“Under the Banner of Heaven” is the third book I’ve read by Jon Krakauer. Fourth if you count his mini-book “Three Cups of Deceit.” Krakauer is an incredible writer—he is thorough, deliberate, provoking, and entertaining all at the same time.
My first experience with Krakauer was “Into the Wild,” about Christopher McCandless, a lost soul who ends up tragically freezing to death in an abandoned school bus in Alaska. The book is stellar, with excellent descriptions of climbing, and also, why people climb. It’s a story about someone with an extreme personality that exists on the edge of mental illness. It’s an important book.
The second Krakauer book I read was “Where Men Win Glory.” Two books in my life have left me angry, and this was one. This was the expertly researched recounting of the Pat Tillman story. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire, and after a despicable coverup, his death was used as war-mongering propaganda by the Bush Administration. (I shy away from raw political overtones here, but read this book, and I dare you to disagree with me.) Tillman is another “extreme personality,” the kind that Krakauer favors. He’s the American hero who didn’t want to be. And the Tillman episode will remain a dark stain on our history. (An aside, the only other book that made me as angry was “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers. It’s the true story of an American hero during Katrina.)
Then came “Three Cups of Deceit.” Our very first book club was about “Three Cups of Tea” and I had become a true believer in Greg Mortenson, who was, according to himself, building hundreds of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Krakauer fell for it too. But there are no heroes, and eventually, Mortenson’s scam started to reveal itself. Published originally on the fantastic byliner.com, Krakauer wrote a scathing undressing of Mortenson. The beauty of the mini-book was that Krakauer came across as almost regretful that he had to use his powers against someone who had become a hero. You know, like the kind and gentle former boxer who reaches a breaking point and must throw a punch to defend someone’s honor.
All of this is what led my sister to remind me that Jon Krakauer is Not The One. (For the uninitiated, this is apparently an “in” phrase on college campuses, describing someone that you should not mess with.)
Recognizing that I’m not reading these in order, now comes “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Beginning with a horribly violent murder of a woman and her child by the woman’s fundamentalist husband and brother-in-law, this book recounts the history of the Mormon religion, describes the various fundamentalist sects that have since split from the mainstream LDS faith, and illuminates the culture of the religious Mountain West. A significant portion of this book is spent discussing Mormons, polygamy, and the church’s controversial history. But let me be clear, this book is not about Mormons. To paraphrase the movie “Clue,” Mormonism is just a red herring.
This book is about religion.
Krakauer uses a remarkable and horrifying story (an extreme story, if you are looking for a pattern) to dissect the broader topic of religious beliefs—and the lengths that people will go to in order to honor those beliefs. Krakauer’s discussion of the Mormon faith is useful here not because some of the rituals and beliefs are foreign to large parts of American society, but because the religion is relatively new. Its development and growth can be tracked through a modern historical process. The historical flaws found by secular historians could be found in any religion—if only they were able to contemporaneously examine the history of said religion.
Let me cut to the chase. The climax of the book takes place when experts are called to testify that the brother-in-law, the fundamentalist who steadfastly believes that God specifically ordered him to murder his sister-in-law and niece, is in fact sane—sane enough to be executed by the State of Utah. These experts proceed to argue that his unusual beliefs and ideas aren’t so different from what would be considered ordinary religious beliefs. The final expert lands a devastating blow to the defense when he responds to one of their main points of evidence. The defense introduces a standard industry manual for diagnosing mental disorders and notes that the manual indicates “’false beliefs,’ by definition, are delusions.” Surely the murderer’s false beliefs (such as an order by God to murder) would be characterized then as delusions, indicating he was mentally ill? The psychologist responds: “Almost every religious belief system that I know is made up ninety percent of things that are articles of faith and cannot be reduced to fact. So by using your definition, they would all be false—they would all be delusional.”
Arriving at this courtroom scene after some 280+ pages of Krakauer’s narrative is to realize that Krakauer has just been screwing with you the whole time. All of a sudden, you are brought face-to-face with the fact that the frightening story of religious fundamentalism you had been reading is not as foreign as you wanted it to be. My head was spinning a bit. My own religious attitudes, shaky as they sometimes are, were poked and prodded by the themes in this book, and I was left more skeptical of organized religion and of a Church (with a capital C). It is frustrating that any religion could claim that their version of events is the one infallible truth. It’s just not rational. I think Krakauer sums it up beautifully in his coda:
“I’ve come to terms with the fact that uncertainty is an inescapable corollary of life. An abundance of mystery is simply part of the bargain—which doesn’t strike me as something to lament. Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite, capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.”
My intent in raising Krakauer’s critique of religion here is not to insult any one religion, especially Mormonism. I respect, even admire, anyone who chooses to be religious, faithful, and even devout. I consider myself to be at least one of those descriptors. I believe faith is an important part of the human experience and while Jon Krakauer makes a lot of sense to me in this book, I recognize and appreciate that others may find him to be way off base. The bottom line for me is this: one of the best parts about reading books is exploring different, and even uncomfortable, perspectives. We live in a remarkable country, one that permits us to read a book that might challenge something we find to be fundamental. That’s a beautiful imperative.
Now back to my original point. We’re not dealing with an ordinary author. Bring up Krakauer to nearly anyone, and you’ll likely get a reaction to one of his books. (I’ve not even addressed his original, and some say his best, work, “Into Thin Air.”) I have a hard time forgetting what I have read by Krakauer—it is the kind of material that stays with you for far longer than you would expect. That’s the mark of a great author. It’s why, altogether now, we repeat: Jon Krakauer is Not. The. One.
Thanks for reading.