Friday, August 26, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer

The full title for this book is Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, and I really feel that the subtitle is the least superfluous subtitle in the history of books. Or at least in the history of books that I have read. If I had to choose one word to describe this book, I would have to go with "violent."

Under the Banner of Heaven tells the story of a double murder committed by two fundamentalist Mormons because, essentially, God told them to. But instead of just focusing on the murder and the trial, Krakauer delves into the violent history of Mormonism. The short history (the religion was founded under 200 years ago) of Mormonism has been colored by bloodshed, both committed by and against Mormons. I am not a Mormon, so the history of the religion was new to me. I had read the memoir of a former polygamist before, but she didn't really go in to the history of the church the way Krakauer does. I picked up this book after seeing it recommended several times in the comments section on Jezebel articles about the trial and conviction of Warren Jeffs.

Well, I didn't pick up the book. I picked up the audiobook, and that may have been a mistake. I've been in the car a lot the last few weeks, so I grabbed the audiobook to listen to during my drives. Now, I am no stranger to violent fiction. I started reading Stephen King novels when I was in 9th grade. However, listening to the description of how an 18 month old had her throat slashed to the point that she was nearly decapitated.... I almost vomited in my car. I'm not sure if it was the fact that this is a true story or if it was actually hearing the words out loud.... but it was very unsettling. I guess if I was reading the physical book I could have just skimmed that paragraph, but in the car I didn't have that option. I just turned the radio off and drove in silence until I had worked up the courage to turn it back on.

If you're not so much interested in all the blood and guts, but you are interested in legal proceedings, I would check out this book in order to read about the trials of the murderers. They truly believed they were acting out the word of God (one of the foundations of Mormon beliefs is that all believers have the ability to communicate directly with God). There is a really interesting debate on whether this kind of belief is a delusion. If the belief is a delusion, is the believer then incompetent to stand trial? Does this mean that all religious zealots would automatically be ruled incompetent? Could no person of faith be held responsible for their own actions?

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith is a great book. Check it out if it's something you're interested, but you've been forewarned: it's definitely not for the faint of heart.