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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer. New York: Doubleday, 2003. ISBN: 0-385-50951-0.

This is not the type of book I would normally pick up and read: a sensationally savage cult crime story, as told by a reporter. And in fact, I wouldn't have picked the book up, had I not remembered seeing it on an annual list of "Notable Books for Adults" as selected by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association (ALA).

However, once I got into this book, it turned out to be quite a page turner. Easy to read, it carries you along as the author recounts the history of the Mormon movement and its fundamentalist offshoots, explaining how this milieu makes possible, almost logical, the process by which men can commit horrific crimes while believing they are led by God to do so. Along the way we are exposed to the history of the polygamist tradition within Mormonism, a tradition that persists among thousands of believers to this day.

One of the major points of the book is that extreme fundamentalism, as expressed in any belief system, can and often does lead, inexorably, to violence. We have plenty of examples outside the Mormon tradition: Islam being one of the most obvious. Probably more comparable to the example in this book is the case of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members eventually espoused an armed rebellion against the government. Although in their case, the ultimate resort to violence was instigated BY the government against the radical believers, rather than the other way around, to our shame.

One minor complaint about this book is the author's excessive and annoying use of asterisked footnotes. Much of what he puts into these notes should have been incorporated directly into the text, or simply omitted.

I'm not sure I would have selected this title for inclusion in a list of notable books, but I will agree that it is both entertaining and educational, killing two birds with the one proverbial stone, so to speak.


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