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Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer
Doubleday, 2003
372 pp., $30.00

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Tim Stafford

Hearing Voices

How can you tell a prophet from a fruitcake? (Hint: If you're instructed to murder someone, be skeptical)

In the acknowledgements of Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer admits that he started out to write a weightier study, History and Belief. He intended to probe the question, "How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine?" Fortunately Krakauer veered away from those ambitious plans, and instead wrote an engaging page-turner about a vicious double murder.

As the author of the best-selling Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild, and Into Thin Air, Krakauer owns the journalistic turf of extreme mountaineering. Now he adds extreme religion to his dossier, combining the astonishing stories of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and their followers with an appalling modern coterie of Mormon fundamentalist nut cases. He tells a good story and has produced a very engaging book.

Unfortunately, Krakauer could not quite get rid of that first book. "Faith," he writes in his prologue, "is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion." His enthusiasm for such simplifications never wanes. He appears to believe that because a couple of unemployed excommunicated Mormon misfits came to believe that God told them to murder their sister-in-law and her infant daughter, it follows that everyone who believes that God communicates with human beings is at risk to do the same thing.

There were six Lafferty boys. Raised as strict Mormons—members, that is, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—they were drawn toward an outcast splinter group, the so-called Mormon fundamentalists or FLDS. They wanted to practice polygamy, as they believed God had commanded his people to do. (The LDS church, under heavy federal pressure, gave up polygamy in the late 19th century; the flds, whose numbers are estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000, regard polygamy as not merely acceptable but obligatory.)

Of all the Lafferty wives, only Brenda had the strength to stand up to her husband's demands. She had been to college and ...

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