Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer (2003)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok

Rating: 4 Pierogies

Review: FYI - I am on a non-fiction kick.

While on vacation in Aspen I needed something to read and my husband recommended Under the Banner of Heaven since we were in the American west and close to "Mormon Country." Under the Banner of Heaven is written by American author Jon Krakauer who is better known for his writings on mountain climbing and outdoorsey stuff. It is essentially two stories (1) the history and development of Mormonism - the fastest growing religion in America; and (2) the modern double murder committed by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who subscribe to a version of fundamentalist Mormonism. As to be expected, the Mormon Church went completely ballistic when this book was published and have denounced it.

Both stories were captivating. I knew virtually nothing about the history and theology of Mormonism prior to reading this book and now I feel fairly well-versed (at least superficially) regarding the place of Mormonism in American history and culture. I like being knowledgeable about the history of my country and understanding this country's only homegrown major religion is vital. Because Mormonism is so new and young, its founding and evolution are very accessible. Prior to reading this book, I thought Mormonism was a ridiculous religion seeped in fraud and stupidity. Frankly, I still feel that way although I have more ammo after reading this book. The reality is all religions have elements of ridiculousness and ask its followers to believe some crazy things. That said, the established world religions at least have an ancient history and mystery that instill reverence even in the most cynical among us. Mormonism just doesn't. Being able to pull up Joseph Smith's arrest warrant for fraud on google just makes it all the more difficult to take seriously. My two favorite things about Mormonism I learned from this book are (1) Emma Smith, Joseph Smith's wife, thought her husband's testimony about polygamy was complete horseshit, refused to recognize his plural wives and after he died joined a Mormon offshoot with her son which denounced polygamy; and (2) another Mormon offshoot came to Pittsburgh. Not sure what happened to them but you don't see too many Mormons around here.
The story of the Lafferty double murder is a sensational aspect of the book meant to draw in readers. It probably isn't fair to mainstream Mormonism to wrap a book on its history in a double murder committed by crazy fundamentalists but it worked as far as making the book even more interesting and captivating. It is just a hell of a crime drama story. I also think the story of the Lafferty murder (although surely offensive to mainstream Mormons) served a purpose. It shows how and why Mormonism is so popular and fast growing. It also demonstrates how Mormonism's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.
Essentially, Mormonism cuts out the middleman. It tells all Mormon MEN (not the women, eff them) that they can speak directly to God and receive testimony. It is obvious why this would be an attractive religion to many men (hence Mormonism being the fastest growing religion in America). It is also pretty clear why this would be attractive to many freaks in particular.  For example, a man who may want to bang his 12 year old step-daughter would probably find it compelling to subscribe to a religion where God hypothetically can tell him to do so. Additionally, men who might otherwise not be very successful in life may find a religion that gives them the ability to talk to God could help with self-esteem issues. The appeal to your garden variety egomaniac is clear. For most Mormon men born into the religion, it is probably just a nice bonus. The problem is, since anyone can receive testimony (as long as they are a man) the Church cannot control what "testimony" is "recieved" and can't control crazy offshoots from sprouting up all over the place. And that is exaclty what has happened and why you have polygamous groups in Colorado and Arizona and small little individual fundamentalist crazies like the people who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and the Lafferty brothers and Bill Paxton's obnoxious character on Big Love.
Anyway, the book is fascinating and I would recommend it highly.

Although, I doubt anyone would read this book and have their opinion of Mormonism inflated, at the end of the day it didn't make me any more or less hostile to mainstream Mormonism. As long as they aren't hurting anyone who the hell am I to judge? (Fundamentalists who marry children and become welfare dependants to support their brood can kiss my butt, I will judge them very very much.) I am just as likely to vote for Mitt Romney now as I was before reading this book. Also, all the mainstream Mormons I have ever met (while a bit odd for my irreverant and smart-ass sensibilities) have been hard-working, productive, tax-paying citizens who take good care of their children and teach them positive values. As a practical matter, I can only wish all citizens of this country behaved like Mormons.
In the end, like so many things, my thoughts on this matter are summed up perfectly by South Park:
Gary (Mormon Classmate to Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman):

"Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life. and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy. Suck my balls."

1 comment:

  1. This is not about the next door Mormon. It is about a man who has a strange background and is Mormon - whose dad is a polygamist. By the way, miscegenation is still a crime in the mormon world. The mormon reasoning is: "Demons spawn...they can't possibly become priests!"
    Your review was great until the end. I can't vote for either. of these clowns To me it is Black Bush" against"White Bush". Both are running for president. I do know that I don't care for religion. It does more for people on their deathbed than for those with their whole lives ahead of them. Quite disheartening actually. Mormonism is just America's homegrown Islam...(except Mormonism is more racist).
    Doesn't matter who is prezzy now.