I realized that when I was traveling this past weekend that two books that I had read back-to-back possessed a common element: they both* were about groups of people that are outside the mainstream of society and had completely dedicated to the activities within their respective communities. Fanatics. Extremists. Zealots.
In “Under The Banner of Heaven”, Jon Krakauer describes the founding of the Mormon faith, the growth of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), and a particular splinter sect, the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints). The book interweaves the historical research with the details of a brutal 1984 double murder in which two brothers (FLDS members) murdered their sister-in-law and her infant daughter because (they claimed) of a revelation from God. Whoa.
Now, San Diego has a large Mormon population and most of what I know of Mormonism (and its fundamentalist off-shoots) comes from HBO’s “Big Love”, which while entertaining is probably not exactly 100% based-in-fact. (Though curiously, I recognized several plots from the show in the accounts of modern FLDS communities and incidents…) I was glad to get a less fictionalized account, though Krakauer was definitely trying to sell books by staying focused on the prevalent violence and prurient aspects of polygamy associated with the FLDS.
I’m sure the book caused a firestorm in the LDS community, but I found the book both educational and at times riveting. I thought it was best though when it forced the reader to consider their preconceptions about faith and society. For example, what distinguishes a “cult” from a “religion”? When does a faith-based code trump civil authority (lots of “Law & Order” episodes there…)? Why do we consider someone that says God talks to them as crazy, when billions of people believe they communicate with God everyday through prayer?
* I’d thought to juxtapose the two in a single post, but the content didn’t seem to mesh well, so I’ll try it with adjacent posts.