Yesterday I finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. It’s not the newest book, having been published in 2003.
I had to put it down last summer. It’s disturbing and creepy, while offering a lot to ponder about religion in America.
Under the Banner of Heaven is the story of two Mormon fundamentalist brothers who thought God had told them to kill a young mother and her baby, entwined with the entire history of Mormonism, including the persecution it suffered as well as its unflattering moments and its fundamentalist splinters.
Krakauer’s exhaustive historical context is fashioned to try to find out why the two brothers would wind up in the horrible mental, emotional, and spiritual state that allowed them to calmly, confidently murder an innocent woman and her child. (Krakauer claims to have grown up with, and admired, many Mormons. He also says he is not sure if God exists.)
Most disturbing to me was Mormonism’s continual reliance upon prophecies and new revelations, something that seems to be true in both the violent and non-violent segments of the religion, in both its past and its present. I recognize the tone and feel of the prophecies Krakauer records. They remind me of nondenominational charismatic and neo-Pentecostal prophecies I once heard on a weekly basis.
The following excerpt from a 1999 Kenneth Anderson personal essay on Mormonism in the Los Angeles Times, which Krakauer uses in his book, sounded familiar to me, too, because several members of my nondenominational charismatic and neo-Pentecostal churches were talented engineers and computer programmers and medical doctors.
This peculiar commingling of mystical (as well as historically unsupported) doctrines on the one hand and pragmatic rationality on the other is a strong feature of contemporary Mormons as individuals. Educated Mormon culture has long been characterized, for example, by outstanding physical scientists and engineers, as strictly rational as possible in their worldly work yet devout in their adherence to many historical beliefs that would not pass the test of rational science, and believers, moreover, in deeply mystical ideas, even if they would not represent them as such. My own father spent his career as a chemistry professor and university dean, a dedicated and rational teacher of science. Yet in the Mormon Church his function … for many years has been to deliver blessings, to put his hands on the heads of the church members and tell them things as moved by God, which are recorded, transcribed, and kept by the church member as a meditative guide to God’s intentions for him or her in life.