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Book Corner Feb 2006

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN: A STORY OF VIOLENT FAITH

By Jon Krakauer.      
New York:  Doubleday, 2003  P. 372

Reviewed by Dr. S. K. Hedahl

            Jon Krakauer says he wrote this book because of "a desire to grasp the nature of religious belief." (332).   His work focuses on the Mormon Church and the offshoots that have created prophetic, violent and polygamous communities in the Western United States.   The lens Krakauer uses to consider this mix is the murder of a wife and her child by Ronald and Dan Lafferty in 1984 in Utah. 

            The book unfolds through the descriptions of the brothers as well as a number of men – or "prophets"- who lead Mormon splinter groups founded on polygamy. male leadership, the subjugation of women and children and an often violent opposition to those outside their community.    The nature of the religious beliefs in these communities depicts a variety of bizarre biblical interpretations transmitted as a template for ordering life for those who believe them.  Krakauer describes the geographical stretch of these little known groups, ranging through the southern and western United States all the way into Canada.

            One of the strengths of this book is a detailed look at the history of the origins of Mormonism, as a truly uniquely home-grown America religion or sect (you can take your pick).   At stake is always the issue of what type of religious person lives out the agenda of the leaders of these splinter groups and their followers:  are these people insane? or as Krakauer puts it" or at least no more insane than anyone else who believes in God…."? (303)

            In deciphering not only the personalities of the two killers but as a reference probe for other Mormon leaders, Krakauer turns to the DSM-IV, the manual used in American psychiatric diagnostic processes.  It would seem one category that fits these men Krakauer writes of is the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).   This does go far in explaining some of the actions and motivations of such leaders.  Yet, the author senses more.

         Krakauer notes:  "This, after all, is a country lead by a born-again Christian, President George W. Bush, who believes he is an instrument of God and characterizes international relations as a biblical clash between forces of good and evil.  The highest law officer in the land, Attorney General John Ashcroft is…a follower of a fundamentalist Christian sect – the Pentecostal Assemblies of God- who begins each day at the Justice Department with a devotional prayer meeting for his staff, periodically has himself anointed with sacred oil, and subscribes to a vividly apocalyptic worldview that has much in common with key millenarian beliefs held by the Lafferty brothers…." (294-295)

            This book deserves a careful read because of the information it provides on the Mormon Church and the mindsets it creates.  With more Mormons in the world than Presbyterians or Episcopalians, Krakauer offers mainline church goers a masterful approach to turning the kaleidoscope of Mormon religious belief, personality, obsession, sex and community into a fine work.  He may not answer his own questions, but he sharpens one's sense of the world of committed faith and those who ardently believe in a certain version of God.