Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; 2003

Dan and Ron Lafferty murdered their brother’s young wife, Brenda, and her baby in cold blood in 1984. Neither brother had any remorse for the crime, claiming the murders were mandated by God. Brenda had been pushing back against the fundamentalist mission that had seized Ron and Dan, which included polygamy. The crime sets the framework for Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer’s examination of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints and its history.

Jon Krakauer’s narrative is fascinating, if not unfocused. Under the Banner of Heaven reads more like a history of Mormonism and “faith-based violence,” and less about the Lafferty brothers and their crime. Krakauer recounts several extreme cases of LSD Saints gone rogue, including a few chapters on Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping, and countless other stories of polygamy and sexual abuse. He also layers the history of the religion with the eventual murders of Brenda and her child, although this narrative approach becomes arduous and disorienting for the reader. I lost a lot of momentum in the middle of the book when al of these layers overburdened each other, but the beginning and end were strong. I do wish more had been devoted to the crime and the aftermath – Ron Lafferty’s trial was absorbing, and I wanted to read more about it. Regardless, Krakauer is a terrific writer, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his books in the future.

Krakauer also approaches the bigger questions – what drives people towards fundamentalism, and then towards violence? More thought provoking: where are the lines between deep faith, religious fanaticism, and insanity? Under the Banner of Heaven was written and published in the wake of 9/11, and although Krakauer isn’t explicit in the parallels between the Lafferty brothers and Islamic terrorists, it’s certainly implied.

I did feel that this book was fairly one-sided. If you look hard enough you can find extremists and fundamentalists in any religion, and Under the Banner of Heaven was pretty much only focused on Mormon fundamentalists – certainly not a fair or clear picture of the entire religion. Obviously, the extreme stuff is the more interesting stuff, so it’s easy to see how it happened that way, but there must be a reason to explain why this religion is growing as quickly as Krakauer asserts that it is.

-M

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