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.

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17 thoughts on “Zealots

  1. It's a lot to think about, isn't it? I wonder if the terms 'cult' and 'religion' differ inasmuch as 'mildly dysfunctional' differes from 'wildly dysfunctional.' Just a matter of degree, or even just perception of degree, maybe?

  2. I often wondered about San Diego's Mormon population. I didn't realize it was so big, though the tip off should have been the gigantic Mormon temple in La Jolla. (Or, at least, I think it was La Jolla. It's been a while since I graduated from school…)

  3. Mormons fascinate me for some reason. I also thought this was a good, albeit slightly sensationalized, book. I liked Krakauer's writing and it made me even more curious. As a person of faith, that last obseveration about God speaking gives me the willies.
    I might be a crazy person!

  4. To avoid confusion I would like to point out that there is a very clear and distinct difference between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons) and the FLDS sects of Big Love and CNN fame. They often seem to get lumped into the same general category, but they are most definitely two separate and autonomous organizations.

  5. Cori — I think that one of the other things that was fascinating is that since the LDS is less than 200 y old, there's so much more documentation about its founding than any other religion — I wonder how other faiths-foundings would stand up to such scrutiny??

  6. Skinselton — yes, I think it must drive the LDS crazy in terms of "guilt by association" with the FLDS. You can see the leaders of the LDS work hard to distance themselves, but in a 30-second sound bite world, its not easy.

  7. That's right! It's not too far from UTC. Ah, good times…
    I always thought it was really pretty, too, but just awfully ornate. I'm suspicious of new religious buildings that are over the top. I think the whole point of the Church – regardless of the affiliation – should be to help others, not themselves. And God doesn't care what kind of a building you pray in, just as long as you pray!

  8. I just picked this book up from the library. I hadn't heard of it until I read an interview with Kristen Stewart last week and she had just finished it. So I Googled it 'cause it sounded interesting and decided I'd like to read it. (Of course, now I realize why Kraukauer's name sounded familiar and probably why she was even reading it in the first place with the whole Into the Wild thing.)
    And I could make the distinction between cult and religion pretty easily but I don't feel like taking up all your comment space. :)

  9. I have a ton of Mormon ancestors on my mother's side. My great-grandmother's geneaology is on the web, and takes us back nearly 2000 years in some branches. I did archaeology in Nauvoo, a LDS city in Western Illinois in the 1840s. On my father's side, they were Christian Scientists, which is how I was raised. So, having been spawned from two Christian sects which many mainstream Christians would call cults, I have a particular viewpoint. That is that all religions are, on some level, cults. What often distinguishes a cult from a mainstream religion is time. In the beginning, Latter Day Saintism was a cult centered around the person of Joseph Smith, Jr., just as Christianity was a cult centered around the person of Jesus, and Islam was a cult centered around the person of Muhammed.

  10. i don't know much about mormons, but they are really interesting to me. so are catholics. i guess pretty much any religion that isn't your mainstream protestant religion is going to be fascinating to me. hehe.

  11. ai — I remember when you said that you'd done archeology in Nauvoo — I wondered it the Mormon settlements there were what you were working on. Your cult v. religion idea is similar to Krakauer's — also I think there's a bit of societal integration — religions tend to achieve it, cults seem to eschew it.

  12. When we moved from Seattle to the town we now live in I had no idea there were 6 LDS families in our immediate neighborhood. We are one of three Catholic families and there is a JW family as well. It has been fantastic to move beyond our preconceived notions about each other. For me, this was the first time I really knew anyone from the LDS or JW faith.

  13. Firestorm in the LDS community is right. I've seen a lot of Mormon temples, and the La Jolla one is by FAR the most blatantly ornate and over the top one. (That I've seen). I heard something somewhere once that they try to build the temples to fit in with the neighborhoods and surrounding areas … so that's just what you get for being in beautiful, lush, sunny San Diego! They are building a new temple in our neighborhood, about 3 blocks away from our house. I can see the steeple and angel Moroni from Mason's bedroom window. It's an odd site to see such a big building in what is otherwise a very residential neighborhood. I guess that's what you get for living in Salt Lake City!

  14. i dunno . . . the mormon temple here in DC looks like a castle out of a storybook, all white and gold. you can see it from the beltway, and it almost feels like you're driving towards disneyland. i bet it's awesome up close.

  15. What does differentiate a cult from a religion? I understand the negative connotations to the word cult and know what our society considers the difference, but from a purely objective standpoint, is it just a degree of credibility on some arbitrary scale that measures such things?

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