Friday, March 12, 2010

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

...The spirit burns for Pamela with a white-hot flame. The energy she draws from it is palpable; one can almost feel the heat emanating from her skin. "I tell you," Pamela says, pressing her hands to her chest, beaming, "when you feel that spirit--the real spirit--there's nothing like it. You're full of fire inside."

And that fire is being spread very effectively to the next generation of fundamentalists. Pamela's daughter Emmylou, who is on the cusp of adolescence, lays out plans for a house she has designed across the dining room table. "I did it on the internet, according to the Principle," she declares shyly, and then points out the home's numerous special features.

..."It's eighty-five feet long by seventy-five feet wide, all on one floor. This center part here will be open, like a courtyard. Over on this side is where the children's rooms are--one for the girls, one for the boys. Plus, there is a nursery for the young ones. The father's room, the master bedroom, is over here. And these are the mother's rooms, one wife here and the other wife there. And the neat thing is, there's a space to add another room here for a third wife."

As she describes the many unique elements she has designed, her enthusiasm builds. By the end of the virtual tour her eyes are gleaming. This is her dream home, customized for what she imagines to be the perfect life--the life she hopes to live when she grows up."

Sorry for the long passage, but this came near the end of the book and gave me goosebumps.

Also, this book really got me thinking about religion so forgive me if this gets a little overly philosophical. I'll start by saying I was raised Catholic, left the church after all those priests got caught diddling little kids (and one of our parish's own priests caught looking at child pornography), and now consider myself a non-religious person who believes in something bigger than gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. That's about as specific as I'm able to get.

I started writing a book review here and then the first paragraph turned into a really personal exploration into my concept of what religion is (or has become). I decided not to post that because I don't know that this is an appropriate forum for that sort of thing. I'll just post the one question that triggered my 1000+ word digression: What does it say about religion, religious texts, and ecclesiastical authority that modern religion has moved away from certain rules and laws found within religious texts (that are still considered to be word-of-God by followers) because their practice is now considered archaic (ie. polygamy, pretty much everything in the book of Leviticus, etc.)? To me, this question was an underlying theme of Under the Banner of Heaven that isn't directly addressed but constantly lurking just below the surface. So I'll leave off the philosophy at that and talk a little about the book itself.

Under the Banner of Heaven is a look at Mormonism and Mormon Fundamentalism (mostly the latter) in America over the backdrop of a murder committed by two Fundamentalists in the 1980s who claimed God commanded them to murder a young woman and her infant daughter. Krakauer analyzes the history of the "violent faith" of Mormonism in America. I really have no idea how fair Krakauer's treatment of Mormon Fundamentalism was but the picture he paints is a bleak one indeed. We hear stories of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and incest. Perhaps most frightening is the role that these crimes seem to have a played in the foundation and growth of America's religion.

I really enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven. I didn't really learn anything new and shocking as I learned a lot about Mormon Fundamentalism's shady underbelly during the whole Elizabeth Smart saga (which is addressed in the book). However, Krakauer's writing is clear and consumable and if you're at all a cerebral person it will make you ponder whatever faith you have.


Christopher said...

The weak nuclear force is the opiate of the masses.

R.M.Fiedler said...

We read this book for one of my undergrad philosophy classes; the murder Krakauer describes is fascinating because it parallels God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

For our paper, I wrote about what someone is supposed to do if:
1) They are religious
2) God tells him to commit murder.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about this problem (conflict between the human ethical and divine commands which humans can only comprehend as irrational).

Antigone was about the same thing.

I did horribly on my paper because I couldn't figure out how someone could live according to their faith and also consistently live up to their ethics if the two were in conflict.


R.M.Fiedler said...

(which is to say, I also enjoyed this book for the way it opens up theological/philosophical issues)

Christopher said...

Where did Kierkegaard write about that?

R.M.Fiedler said...

Fear and Trembling

The whole book's about Abraham, but the beginning is particularly interesting because K. imagines different possible outcomes. I won't ruin the poetry of Kierkegaard, but the different scenarios are powerful.

The scenarios are the "Preparation" and can be read here: