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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, 2004 * * * *

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 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. Krakauer takes readers inside isolated communities in the America, Canada, and Mexico, where some 40,000 Mormon Fundamentalists believe the mainstream Mormon Church went unforgivably astray when it renounced polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Church of Latter-day Saints establishment in Salt Lake City, the leaders of these outlaw sects are zealots who answer only to God. However, Under the Banner of Heaven is not an anti-Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) diatribe, as anyone who has actually read it can attest. There are several attempts in the book to confront basic issues in the context of modern society, i.e. How does one discriminate between one man's inspiration and that of another? What's the role of obedience in society? What are the consequences of total obedience? Krakauer could have written this book about any fundamentalist religious community. He just happened to pick The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Every religion has stories like these--to pick them out and then declare that they represent the mainstream misses the point--namely that every society has to deal with its fringes and some do so better than others.

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