Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild) in his typically understated yet gripping style, interweaves two stories in his book Under the Banner of Heaven: the 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter by Mormon fundamentalists, and the origins and early history of Mormonism itself. It is a chilling and fascinating book that has stuck with me for several reasons. First, it opens up a lot of helpful background about Joseph Smith and the reality behind the polygamous communities popularized in the TV show Big Love.Second, it made me, as a person of faith, think seriously about the dynamics of any kind of fundamentalism.
read the book, I was forced to ask, “What went wrong? Why did these people go off the rails? What were the mistakes they made in their thinking that put them on such a disastrous and violent path?” And, of course, “How can I spot signs of these errors in myself or others?” My preliminary conclusions are that behind their errors were a deep subjectivism, inadequate interaction with a broader community of believers (and non-believers) and the flawed origins of the religion itself.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, experience, reason) commends itself as one viable alternative for theological reflection and decision making. (There are other helpful systems as well.) When we rely on only one of these four to the exclusion of the others, we are potentially headed for trouble. The robust combination of all of them is essential.
The Mormon church, understandably, responded negatively to the book, saying it gave the impression that every seemingly friendly, generous, community-minded Mormon is actually a murderous maniac. And that would be wrong to think that way. That is not the book’s intent. Rather, on the one hand, it highlights a history that we must acknowledge and deal with honestly, and on the other, it challenges us all to understand our faith at a deeper, more wholistic level.