|HICKMAN: 'Banner of Heaven' shakes church book club |
By Kathy Hickman|
The Sun Chronicle - Attleboro, Massachusetts
"This is scary stuff going on here."
"I couldn't bear to go back to it."
"It was the most horrendous book I've ever read!"
"The 'sacred' underwear intrigued me."
Fuse together a lurid murder, an award-winning author, and his exploration into "the roots of brutality andthe nature of faith," add Murray Universalist's fervid First Sunday Book and Lunch Bunch, and you have all the ingredients to ignite an incendiary book discussion.
Club members Linda Censorio, DJ Campbell, Joan Macauley, and the Rev. Sandra Fitzhenry, whose comments appear above, were among nine group members who recently shared spirited reactions to "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," Jon Krakauer's shocking account of Mormon "fundamentalists."
After investigating the terrifying extremes of climbing Mt. Everest and of challenging the wilds of the Alaskan wilderness, Krakauer's 2003 book, "Under the Banner of Heaven" turns a critical eye on a "religious extremism" that has its roots in "the underbelly of the United States' most successful homegrown faith." He takes as his starting point the savage murder of a mother and child committed in 1984 by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, excommunicated members of the Latter Day Saints, who to this day insist that they received a personal "revelation" from God to act as instruments of death.
Interwoven with this account is a patchy history of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and in particular, the shadowy and fanatical world of "apostate" fundamentalist communities, like those of recent newsmakers Tom Green and Warren Jeffs. These "prophets" secretly continue to take "plural wives," often very young girls, and maintain a rigid theocratic rule over the lives of their sect members. "They spout religious things, but underneath they control everything," as Linda Censorio puts it.
All members of the book club were appalled not only by the sensational murder, but by the hidden violence that still exists in the dark corners of religious fundamentalism. Their discussion about the nature of "revelation" was wide-ranging. Jacqui Howard viewed the "divine command" that the Lafferty victims' throats be slashed as "the extreme of fanaticism." Nan Loggains, the book club's co-coordinator thought, "The revelation justified what they already wanted to do."
The question of revelation was less unsettling for Linda Censorio than what the "saints" were doing. "It makes the hair on the back of your head stand up. These people never 'went home' from their religion, never broke away or had a thought beyond what was told to them. They did not allow revelation to be challenged."
Inevitably the book provoked a conversation about polygamy, a practice embraced by LDS founder Joseph Smith and subsequently renounced by the official Mormon Church. Charlie Adler joked, "You almost need a pyramid or a Ponzi scheme to provide enough women for the men. It's more like a family bramble than a family tree." And Nan Loggains wondered where the young men would meet wives when the older Mormons are snatching up the 14 year olds, creating a "harem" of wives as many as 48 strong.
Over pizza and salad, Karla Bassler asked, "Don't we need to make a distinction between the larger Mormon faith and the fringe groups?" She brought up an interesting parallel with the South Attleboro sect The Body - a local fundamentalist religious group in which one family was accused of starving a baby to death based on a prophesy from God to withhold food. Invisible walls, noted Karla, and a controlling power structure based on fear characterized that sect as well.
Karla also found parallels to the "honor killings" in the Mideast, where some will kill even members of their own families based on the words of their prophet. Krakauer, she believes, also wants the reader to "look at atrocities that occur under the banner of THEIR heaven."
Referring to allegations of sexual abuse, incest and curtailment of freedoms in the fundamentalist sects, Linda Censorio had an overriding concern: "Why does the Mormon Church not do something about the fact of sexual abuse of children? If their religious beliefs say this is wrong, would they not take action? There's a voice that has to be given to anyone who can't protect themselves."
"I'm going to close this book and do what?" she added soberly. "What in my conscience and that of a nation allows us to do this?"
"Under the Banner of Heaven" opened everyone's eyes to the persecution of Mormons throughout their history, as well as to their military face-offs with the U.S. government. The book also chronicles a history of violence and oppression that continues to be perpetrated by "fringe" believers. As Rev. Fitzhenry concluded, "Religious passion and violence are potentially close bedfellows," - certainly the central message Krakauer wishes to convey.
The spirited conversation by The First Sunday Book and Lunch Bunch continued well after the gathering. Within hours of returning home, Karla Bassler had e-mailed numerous Websites to each member, including an official response and rebuttal to the book from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
If the test of a good book is that it inspires you to deeper thought and further research after an already animated discussion, Krakauer's book is the best kind of revelation. (And for an explanation of the "sacred underwear," try Google.)
KATHY HICKMAN can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published Monday, March 5, 2007
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