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Under the Banner of Heaven

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The Book Club book for February was Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer.

Krakauer is a great narrator, his writing draws you in all smooth and slick. This book is written in sort of a quasi-journalistic style, with many newspaper article clippings and direct quotes from the people involved to back up the story. You can read the little bit at the bottom of the book cover above, but I have also provided a gist of the story below:

This is a non-fiction book where Krakauer describes the advent and history of the Church of Latter Day Saints, from its origins in the mid-19th century until present. Rumors swarm around the Mormon faith; its practices and its tumultuous history, but the book attempts to dissect those rumors and unravel the nature of Faith itself. Not so easy a task, but definitely an interesting read.

The title alludes to the insanity of crime and awfulness that people can get away with in the name of God, ie, the Banner of Heaven.

The book focuses mainly on the Fundamentalist Mormons; those who are still strictly white supremacists and who practice polygamy and incest with a intense fervor that could only be generated from centuries of religious sexual repression/shame. This religion, like most, is a patriarchy, but to a heightened degree: women are to be traded like slaves and treated like worse, the likes of which rival Fundamentalist Islam.

For decades, the Fundamentalist Mormons have been living off the government in small communities speckled throughout North America, the largest being Colorado City, located in Utah on the Arizona Strip (yeah, I know, there are three state names there, so it gets confusing). Anyway, the book chronicles some of the more insane events that have taken place in small communities like these, whose memebers seem to be committing crimes without any heed of the law. The polygamist families, who often have up to 25-30 children each, are making Fundamentalist Mormonism the fastest growing religion in the country. It’s a bit scary.

Anyway, while reading the book, Ariana and I were recounting an episode where we had met and talked to two young male mormon missionaries on the Boston subway in November of 2005. They were nice fellows and seemed bright and very affable, and they gave us a copy of The Book of Mormon to read. Ariana and I thought it would be interesting to invite them to our Book Club to hear their take on Mormonism.

It should be noted, that probably all of the Mormon missionaries who knock on your door or that you see roaming the streets on bikes are not Fundamentalist Mormons. They belong to a reformed church, who gave up “official” racism and polygamy long ago. Anyway, we sort of knew they most likely wouldn’t have any juicy crazy stories to tell us (or at least ones they’d be willing to share with us, haha), but we thought we’d invite them anyway.

Our Book Club members were all excited about this prospect because 1) There were still a few things about reformed Mormonism that we questioned, for example, Do men get their own planets to rule when they die? and 2) For some strange reason, all Mormon missionaries seem to be highly attractive (type “sexy” and “Mormon” and “missionaries” into Google if you don’t believe me).

Initially I felt conflicted about inviting them to speak; I didn’t want to put them on the spot or drill them with questions about polygamy when they clearly didn’t practice that, nor do the majority of honest, decent Mormons out there. I likened it to inviting a Muslim and then accusing them of being a terrorist.

In the end, though, the intrigue was too much; everyone in Book Club kept asking me if I’d invited them yet. So, a friend made a call to the Mormon missionary house in Cambridge and invited them to meet us this past Tuesday at Qingping Tea House.

Tuesday night, the members of Book Club gathered beforehand at b*good for dinner, abuzz with excitement and anticipation at what kind of questions with which we planned to skewer the Mormon boys. Then the 8 of us went to Qingping an hour early so we could discuss the book and come up with questions before they arrived.

A little after eight pm, three of them arrived; impeccably groomed and brimming with smiles. They were just as “unfailingly polite” as Krakauer said they’d be, haha. They sat down and us girls just asked them question after question after question. They were quite willing to answer all of our questions, and didn’t balk at anything we had to say or ask. I think that those guys spend so much time talking to crazy people on the street or getting the door slammed in their faces that an open forum of 8 young women must have been a nice change.

They all knew intricate details about the history of Mormonism, the Angel Moroni, and Joseph Smith, and rattled them off like they’d been saying them their whole lives (which they probably had). All 3 in their early 20s, they were brave enough to admit that they’d suffered many challenges and doubts regarding their religion, and had fallen of the proverbial horse more than once.

What was most interesting was that many of their stories had a serene, solid biblical quality to them, like so many Christian stories I grew up learning. They were the same stories that Krakauer talks about in depth in his book, but their version had a holier “spin” on them and seemed to leave out the crazy bits; ie, how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with special spectacles and golden plates he found in the ground in upstate New York. They also seemed blissfully unaware of some of the bawdier, more-humanistic-less-prophet-like qualities about Smith that Krakauer takes careful note to hammer in. The kookiness of the religion seemed to fade away as their smooth voices and confident speech skills answered every question without pause and their calm, intelligent gazes melted away any sort of weirdness. And then it hit me, I should become a Mormon!


But, I did have a revelation, which is in conjunction with something Krakauer says in his book, and I paraphrase:

Protestant Christianity, Buddhism and Islam have no more right to claim verity to their stories and principles than Mormonism does. The benefit that these other religions have that the Church of Latter Day Saints does not have, is that their beginnings are buried in the shadowy reccesses of history, while young Mormonism has been well documented by the media, and this documentation is what has caused the general skepticism.

Basically saying that we’d accept Mormonism just as we do Protestent Christianity if The Book of Mormon was as old as the Bible! Perhaps that is why Joseph Smith paid careful attention to translate his book in a vernacular that closely matches the language of the King James Version of the Bible.

And I thought to myself, My Dear! If the entire world was Islam and I went round and round to doors telling people that Jesus Christ had died and been resurrected to save people from sin, as well as turning water into wine and walking on water, and if I had claimed this happened 150 years ago in Palmyra, New York, people would think I was crazy too.

The only question the Mormons didn’t have a pat answer for was when I asked them: “Your principles and morals are quite solid; why do you need the story of this prophet to back up these beliefs? Why not just let that story go and just live the principles he preached?”

After a few moments, one of them answered “Well, it’s just because we believe it happened.”

And then I asked myself the same question. And I wondered if my answer would be any different….

If nothing else, that particular Book Club just reinforced my entire disenchantment with religion.

Overall, this Book Club was so successful, that we have decided to start reading a series of controversial religious texts, and inviting someone from that religion to come talk to us about their beliefs.

Guess what our next book is?

If you guessed Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, you guessed right. 😉

I’m hoping for Beck as our guest speaker.


Currently listening to Give Up by The Postal Service


Written by pocheco

March 3, 2006 at 6:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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