Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was one of my traveling companions in Tuscany. Here Krakauer, who has developed a reputation for writing about the extremes of physical adventure (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild), turns his attention to extremes in religious belief, in this case Mormon fundamentalism. The book turns on the true story of two Mormon fundamentalist brothers who killed their sister-in-law and her infant daughter because they were convinced that God had told them to do it. The Lafferty brothers’ grotesque crime becomes an occasion on which to explore the often violent history of Mormonism, from its founding by Joseph Smith and his endorsement of polygamy, to the later fundamentalist sects that to this day view their version of Mormonism as the one, true extension of Smith’s teachings.
The book is fascinating: it weaves in and out of the larger history of Mormonism as it narrates the story of two diabolically misguided men who claimed to have a direct line to divine revelation and acted on that tragic misunderstanding. But the book also leaves me with a renewed sense of humility about the claims we in the Christian tradition can also tend to make about “hearing” from God and discerning God’s will. (Abraham’s near sacrifice of his own son Isaac– because God tells him to do it– has always troubled me, for example, on a number of levels.)
Krakauer, who is not religious but who grew up with Mormons, many of whom he respects, saves his praise for the Mormons who have remained faithful to their tradition but also rigorously honest about Mormonism’s problematic history and deeply committed to openly asking the hard questions.
In his final remarks, Krakauer delivers an honest summation of his own “theological frame of reference”– because he “owes it to his readers.”
“I don’t know what God is, or what God had in mind when the universe was set in motion,” he writes. “In fact, I don’t know if God even exists, although I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.”
“There are some ten thousand extant religious sects– each with its own cosmology, each with its own answer for the meaning of life and death. Most assert that the other 9,999 not only have it completely wrong but are instruments of evil, besides. None of the ten thousand has yet persuaded me to make the requisite leap of faith. In the absence of conviction, I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life. An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain– which doesn’t strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.
And if I remain in the dark about our purpose here, and the meaning of eternity, I have nevertheless arrived at an understanding of a few more modest truths: Most of us fear death. Most of us yearn to comprehend how we got here, and why– which is to say, most of us ache to know the love of our creator. And we will no doubt feel that ache, most of us, for as long as we happen to be alive.”
Modest claims, yes– but also a deep appreciation for mystery and the inherent wonder of simply being alive, the very things that religious fundamentalism would put to death.