April 16, 2009

Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air (both are great books and worth your time), takes up a different subject matter in Under the Banner of Heaven. This book, as Krakauer puts it in the "Author's Remarks," is his endeavor to "grasp the nature of religious belief" (333) His investigation into the nature of belief, and especially its irrational elements, takes the form of an investigation into the history and beliefs of the Mormon church, with special emphasis on Mormon fundamentalism and the murder of a woman and her infant daughter by two fundamentalists who believed they were doing God's will.

It is clear as Krakauer sets out that he hopes to illumine the "dark side to religious devition" (xxi) and lay bare the irrationality of faith. And lest there be any doubt as to the tack he is taking, he defines faith as follows at the close of the prologue: "Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants raticination, all bets are suddenly off" (xxiii). Not exactly a robust definition of faith, though maybe closer if one limits the scope to "fundamentalism." (Though I don't want to go off the track here and discuss what fundamentalism of the various stripes is and isn't and how it relates to more orthodox faith.) So, back to Krakauer.

Under the Banner of Heaven
is a well-written investigation into a double murder of a young woman and her child by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, investigating both the factors that lead to the killing and the interesting lack of remorse in its wake.

The Lafferty brothers are Mormon Fundamentalists, part of a loose group of Mormons who seek to return the faith to its roots and vigorously defend and follow its doctrines, plural marriage one among many things that they see the modern LDS church waywardly departing from. Ron receives a revelation that he is to kill his sister-in-law and her daughter. Dan goes along with him, and is the one who ultimately carries out the brutal executions. In the wake of these brutal killings, neither man feels significant remorse, instead living confident that they have carried out God's will, a higher law than any earthly laws.

The story brings out many facets peculiar to Mormonism and Mormon Fundamentalism (espeically the importance of ongoing revelation and the authority of these revelations), but it also investigates by extension the nature of faith and its relation to rationality and modern society.

While I don't agree with Krakauer's conclusions that faith is ultimately nothing more than irrational delusion, I think he has none-the-less done a service by writing this interesting book. Beside bringing out the very interesting story of the rise of Mormonism and its later Fundamentalist developments, he also raises important questions about the nature of faith—questions that I think can ultimately be answered much better than Krakauer allows, but he does a service by at least raising the questions.

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