Monday, September 08, 2008

Under the guise of historicity

(Let me be entirely honest with you: because I wanted this review to be as original as possible, I have not read any of the copious amounts of back-and-forth controversy between Krakauer and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) re: Under the Banner of Heaven. The Mormon response to Krakauer's book is here; Krakauer's point-by-point rebuttal is here.)

Under the Banner of Heaven touts itself as "a story of violent faith." In a sense, I suppose that's true. But really, it is two stories. One is about violence; one is about faith. Sometimes they intertwine. Krakauer's interpretation, however, would have you believe that one motivates the other. The central study of the book is the case of the Lafferty murders, in which two brothers killed a third brother's wife and child because...well, why? Krakauer and I disagree, probably because if I'm right then there is no excuse for him to write Under the Banner of Heaven.

I'll tell you why those two men committed those murders: because they were insane, that's why. But Krakauer, for almost the entire book, takes the murderers' explanation of "God told me to" at face value and runs with it. Instead of the thesis of "people do bad things in the name of religion," we are presented with the alternative of "religion makes people do bad things" and expected to swallow it. As a religious person, it made me gag.

It isn't until the very end of the book that Krakauer delves into the complicated maneuvering by both the defending and prosecuting attorneys of the Lafferty brothers to prove (defense) or disprove (prosecution) the murderers' insanity, and resulting innocence (defense) or guilt (prosecution). And still, the germane question is never answered, nor even raised, by Krakauer or, admittedly, the court itself: isn't it possible that they were both insane and guilty? It's a shame that our legal system apparently does not allow for such a circumstance.

The other issue at hand in Under the Banner of Heaven is the author's rampant disingenuousness. I am not a historian, so I can't comment on his research methods or presentation of disputed sources. But to present Mormonism in such a callous, sloppy manner is an insult to his (presumed) intelligence as well as to all of us members of the faith who don't turn into fundamentalist wackos. I just feel lucky that I was able to see through the sweeping generalizations he made; others who aren't familiar with Mormonism or, worse, who are relying on this book to inform them will not be so lucky. Because Krakauer says things in the book that he must know (from his copious, thorough research, I presume) are misleading, but he allows the reader to infer the obvious anyway.

Here's a small, mostly harmless example involving Brigham Young University. First, he describes it as "Mormondom's flagship institution of higher learning, owned and tightly controlled by the LDS Church." The latter part of that sentence I will not argue with. However, when "owned and tightly controlled by the LDS Church" is coupled with "Mormondom's flagship institution of higher learning," what kind of a picture does that paint? To me, it insinuates a two-bit joke of a college run by religious crazies rather than a legitimate university, one of the largest private universities in the United States, and certainly a respected one.

It gets laughably worse. Krakauer apparently spent at least a few minutes on campus because he is able to describe it in this manner:

"Each of the young Mormons one encounters is astonishingly well groomed and neatly dressed. [...] Heeding the dictum 'Cougars don't cut corners,' students keep to the sidewalks as they hurry to make it to class on time; nobody would think of attempting to shave a few precious seconds by treading on the manicured grass. Everyone is cheerful, friendly, and unfailingly polite" (page 81).

Well groomed and neatly dressed - well, probably, at least in comparison to a lot of other universities. Cheerful, friendly, and unfailingly polite? Thanks, Mr. Krakauer, I'll take it, even if it's not entirely true, at least not of everybody and not all the time.

But please. Everyone knows the running joke about "Cougars don't cut corners." The grounds crew put signs saying so on the edges of the grass all over campus and some wise guy went around cutting the corners off of all of them. Let alone the fact that most of us did, in fact, think about cutting across the grass all the time and actually did so only slightly less often. I guess we're going straight to hell.

More harmful are the conclusions we are left to draw when he describes the Lafferty family in their early days as normal, faithful, mainstream Mormons - representative of all members of their faith, apparently, if the author is to be believed. But a few pages later, when he describes how Mr. Lafferty regularly beat up Mrs. Lafferty in front of the kids, where is the disclaimer, or parenthetical aside, or something to tell us that contrary to what he said before, this is not normal behavior for a Mormon in good standing with the church? By his silence, Krakauer allows us to erroneously draw the conclusion that wife-beating is part and parcel of the Mormon religion.

Which, finally, leads to that most tragic of oft-committed journalistic errors regarding the LDS Church: the failure to distinguish adequately between Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists. It is a mistake that has so often been addressed, so often fruitlessly, by the LDS Church that I was almost too bored to get angry about it when I encountered it in droves in Under the Banner of Heaven.

I was left unable to appreciate the book as a work of historical research. Instead, I was left thinking - "If Krakauer can't even get that right, why should I accept him as an authority on all things Mormon history?" He left the door wide open for anyone and everyone to question everything else he says in the book.

So, Mr. Krakauer - continue writing about Mt. Everest and other outdoor adventures. But unless you're going to do it in earnest, leave my religion (and my university) alone.

13 comments:

Andrea Turpin said...

Hi, Bridget! I found your blog while looking for something else about the Middlebury Arabic School! You are a fabulous writer, and I especially loved your take on the summer. Anyway, I won't hog your comments, but I wanted to say that I felt the same way about this book. I am not a Mormon, but I went to a very conservative Catholic high school, which drove me straight out of the Church, eventually. But despite that, I knew that there were many Catholicisms, and many kinds of Catholics. So even I knew, while reading the book many moons ago, that his take on Mormonism was horribly reductive and simplistic. What would you recommend that I read, however, if I want to learn more about what Stephen Colbert would call the 'truthiness' about Mormonism?!

Hareega said...

I admit being very ignorant when it comes to the Mormonism faith. One day I'll read more about it (from a source other than wikipedia) and it won't be that book you've mentioned.

Since you've been to Jordan, I've heard that there's one Mormon church there and that Jordan is the only Arab country that considers Mormonism a faith. Is this true? Are there Jordanian-Mormons or are they all foreigners who happen to work in Jordan and do they face any kind of difficulty expressing their faith?

Liz Johnson said...

I haven't read the book, but I did have a lengthy "discussion" with my midwife about why MOST of us are not the kind of people that Krakauer describes. She seemed unmoved, though, and convinced that we teach our children to decapitate puppies and that spousal abuse is commonplace. It was extraordinarily frustrating.

I get really irritated when this happens to people of any faith. Case in point - there is a huge misunderstanding of the Muslim religion amongst LOTS of people that I know. They assume that any Muslim wants to take down America and blow themselves up in a crowded market and fly planes into buildings. Certain media fearmongers (I'm talking to you, Glenn Beck) don't help with dismantling the stereotype. But it's the same thing - MOST Muslims are family-oriented and fairly mainstream, but since we get such a different picture painted from all sorts of places, people have a hard time separating the two.

I hope that made sense. I have a toddler tugging on my leg as I write this and my brain is not fully functional at the moment.

Truthiness on Mormonism. You know, I haven't read the whole thing, but based on the parts I read in "The Idiot's Guide to Mormonism," it was actually a pretty fair book. Or "The Book of Mormon," obviously. Or my best recommendation would be to go to www.mormon.org and you can find out all sorts of basic beliefs.

breanne said...

Hareega--I don't mean to steal Bridget's comments, but I just came back from living in Jordan two weeks ago. There are actually two Mormon churches in Jordan (one in Amman and one in Irbid), and several Jordanian-Mormons, although there are several foreign (mostly American) Mormons there as well. I am not sure what Jordan's official recognition of the church is there, but Christians of any nationality are welcome to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

As for difficulties they face, I think it is similar to what many Christians face in Jordan. Many are afraid that they will lose employment eligibility or respect among their friends if others know they are Mormon, especially since it is not a long-established church in Jordan. But those who truly want to practice their faith do it, no matter what the social consequences.

ldsneighbor said...

"'Cougars don't cut corners'...signs saying so on the edges of the grass all over campus and some wise guy went around cutting the corners off of all of them."

That is hilarious! I love it.

By the way, on the side topic in the notes about muslims, I agree that there are many good people who are muslims. One thing that bothers me, though, that is more widespread than to just the radical homicidal few, is this idea that if a muslim converts to christianity, he should be executed by a sharia court. I have read that an alarmingly high number of muslims today (as high as 30+%) think that is right. I can hardly believe that people in the 21st century in civilized societies can have such views that are totally against the most fundamental of all human rights, which is the right to believe according to your conscience, by penalty of death. I know there are tyrants who want to impose that, but how can average people support that? I have asked muslims in chat rooms before if they believe this should be the rule. There are some few that definitely say no, but there are a disturbing number that agree with that. I try to encourage moderate muslims to help change that evil concept amongst their islamic brethren. To me, this is a core thing that must change in "islamic countries", and it is currently fairly widespread. What are your thoughts and experiences about that?

Bridget said...

Andrea, hi. Your question for a recommendation is a difficult one, because no matter what you'll get one of two things: a book by a believer, and thus biased in that way, or a book by a nonbeliever, even a sympathetic one, but biased in that way. So your best bet is to read a combination. I think Anderson's Mormon America wasn't too bad (from an insider's standpoint). To balance it out, you could read The Book of Mormon itself, like Liz suggested.

Thanks for stepping in, Breanne. I would have said the same thing. Jordan is certainly the most tolerant of us Mormons, at least among the countries I've spent any time in. Our biggest opposition, surprisingly, comes from other Christian churches in Jordan. The Muslims don't really seem to worry too much about us.

LDSneighbor, I don't have an answer to your question, but it is an interesting one. I'll have to think about it.

Anna Lewis said...

Bridget, I started reading your blog because I missed Superstar Miriam. Now Chris and I are hooked. We've bookmarked your blog; it is right next to Google Maps on our toolbar (I hope you realize how significant that is). You are insightful, funny and you write so stinkin' well. I'm just waiting for the press to pick up on this and for you to start getting pulled onto shows, or quoted in newspaper articles.

Also, congratulations on Magdelena. I am as big a fan of her as I am of Miriam, and I have never even met her!

jane said...

Bridget, I appreciate your candid review of this book. As someone who converted to Islam, I am very aware of the misconceptions about Islam as well as Mormonism and other faiths as well (I can tell you that a lot of Muslims feel a particular kinship with Mormons for this reason).

LDSneighbor, what you describe is certainly very disturbing. I would echo your experience that this is a minority view. I would like to raise a couple of points. One is to not to look to "Muslim countries" for guidance on things Islamic. I realize you didn't necessarily do this, but I say that as a general caution. I would also be very cautious with information on the internet, as the reputability of sites varies widely, as with any subject. One really has to examine the sources (Qur'an and Sunnah or traditions of the Prophet, not Shariah). And basically if a belief/practice/shariah law that you observe or read about does not have backing in the Qur'an or sunnah, then it stands on very weak ground. The most clear guidance on this issue to me is the verse in the Qur'an, "Let there be no compulsion in religion" (2:256) which clearly precludes punishing anyone who leaves Islam. This basic tenet _should_ be respected throughout the Muslim world.

On a related note, have any of you participated in any interfaith dialogue groups or discussions? I haven't 'officially', but would like to and am interested in hearing about your experiences.

Crys said...

Hello...WHERE ARE THE CORNERS! Every time I go back to BYU they have paved over another one of my favorite sleeping spots. Oh how I loved spring when the snow was gone, the sun was out, and the coeds could catch a nap on the lawn :)

ldsneighbor said...

Jane, I am so thankful when I encounter a Muslim who does not subscribe to that view. I'm glad to meet you. Yes, I have never read of any polls that show that the "death to muslims who convert to christianity" view is a majority view. One poll I read was actually not from a "Muslim country". It was a poll of british citizens who were muslim; the poll was of "young men" 36% holding that view, which I hope does not indicate a rising trend. The story does not appear to be from an unreputable source:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/sep/16/religion.anglicanism

I'm guessing that muslims in America would have a lot lower number on such a poll. But could be higher in "Muslim countries"; I would hope still not a majority. Although, this does not appear to be a "sliver minority"; personal conversations I've had with muslims around the world bear that out, although some are reluctant to admit it. So, this is a real issue. I know what you are saying about examining sources. In my own religion it bothers me when people try to misrepresent our teachings and create a strawman caracature of us, just so they can discredit. But I have to tell you, when I talk to muslims about this I don't really care what the Qur'an says about it. I am not concerned with doctrine of their religoin. I care what THEY think about the topic. Even if the Qu'ran came out and says to execute apostates, that wouldn't necessarily bother me, as long as that is not literally interpreted. Just like in the Old Testament there is something about stoning a man if he gathers sticks on the sabbath in that day. I care more about how that is interpreted and applied today. I know of nobody either christian or jew today who advocates following that OT directive and executing people for sabbath breaking in the 21st century.

I have to tell you I don't know a whole lot about Islam. I had read the Qu'ran years ago just to see what it was about. Not that this is in the Qu'ran, but the idea of "shariah law" and "caliphates" and "muslim states" are what concern me most, because of the forcing of religion that that would entail. For example, converting from Islam to Christianity in a some consider as "being a traitor", and traitors are executed. That would no longer be a religion then, but a system of universal religious slavery.

I know this is a sensitive subject to many muslims. And most that I encounter, even those that don't personally hold this view of "death to muslims who convert to christianity", even they are reluctant to oppose it strongly within Islam, because they don't like to admit that it is a big problem in Islam today. They (not you Jane) usually dismiss it as just a few fringe folks who don't really understand the Qu'ran, and they show me how the Qu'ran says "let there be no compulsion in religion". That's nice that that verse says that, but ~30% seem to interpret differently. They (not you Jane) want to set that aside and go on to talk about why I should consider Islam, as if that is just an incidental detail.

Jane, I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm unloading on you. I'm really not, just expressing some key things on my mind. You are a moderate muslim, and I really appreciate you. I wish you Godspeed and hope that you can have an influence on Muslims in the wider world as they work from within to purge this notion from the dark ages. I have hope that eventually this idea will be erradicated within Islam.

I have not personally participated in any formal interfaith dialogue groups. But in a way blogs and the internet are an avenue of informal interfaith discussion.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Your points echo conversations I have had with others about this work. I read several of Kraukauer's earlier books, then the vexatious Banner of Heaven about three years ago. Though it was interesting enough for me to finish, the aggravation I felt as a historian and LDS Church member due to Krakauer’s shoddy research, which maligned and insulted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and religion in general), tainted and discredited the book as a whole.

Krakauer proved he was clearly out of his element. First, he is no historian. Adding to the sin of shoddy research, he drew conclusions about religion and the LDS Church based on one troubled family. Rather than seeing the Laffertys as the anomaly they were in a productive, loving, God- fearing church, he set them up as the standard. Second, his bitter agnosticism overflowed objectivity. He made erroneous assumptions, perhaps to persuade his own self that his disdain for organized religion was grounded in fact and reason.

Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is a well-written and memorable book, but he stepped out of his area of expertise when he wrote Banner of Heaven.

Hareega said...

Breanne and Bridget.. thank you for your replies. I am aJordanian Chrisitian myself and I studied at a Chrisitian Orthodox church for 11 years during which I've never heard of the Mormon faith or that there were Mormons in Jordan (but that was in mid-1990s). Even when I talk now with other Christians in Jordan Mormons are frequently mixed with Jehova's witness or Baptist.
I myself have not faced discrimination during the 24 years I lived there, but maybe if I were a Mormons I would have.

Bridget said...

Hareega, you are the first Jordanian Christian I have ever "met" who hasn't ever been discriminated against, at least in their opinion. I wonder if it's more your attitude than anything else. Often, the "discrimination" experienced by some of our Jordanian Christian friends was more just perception and shrinking minority status than anything else. I don't doubt that real persecution occurs, I'm just saying that it's refreshing to hear that opinion from you!

Also, in Syria, if I ever said I was Mormon, people would respond with, "you mean Maronite?" We always had to be careful to distinguish ourselves from the Maronites so we didn't get involved in the whole Lebanon thing.

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