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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 knew Mormon Scripture well enough to argue it. More, she had confidence in her own judgment. When oldest brother Ron began threatening to marry his daughters off as plural wives, Brenda encouraged his wife to divorce him. After the divorce went through, Ron fell into a tailspin, traveling back and forth across the West, smoking marijuana, fantasizing revenge.

The brothers had joined a renegade group called The School of the Prophets, led by a self-styled prophet who called himself Onias. From Onias Ron learned how to hear from God by sitting at a computer keyboard and typing whatever letters came to him.

About a month after Ron received his first message, he recorded this prophecy: Thus Saith the lord unto My servants the Prophets. It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in My path and I will not allow My work to be stopped. First thy brother's wife Brenda and her baby. … When Ron shared the prophecy with others in the School of the Prophets, some were alarmed, but nobody tried to stop him by alerting authorities or warning Brenda.

On July 24, 1984, Dan and Ron Lambert murdered Brenda and her infant daughter Erica. One of the brothers, probably Dan, cut their throats with a boning knife after telling the 15-month-old, "I'm not sure what this is all about, but apparently it is God's will that you leave this world."

Side by side with this blood-curdling tale, Krakauer relates the history of Mormonism. (While much of the story is well-documented, the reader would be wise to keep in mind the origin of Krakauer's project: as a chronicler of Mormon history, he starts with an agenda.) He romps through the discovery of ancient golden tablets in upstate New York, warfare with the Gentiles in Missouri, Joseph Smith's secret revelation and practice of polygamy, his murder in Illinois, and Brigham Young's fearless mass movement to untamed Utah. In Utah, Krakauer pays particular attention to the massacre of a Gentile wagon train at Mountain Meadow.

Besides drawing attention to Mormonism's rich history of violence, Krakauer focuses on the Mormon view of revelation. "In the beginning, Joseph Smith had emphasized the importance of personal revelation for everyone," instructing Mormons to "seek direct 'impressions from the Lord.'" To this day the official title of the supreme leader of the lds Church is "President, Prophet, Seer and Revelator." Continuing revelation enabled the church to drop polygamy, and to accept African Americans as full members, despite earlier contradictory messages from God.

Mormon fundamentalists got their own messages. As the lds moved toward mainstream America, fundamentalists stayed outside—far outside. Krakauer concentrates on Colorado City, Arizona, a thriving town of fundamentalists in a remote strip north of the Grand Canyon. "Uncle Rulon," the town's ruling patriarch, married more than 50 wives and fathered at least 65 children. Uncle Rulon did not allow his followers to watch TV or read newspapers, or to talk to anyone outside his church. According to Krakauer, local schools, courts and government are controlled by Rulon's church. (He died in 2002.)

Some of what Krakauer describes could fit fundamentalism anywhere—authoritarian leaders, oppressed women, factional strife over doctrinal controversies, an intolerance of dissent. (Some of it might even fit a university faculty or two.) Mormon fundamentalists go further out, though, practicing polygamy (which Krakauer says often involves young teenage girls given by their parents to older men), and in some cases using real bullets to fight doctrinal battles.

Krakauer's contention is that they are of a piece with Mormonism's history. Furthermore, he suggests, all religions start out just as wild and irrational. Uncle Rulon hears from God; so did Jesus Christ. What makes one nuttier than the other?

"If Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of his God, isn't everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well? … How can a society actively promote religious faith on one hand, and condemn a man for zealously adhering to his faith on the other?" Krakauer goes on to describe the faith of Attorney General John Ashcroft. "It is a matter of public record, moreover, that the attorney general periodically has himself anointed with sacred oil, has undergone a Pentecostal ritual called 'baptism in the Holy Spirit,' and subscribes to a vividly Apocalyptic world view."

Wide-eyed and melodramatic though Krakauer may be, he reminds us that there is no simple way to tell a prophet from a fruitcake. The problem exercised minds in the Old Testament, it was a major issue during Jesus' ministry, and it remains a significant concern in many Christian churches today. Pentecostals and evangelicals have shown plenty of credulity toward those prophesying all manner of things.

That doesn't mean they would kill someone, though. It doesn't mean that Mormonism's history is just like any other religion's. Each case is different, and must be judged on its own.

The funny thing about Krakauer's point of view is that he uses black and white categories in much the way that fundamentalists do. On one side are those who expect to hear from God; on the other are people who prefer "reason." Music, laughter, family, community, church, service, art—none of these fracture the clear lines. It's God or reason, choose one. If you choose God, you are on the same side as the Lafferty brothers. G.K. Chesterton spoke to this mindset when he wrote, in Orthodoxy,

Everyone who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. … The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

At the end of his book Krakauer offers his personal creed of agnosticism. "Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence … is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief." Are those the only options?

Tim Stafford and his coeditor, Philip Yancey, have recently completed a revised version of The Student Bible.

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