Wednesday, September 14, 2005

under the banner of heaven

I finally finished reading John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven today. It's taken me longer than usual to finish, probably because it's not exactly the kind of book you curl up with in bed. Having arrived at the end though, I can definitely say that it was worth the trip.

Under the Banner of Heaven has made me think quite a bit so it gets points for that right off the bat. John Krakauer is a gifted writer. I went up Everest with him in Into Thin Air so I had high hopes going into Banner. I was not disappointed.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith is, from my limited perspective, a fair approach to Mormonism in North America. Krakauer does not hide his incredulity at some of the things he discovers along the way but I never felt that he was judging his subject. He seemed to really try to present various sides and in many cases let Mormonism speak for itself through the voices of the faithful. Much of what I thought I knew about Mormonism turns out to be false. The truth as presented here isn't much better.

There were several things that surprised me in this book:

1. That there really are living, breathing, practicing polygamists right here in Beautiful British Columbia (or should that be Bountiful?). [Ok, technically, I found that out just prior to reading the book, but still.]

2. That right here in the so-called civilized parts of the world there are girls being given away to men twice their age by parents who are supposed to protect them.

3. That a man can be convicted of two murders and sentenced to death more than once and yet still be among the living 21 years later.

4. That a person can believe so strongly in their faith that they are willing to stand still and let their brother choke the life out of them because they firmly believe that "God told him to do it."

What strikes me about so many of the people in this book is the sheer force of the strength of their convictions. I have to ask myself, if I truly believed that my God was asking me to do something terrible, would I be willing to abandon myself to it? I don't think God is in the business of telling people to do terrible things. But would I be willing to stand against all of society and act? There is an element of surrender to it that's frightening -- what can you do to a man who is truly willing to give everything for his faith? He's untouchable.

In its study of Mormonism, Under the Banner of Heaven can't help but take a closer look at faith itself. How do we as a civilization uphold religious freedom and protect its 15 year old victims at the same time? How can I say that my faith is okay because it's not hurting anyone if you believe that what's happening at the hands of your faith is ordained by God himself?

I think I'll be chewing on this book for a while yet. Thanks John Krakauer. And thanks Issachar, you were right. I did need to read it.

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