Tuesday, 6 February 2018

[Book Review] Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven (MacMillan: London 2003)

Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven (MacMillan: London 2003)

I get a little nervous when I read a genuinely skillful writer covering the big issues of life.  A talented writer can make almost anything readable, but it takes a lot of mental integrity to make a subject interesting and not use the same talents to put forward an impressively persuasive reflection of one's biases.  George Orwell managed it, and so did Anthony DanielsAndrew Roberts probably missed the mark, and Arthur Bryant didn't even try.  This doubt is what made me read this book with a large pinch of salt.

Image from Amazon
 Krakauer is a formidably readable writer.  Under the Banner of Heaven covers three concurrent themes.  Its first theme is the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from the childhood of Joseph Smith to the late presidency of Brigham Young.  Its second theme is the experience and modern fortunes of the various polygamist Mormon splinter groups, particularly the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints.  Its third (and most lurid) theme is the murder of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by their brothers-in-law/uncles Ron and Dan Lafferty.  The thesis is broadly this: the mainstream LDS Church's acceptance of the idea of ongoing Divine revelation is a fatal flaw.  It makes it possible for a church member claiming to have received a revelation to gather a following.  This has lead to the formation of splinter groups which are polygamous and sometimes wildly incesuous (occasionally paedophilic).  At the very far end, it enabled Ron Lafferty to claim that a revelation directed him and his brother to murder two people and plan the deaths of two others.

Ron and Dan Lafferty (Image from here)
The argument is plausible enough, as far as it goes, and Krakauer handles the intersecting narratives persuasively.  The problem is that the book comes to sound like an indictment of a significant whack of Christendom.  I'm reasonably sympathetic to any person who hears their church described in this way, after hearing the reactions of a good number of people to the Catholic Church after the Child Abuse Royal Commission.  One can imagine a Mormon seeing someone reading this book and wanting to tell them "no, no: please, you're getting the wrong picture of us". 


This book, then, is a problem.  The Lafferty murders are indisputably interesting to write about.  They also can't really be understood apart from their religious context.  But as readable as it is, one is left with the strong feeling that a great many good people are being done a disservice.

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