Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, a book review

I just finished reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I found it quite captivating, as the narrative moves back and forth between two interesting true stories: the early history of the Mormon church, and a recent double murder committed by two brothers who thought they were fulfilling a divine revelation.

The “hot spots” for the book are polygamy and the notion of blood atonement, both of which appear to be integral to the history of the Mormon faith (and perhaps still are). I had a good bit of familiarity with the early parts of LDS history, having visited Hill Cumorah and Nauvoo on various trips, but I was not nearly as familiar with the history after Smith’s death, when Brigham Young took over. He had a whole different skill set from Joseph Smith, and I appreciated the opportunity to reflect upon the significance of leadership style.

I need to do more reading about blood atonement, throughout history. It certainly is a pervasive, cross-cultural belief which must speak to something very primal within the human heart. Does it still?

One issue that the book addresses is divine revelation. The Mormon church is built on the idea of direct, personal revelation from God to a particular person, the weight of which has the weight of scripture. The person receiving this revelation (male, of course, white preferably) is perhaps a prophet, the “one who is mighty and strong” whose appearance is prophesied in scripture. The two brothers who murdered their sister-in-law and her baby daughter felt that God had revealed this to be his will.

I have known some charismatic religious leaders in my time. They are scary. Yet we Christians stand in a tradition of prophets who would have been pretty scary folks to meet. It ought to at least give a believer pause. We need to suspend judgment to accept faith. How far a leap is it to suspend judgment entirely?

A book like this renews my appreciation for the carefully considered safeguards of the Presbyterian church. There is a reason we invest power in groups rather than individuals. Of course, we always face the problem of becoming bogged down in bureaucracy, or of moving too slowly to be responsive to the Spirit.

Every religious faith must find its way between the fiery breath of divine revelation and the mundane realities of institutional life, all the while adjusting to a culture that makes all of this seem rather irrelevant.

Where’s the money, right?

Friends, notice the numbers. At present there are 2 million Presbyterians in the United States. By comparison, do you know how many Mormons there are? More than 6 million (just in the USA). We’re not talking about splinter sect or cult anymore. Read up!


2 responses to “Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, a book review”

  1. Margaret DeRitter Avatar
    Margaret DeRitter

    Good review of the book, Ruth. I’ve been meaning to read it, and this is a good reminder. One thing I disagree with in the review. I don’t think you have to suspend judgment to have faith. Faith in part means believing that there is more to… life than meets the eye, that there is a sustaining spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. But I believe that, not because I’ve suspended judgment, but because for me the world nearly shouts of its creator and because my own experience seems to connect me with the spirit of God. Faith goes beyond the rational, but it doesn’t conflict with it. When I consider the story of Jesus, I use judgment to consider whether it could be true and look for supporting evidence. Paul Maier’s books are a good example of this.

    1. Gosh Marg, nice of you to transfer the comment here from FB! I hope the mechanics were easy. I’ve been thinking about your comment. I’m not exactly sure what I meant when I wrote “suspended judgment”. I think just the notion that faith is not primarily a rational operation. Curious, I looked up the definition in Wikipedia — “Suspension of judgment is a cognitive process and a rational state of mind in which one withholds judgments, particularly on the drawing of moral or ethical conclusions. The opposite of suspension of judgment is premature judgment, usually shortened to prejudice. Whereas prejudgment involves drawing a conclusion or making a judgment before having the information relevant to such a judgment, suspension of judgment involves waiting for all the facts before making a decision.”
      For what that’s worth.
      How does a person come to faith, that’s the question, and what leaves them clinging to that faith, especially when it steps into irrationality (as the characters in the book did — they definitely crossed the line into a kind of psychosis). We both know folks who have been at least borderline in their faith expression.
      For me faith is not irrational, but that’s not why I believe. I believe because I was born into belief and it shapes how I see every experience. But lately, more and more, I’ve been hitting a “sticking point” about blood atonement, which was one of the factors of the Mormon faith. And we Christians have just been through Good Friday. What is the role of the cross? I notice you don’t mention it in your comment — you touch on Creator and Spirit. I don’t think the cross was emphasized in our background. Would you agree?
      Thanks for giving me something to think about. Hopefully we will keep hammering on some of these ideas in June.

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