Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven A Story of Violent Faith

by John Krakauer

When this first came out I wasn’t planning on reading it.  I like John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air but as a rule I’m not interested in religion.  I consider myself an atheist by default- I’m not opposed to religion- I’d probably believe in heaven and angels and that sort of thing if I could, but I can’t.  I tried.  I was raised Catholic and was more or less a believer until about the age of 15, when the burden of having to confess to- the kind of things fifteen year olds need to confess to- became too great.  It was mostly a rational choice for me.  I wasn’t getting out of it what I was putting in, so I dropped it.

So religion is something like golf to me- I understand what it’s about but I probably would never even think about it unless someone else brought it up.

I’m also not one of those atheists who think all believers are stupid and/or evil.  If it works for you, do it.  If not, then don’t.  The end.

Again, I wasn’t planning on reading this, but someone left it on the table in the laundry room, which is where people in our complex leave stuff they want to give away*.  So I took it, and I read it.  Here are my thoughts:

I don’t think Krakauer is trying to indict all religion, but he does make a good point that in the beginning of a religion, people tend to be more fervent.  And because they are fervent, they tend to do crazy stuff.  AND later on, when a religion has become institutionalized, some people will want to return to that original fervency and will do crazy stuff.

And the Mormons did some scary stuff in their early years.  I had never heard of the Mountain Meadows Massacre before.  I was shocked.  The novel itself centers on a pair of murders committed by two Fundamentalist Mormon brothers, guys who wanted to return to the original doctrines** of Joseph Smith.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might read it, but he talks to one of the brothers and WOW it is creepy.  Seriously harrowing.

The problem with the book for me is that I don’t grapple with these issues.  I have some interest in how people’s religious beliefs affect me, but I don’t wonder about whether there is a God or what my purpose in the world is.  Those things are on a par with the age and the size of the Universe- stuff my human brain can never hope to comprehend and so I don’t try.  I’m not all that interested in why these guys would do what they did.  As far as I’m concerned, I read their stories and think- these guys are horrible, lock ’em up and throw away the key.

Their reasons for what they did are just too mystifying to me.  They grew up as mainline Mormons.  Krakauer tries to argue, somewhat, that they already had kooky beliefs (mainstream Mormonism) and that, to some degree, they were taking their beliefs to their logical conclusion.  At least that’s what I got out of it.  But he also writes that at least one of them was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.  I don’t know, I just really had trouble buying that Mormonism is all that different than any other religion, it’s just that we’re a lot closer in years to the founding of the religion, so the bureaucratization of the religion hasn’t been fully completed.  And once the religion is bureaucratized, it can move on to mature religion scandals like, err, harboring child molesters.

One thing I loved about the book was Joseph Smith.  Krakauer writes about him with an almost reverent tone, and it’s easy to see why.  Yeah, he was a fraud and a liar.  And yeah, polygamy was just his way of boning as many ladies as he possibly could.  But he sounds like a blast.  Like most religious founders, he was a genius in reading people, someone who really understood the human condition.  Sadly, he used that mostly for his own benefit, but I imagine hanging with him was something no one would forget.  Sure, he might have gone all Jim Jones if he hadn’t have been shot to death at the relatively young age of 38, we’ll never know.

And then Brigham Young came along.  Brigham Young was Paul to Joseph Smith’s Jesus- the guy who came along and sucked all the fun out of things.  I blame most of the suckiness of Catholicism on Paul, and I’m sure Brigham Young was the guy who made Mormonism the religion of those dudes in white shirts, not the religion of personal connections to God.  In the long run, maybe that’s a good thing.

When people say “Mormonism is a cult!”  I disagree.  It’s just like all the other major religions out there.  People show up on Sundays, hang with their friends, maybe follow some of the rules during the week.  A cult is a bunch of brainwashed people living in a compound somewhere, wearing Nikes and castrating themselves.

Now I’m just rambling and I’ll sum it up this way- I liked the history in the book, I was very creeped out by the true-crimey parts of the book*** and it was well and tightly written.  I don’t know that I gained any profound truths about religion, but that could just be me.  It was a fun read- I could barely put it down- and if you can find it in your local laundry room I highly recommend picking it up, but if you want to support Mr Krakauer (who also did the world a service by outing Greg Mortensen and his Three Cups of  Tea book- a book I read and found a little too dramatic to be true) then you should consider buying it.


*Or not- sadly every week I see a new please return my pajamas letter posted on the wall next to the table

**dogmas?  I don’t even know the difference between these two words

***which is what you want in true crime



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