combining the skills of a hardcore investigative reporter and a consummate storyteller, Krakauer shifts back and forth between the early history of the Mormon church and the bizarre crime of the Lafferty brothers with relative ease. The result is an inquiry into the religious roots of violence that is both illuminating and chilling.       

Yet, it is here in his conclusions about religious belief, that Krakauer proves less than reliable. Toward the end of the book, he confides that this was not the book that he started out to write. What initially interested him was not this true crime story, but the more philosophical question of the incompatibility of faith and reason. This underlying skepticism sometimes clouds his judgment. For instance, at several points Krakauer strains to draw a seamless connection between mainline Mormon theology and the bizarre beliefs of the Lafferty brothers. There is a world of difference between the faith of Brigham Young and that of Dan Lafferty. At times, Krakauer seems determined to blur these differences and that is unfortunate. 

Perhaps even more disconcerting, the line that Krakauer draws between religious belief in general and violent fundamentalism is quite thin. For him, faith is by nature “non-rational” and “impervious to intellectual argument.” Embedded in every expression of faith, it seems, are the seeds of fundamentalism and violence. By the end of his narrative, Under the Banner of Heaven begins to read as a cautionary tale against the inherent dangers of religious belief itself. Like many believers, I found these conclusions unpersuasive and found myself wishing for a more balanced appraisal and less polemical tone. 

Share your comments about this book with other readers.

The Rev. Mark Ralls is senior pastor of St. Timothy United Methodist Church, Brevard, N.C.

Please be aware that when you purchase a copy of this book through UMC.org, you are directly supporting this ministry.



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