(This is a book review of The Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer, 372 pages, first published in 2003 by Doubleday, New York, and by Macmillan of Great Britain the same year).

J on Krakauer is a skilled writer. He has that gift of building up a compelling and dramatic picture of the events which he focuses upon, to the degree that it can be genuinely hard to put one of his books down.

Here his focus is on an actual cruel double murder carried out by deluded fundamentalist polygamy-practising mormons during the 1980s. His book starts out with an account of the terrible murder of a young mother and her baby, then backs off in order to fill in the characterisation of all the figures involved and how events led up to this terrible act. When this has been accomplished (around the middle of the book), Krakauer returns again to the murder scene with the events described this time by the killer.

The author spent considerable time researching the material, even getting interviews with almost all the major players, including the killer (now serving life imprisonment), and he should be congratulated for his meticulous and painstaking work.

But since I am more used to reading about such groups as the 'Latter-Day Saints' from the pen of Bible-believing evangelical Christians in an Apologetics, or Countercult format, I occasionally had to back off a little here in order to remind myself that Mr Krakauer is apparently very much a man of our liberal 21st century western culture. He tells us that - for himself - he is not even sure that God exists (page 338); therefore we do not find indignation here that the Word of God is being perverted by such groups, indeed he is not interested in the Word of God too much as far as one can tell. No, the main plank of the thrust here is that fundamentalist religion is always bad and that it can lead to the attempt to justify some pretty evil things in the name of God.

Krakauer helps us enter a most odd, eerie and chilling world which reminds us that passionate religious persuasion can be a most dangerous thing! We learn much of those 'fundamentalist mormons' (his expression) who only hold to the original purist Joseph Smith version of this very odd religion.

We enter a world of "prophets" who believe that God is still directly revealing His will, but only to devout fundamentalist mormons. It was such a revealed 'prophecy' which instructed that a mother and her baby should be killed with an assurance offered that the killers would be merely carrying out God's will. This tragic young mother's "sin" was that she had not meekly submitted to her bullying husband as he moved towards getting back to mormonist fundamentals, including polygamy.

We enter a world where every single available cent is extracted from the U.S. government in welfare payments by those who - nevertheless - heartily and profoundly despise that government. Strange indeed.

We enter a world where those mormonist extremists disowned by the official Latter-Day Saints seem to spend a large part of their time discussing how the official Latter-Day Saints can be "reformed" to original extremist glories. Yes, strange indeed. We enter a world where the aforementioned polygamy (plural marriage) is widely practised, although frequently lied about. Apparently the lying presents no offence to God, but "celestial marriage" is utterly divine and mankind denies itself great blessings by rejecting it.

Yet ultimately author Krakauer seems to spend almost too much time attacking polygamy; this appears to be because, as a modern liberal, he is fully supportive of the emancipation of women and feels anger that the individual rights of women are not upheld; yet one cannot help wondering if he would be as angry if he had learned that the fundamentalist mormons widely practised homosexuality, or widely encouraged abortion! For In the selective and perverse morality of our 21st century, abortion and homosexuality are generally considered perfectly fine, but the "rights" of women must never be compromised, even for one moment!

So the writer's perspective here appears to be social, political and anthropological; don't, therefore, expect any consideration of matters of the spirit; perhaps - like many modern liberals - Krakauer does not even believe in any 'world of the spirit,' that - perhaps - it is simply some evolutionary trick of the brain. Presumably (though he never states this) the author believes that if all were good democrat voters, firmly supported the emancipation of women, abortion and homosexuality, there one would have an ideal society, only nasty things like religion being capable of bringing discord into the world.

The writer does well to bring out Joseph Smith's original fascination with the occult and occultic practises, inferring that the roots of his religion might lie here. Much more could have been made of this, but, again we have to realise that the writer does not write as a Christian who is committed to the Holy Bible.

One of the book's strengths is that it does not confine itself to the murders which are a central focus, but tells us a lot about the history of mormon tradition, practise and behaviour. There is much here which the modern, official "Latter-Day Saints" would have to be very embarrassed about and which they wish they could simply forget! We learn much about Smith, Brigham Young and even have an account of the great trek to the Great Salt Lake. We also read of some grisly 19th century murders in feuding between settlers and the early mormons.

All in all, Jon Krakauer does well to show us the danger of misplaced fundamentalist religion, but there are inherent problems here:

  1. While none of us can defend fundamentalist religious fanaticism, it remains the case that, in this world, fundamentalists rarely kill people. Most killers are cold, bitter, mentally perverse, sometimes angry, but almost always godless.
  2. Writing as a non-believer, our author - accomplished in his craft though he surely is - cannot point to any antidote/cohesive explanation/remedy for mormonist fundamentalism. That is, he is simply saying, Look how evil this is! it is because they take their religion too seriously! But many of us would find that a very unsatisfactory stance. He cannot pin down any root causes of such error. He is not able (sadly) to say, If people fully understood and adhered to the Christian gospel, as biblically presented, they would be model citizens in 98% of cases! He is not able to perceive that Satan is the real cause of religious confusion and misguided fanaticism.

These are areas of weakness in this book for Christians, but unbelievers will not be bothered, and 'moderns' will positively love the writer's unselective hatred of "fundamentalist" religion. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the theological justifications for certain actions and teachings, but one needs to go to a Christian writer for that.

This book is far from being an encouraging, uplifting sort of 'read,' in fact it is often extremely disturbing, unsettling and sometimes quite harrowing; one is simply left with an admiration for the author's writing skill, to say nothing of his prodigious research, and one certainly finds all kinds of details about the 'Latter-Day Saints' emerging which one had previously been unaware of. Moreover, all the main points of mormon history seem to be included. Ultimately the book falls short - seriously short - in the area of insightful theological and philosophical explanation and evaluation. If you want that, you need to go elsewhere.

Robin A. Brace, 2004.