Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fundamental Truths

by Sean Flannigan
Jon Krakauer, 2003, Under The Banner of Heaven

Continuing on the thread of books I've recently read, I will present a book wholly different than my last, and in the realm of nonfiction. This time I read Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. The book's central focus is on the horrific murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant child Erica. They were killed by Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brenda's brother-in-laws, who were commanded personally to do so by God, or their God at least, the one that speaks into their brains. The Lafferty brothers are Mormons, but that is too simple. They are fundamentalist Mormons, part of one of the ubiquitous sects of the dry West, dividing like cells, spawned by multitudes of differing revelations. From this one detestable act, described throughout the book from all available sources including the brothers themselves, Krakauer shines a light on the violent past and present of this relatively new pariah of a religion.

I say pariah, but in more recent years it has gained a great deal of traction. We've even had, and will have, a possible presidential contender who is of the faith. Mormonism is growing exponentially, much thanks owing to their responsibility to mimic the reproduction of rabbits. More children, more workers, more believers. They send missionaries out across the nation, and further into all the nooks and crannies of the world, suited-up in black and white and kindly asking for everyone's hand in theological union. This, though, wasn't the case at Mormonism's conception, inside an old hat with the face of Joseph Smith, who spoke with confidence of the existence of buried golden plates left by an angel called Moroni. The wild revelations of Joseph Smith needed time to lay down roots in the minds of the people.

It is that beginning, the creation of The Book of Mormon, and the ensuing struggle for legitimacy that Krakauer explores in an effort to explain the phenomenon of Mormonism's fundamentalist progeny. It seemed to me a very level analysis and history of a very guarded and temperamental faith, both the main Latter-Day Saints church and their unintentional polygamist offspring. Krakauer did a great deal of research in order to confidently write about an ever-present but not widely understood religion, using the Mormons' own well-recorded histories and religious texts as well as highly regarded books and personal interviews. The picture that emerges, from Joseph Smith's small band of followers to the more recent polygamist sects, is that of a extremely well-run and tremendously paranoid cult whose power structure at times resembles that of the mafia.

Personally, I couldn't put the book down. It was engrossing, suspenseful and disturbing; a story so strange it had to be real. Like all great sociological or anthropological studies, Under the Banner of Heaven illustrates the malleability of human consciousness under the sway of an ideological construct. A convincing origin story, or at least one which stirs the audience's heart, can evolve (or mutate) into something grander (or more monstrous), given the right circumstances. This is the case with Mormonism, born on the back of a crooked con artist (historically verified) and sold with the gusto of the best Evangelical pastor.

And this is not to single out this one particular religion. The most populous religions, the ones which rule the world's theological pie-charts, all have histories of great crookedness and horrid violence. None should be off the hook. The only difference is those who own much of the pie are the ones whose histories are just large enough to build a religion yet too sparse and ancient to build a case against. The truth is that no-one can scientifically say that any virgin births occurred, ever, or that the supposed product of said unverified event was reborn three days after he died in the company of criminals. The story put forth by Joseph Smith was crazy because it was crazy, but also because it was unfamiliar. Who is to say what is familiar isn't also improbable and crazy as well?

Love it or hate it, Under the Banner of Heaven is an undeniably interesting read and you will know more for having read it. So, go read it.

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