Synopses & Reviews
Jon Krakauer's literary reputation rests on insightful chronicles of lives conducted at the outer limits. In Under the Banner of Heaven
, he shifts his focus from extremes of physical adventure to extremes of religious belief within our own borders. At the core of his book is an appalling double murder committed by two Mormon Fundamentalist brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a revelation from God commanding them to kill their blameless victims. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this "divinely inspired" crime, Krakauer constructs a multilayered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, savage violence, polygamy, and unyielding faith. Along the way, he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America's fastest-growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.
Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the American West, Canada, and Mexico, where some forty-thousand Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. Marrying prodigiously and with virtual impunity (the leader of the largest fundamentalist church took seventy-five "plural wives," several of whom were wed to him when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties), fundamentalist prophets exercise absolute control over the lives of their followers, and preach that any day now the world will be swept clean in a hurricane of fire, sparing only their most obedient adherents.
Weaving the story of the Lafferty brothers and their fanatical brethren with a clear-eyed look at Mormonism's violent past, Krakauer examines the underbelly of the most successful homegrown faith in the United States, and finds a distinctly American brand of religious extremism. The result is vintage Krakauer, an utterly compelling work of nonfiction that illuminates an otherwise confounding realm of human behavior.
"[T]old with raw narrative force and tight focus....Krakauer lays the portent on beautifully, building his tales carefully from the ground up until they irresistibly, spookily combust." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] probing narrative....[Krakauer's] insightful book brings readers closer to an understanding of [the Mormon] religion....[A] first-rate work of nonfiction from one of our most intrepid reporters." Edward Morris, BookPage
"In collecting evidence, Mr. Krakauer ventures out to a lunatic fringe of polygamous self-appointed prophets....[T]his book provides more voyeuristic astonishment than curiosity or understanding." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Includes bibliographical references (p. -358) and index.
About the Author
JON KRAKAUER is the author of Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air, and is editor of the Modern Library Exploration series.
Reading Group Guide
1. In his prologue, Jon Krakauer writes that the aim of his book is to “cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk,” which he concedes is a daunting but useful task for what it may tell us “about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith” [p. XXIII]. What does the book reveal about fanatics such as Ron and Dan Lafferty? What does it reveal about brutality and faith and the connections between them?
2. Why does Krakauer move back and forth between Mormon history and contemporary events? What are the connections between the beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his followers in the nineteenth century and the behavior of people like Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brian David Mitchell, and others in the twentieth?
3. Prosecutor David Leavitt argued that “People in the state of Utah simply do not understand, and have not understood for fifty years, the devastating effect that the practice of polygamy has on young girls in our society” [p. 24]. How does polygamy affect young girls? Is it, as Leavitt claims, pedophilia plain and simple?
4. Joseph Smith claimed that the doctrine of polygamy was divinely inspired. What earthly reasons might also explain Smiths attraction to having plural wives?
5. When Krakauer asks Dan Lafferty if he has considered the parallels between himself and Osama bin Laden, Dan asserts that bin Laden is a “child of the Devil” and that the hijackers were “following a false prophet,” whereas he is following a true prophet [p. 321]. No doubt, bin Laden would say much the same of Lafferty. How are Dan Lafferty and Osama bin Laden alike? In what ways are all religious fundamentalists alike?
6. Krakauer asks: “if Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of God, isnt everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?” [p. 297] Given the nature of, and motive for, the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her child, should Ron Lafferty be considered mentally ill? If so, should all others who “talk to God” or receive revelations—a central tenant of Mormonism—also be considered mentally ill? What would the legal ramifications be of such a shift in thought?
7. Krakauer begins part III with a quote from Bertrand Russell, who asserts that “every single bit of progress
in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world” [p. 191]. Is this a fair and accurate statement? What historical examples support it? What improvements in humane feeling and social justice has the Mormon church opposed?
8. How are mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons likely to react to Krakauers book?
9. Much of Under the Banner of Heaven explores the tensions between freedom of religion and governmental authority. How should these tensions be resolved? How can the state allow religious freedom to those who place obedience to Gods will above obedience to secular laws?
10. Joseph Smith called himself “a second Mohammed,” and Krakauer quotes George Arbaugh who suggests that Mormonisms “aggressive theocratic claims, political aspirations, and use of force, make it akin to Islam” [p. 102]. What other similarities exist between the Mormon and Islamic faiths?
11. How should Joseph Smith be understood: as a delusional narcissist, a con man, or “an authentic religious genius” [p. 55], as Harold Bloom claims?
12. Krakauer suggests that much of John Wesley Powells book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, particularly his account of his dealings with the Shivwit Indians, should be regarded with a “healthy dose of skepticism,” and that it embellishes and omits important facts [p. 245]. Is Krakauer himself a trustworthy guide to the events he describes in Under the Banner of Heaven? Are his writing and his judgments fair and reasonable? What makes them so?
13. What patterns emerge from looking at Mormon history? What do events like the Mountain Meadow massacre and the violence between Mormons and gentiles in Missouri and Illinois suggest about the nature of Mormonism? Have Mormons been more often the perpetrators or the victims of violence?
14. At the very end of the book, former Mormon fundamentalist DeLoy Bateman says that while the Mormon fundamentalists who live within Colorado City may be happier than those who live outside it, he believes that “some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself” [p. 334]. Why does Krakauer end the book this way? In what ways are Mormons not free to think for themselves? Is such freedom more important than happiness?
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Jon Krakauer's deeply unsettling new book, Under the Banner of Heaven.