Monday, October 09, 2006

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Krakauer had written a few journalistic pieces on those who push to the extreme ends of human adventure before he became so hugely successful for publishing Under the Banner of Heaven. One of these previous works, Into the Wild, was a pretty interesting account of a young man found dead in the Alaskan outback, and how he ended up there. But Into the Wild in no way prepared me for this fascinating, often chilling (no exaggeration) expose in extremist Mormonism.

A few things you probably don’t know unless you read this book:

1) Mormonism is the fastest growing religion on the planet; currently there are something like twenty million of them worldwide.

2) Mormonism asks a believer to swallow some notions which are pretty hard to believe, mostly because their founder, Joseph Smith, seems to have been both eccentric, and widely regarded as fraudulent by a number of people. (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily separate the Latter Day Saints from most other mainstream religions. Good ole mainstream Christianity has some stuff that’s pretty hard to take literally…)

3) Mormonism is a very new religion, so there’s a lot of actual data on it’s founders; the kind of data that typically gets shrouded in myth for older prophets.

4)There seems to be some history of violence in the Mormon faith, leveled at non-believers. (Again, as with most..)

5)There are a significant number of North American Mormon extremists (about forty thousand), for whom polygamy, “bleeding the beast”, very different notions of gender relations, and some other unusual practices are commonplace. You’ve probably heard of Warren Jeffs, recently captured by the FBI – he’s the charismatic leader of a bunch of these folks in the US Southwest.

Krakauer’s painstakingly researched book is not an anti-religious screed; at least not in my opinion. It is, instead, a fascinating look at what makes certain people push well beyond those social limits which normally inhibit certain types of behavior. In the case of a number of Mormon Extremist communities and families described in these pages, this extreme behavior extends to murder, infanticide, kidnapping, rape, and so on.

This is an account of prophets, madmen, murderers, scandals, lots of lurid sex, quite a bit of thinly veiled lust and misogyny. It is an important book for anyone who is interested in comparative theology, for anyone who is consumed by topics in constitutional law, for those who better want to understand the American southwest, or for those who just want to come point and laugh at the freaks, of whom there are many in this work.

A fascinating, lurid, and scary true crime expose in the vein of In Cold Blood, but significantly more topical and interesting.

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