“Bowman doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of the Mormon faith, including a now-discredited belief in polygamy (as revealed in a revelation to Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion), as well as institutionalized racism. However, the ongoing controversies of the church and the stream of recent media describing Mormonism as a cult–from Jon Krakauer’s scathing non-fiction work Under the Banner of Heaven to HBO’s Big Love–is left entirely unaddressed in this work, which instead pays occasional attention to the inherently American aspects of the religion.” -Publisher’s Weekly
“Any discussion of Big Love, a complicated recent portrait of polygamy in a Mormon-like community, is left out. Nor is there a mention of Jon Krakauer’s forceful and very critical 2003 book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.” -Dwight Garner, New York Times
Many people, correctly, have pointed out the obsession with Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven as one of the many oddities in these unfortunate reviews of Matt Bowman’s recent book. What, we wonder, made Krakauer’s caricatured telling of Mormonism’s “violent” past so crucial that to avoid it in a historical survey of the LDS Church is worthy of being charged with negligence? Few academics praised the 2003 book, it makes very few lists of “necessary” monographs on Mormon history, and almost anyone with more than a superficial understanding of Mormonism’s past recognize the sensationalistic aspects of its thesis. Put simply, it’s a shoddy work of history, and should have been destined to be another flash-in-the-pan sensationalist work that soon fell into insignificance. (The Mormon Murders, anyone?)
But the book has earned remarkable staying power, as shown by the fact that several reviewers imply that any work on Mormon history must engage Krakauer’s volume. It has sold better than any other work on Mormonism, and remains a staple on any “LDS Church” bookshelf in nearly every bookstore. Thinking that the book may be worth a revisit, I checked out a copy from the University Library and read it through again this past week. While it would be easy to point out all the flaws and problems in the book—and trust me, there are many—I decided to not take that route. Instead, what follows are two general impressions on why Under the Banner of Heaven is still popular, and what lessons they hold for authors of Mormon history.
First, Krakauer is a helluva writer. There is a reason he has written a string of best sellers. His prose is phenomenal, riveting, and pitch perfect. In an age where most readers’ reading attention is limited to 140 characters, the importance of a fast-moving narrative cannot be emphasized enough. Reviews of Under the Banner of Heaven include phrases like “astonishing narrative force,” “elegant reportage,” “captivating,” “engrossing,” and “breezy, smooth and vigorously written.” And even if Krakauer doesn’t deserve a lot of the praise that has been heaped upon it, he certainly deserves accolades for his narrative flair. Even going into the book with the assumption that I would (once again) hate it, and that assumption was never overturned, I found myself engrossed in the text and plowing through it faster than I have nearly any other book this past year.
Needless to say, the field Mormon history does not have a Krakauer. The closest we have had was Fawn Brodie, whose biography of Joseph Smith is, despite its serious flaws, still the most readable account of Mormonism’s origins. Sure, we have some compelling writers in the field (my vote for best writer would be for Ron Walker), but very few write in a prose that is readable for the general public. Naturally, this is a different type of writing style than most historians go for, but I would hope that Mormon historical studies has progressed to the point that we would have both academic masterpieces (which we are achieving, and achieving with more regularity) as well as popular bestsellers. Can Mormon historians write in this way and for this type of audience? Can we produce a popularizing historian that can take the lessons from our mountain of formidable scholarship and make something the mainstream public would buy in bulk? Or do we have to rely on journalists and popular writers who have no idea about the nuances of history to fill that void? Surely there are models of historians—like Joseph Ellis and Jill Lepore—who can be academically rigorous while still publicly digestible. Ironically, I would say Matt Bowman’s The Mormon People, which the reviewers above ripped for being too tame, comes the closest to reaching this ideal.
Second, Krakauer used Mormon history to address an immediately relevant and contemporary concern. His preface is frank in explaining his approach to Mormonism as a way to understand how religious zealots “work.” “It is the aim of this book,” he wrote, “to cast some light” on religious extremists. This is an imminently “useful” exercise, he reasoned, because it informs us “about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith” (xxiii). Since it appeared two years after 9/11, we can see the power of this inquisition. Average readers may be cursorily interested in the nuances of the past, but are more intrigued by what it means for the present. They want a history that makes sense of what is currently going on. There are, of course, dangers embedded in this impulse. For one thing, it can lead to presentism, as we try to make historic events square too perfectly with modern presumptions; for another, it can lead to caricatured and deeply problematic accounts of the past that overlook context, nuance, and complexities in order to fit a lesson or thesis, as is the case with Krakauer. But, when done responsibly, the approach can be well-rewarding. Religion scholar Stephen Prothero argued nearly a decade ago that academics shouldn’t be wary from jumping into these types of questions and debates, mostly because the general public yearns for these opinions and, if scholars don’t speak up, they will get their answers from less informed people.* Several recent works have exemplified this approach by looking at historical moments in order to explain broader issues in humanity, including Sophia Rosenfeld’s outstanding work on common sense and the origins of democracy, John Fea’s careful treatment of religion and the Founding Fathers, Annette Gordon-Reed’s look at racism and family dynamics, Amanda Porterfield’s forthcoming book on doubt in American politics, or, if we go back two decades, Gordon Woods’s book on the foundations of America’s democratic culture.
Mormon historians been very tenuous toward this type of approach. Perhaps a backlash against, on the one hand, devotional works that emphasize too much continuity and, on the other, critical works that seek to condemn the current institution due to problems in the past, practitioners in Mormon studies generally emphasize the distance of the past. The only book that comes to mind which directly attempts this type of approach is Craig Harline’s Conversions, which I discussed here. But while we don’t have many books that tackle contemporary questions through historical inquiries, we do (fortunately) have many scholars entering into public dialogue through newspapers and online magazines. Scholars like Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Nate Oman, Matt Bowman, and Max Mueller have provided excellent commentary that is historically informed while still addressing contemporary issues; I hope to see more of this in the future.
So perhaps the continued fascination with Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven should be seen as a “call to arms” for Mormon writers. Instead of complaining about his continued relevance, we need to write texts that will replace works like his by fitting into this popular history niche. We have often pointed to the “future” of Mormon historical studies (Post New Mormon History, New New Mormon History, Newer Mormon History, etc.) as being able to speak to broader academic issues and a wider academic audience, but maybe it also means finally stepping out into the bigger popular arena as well. I am not, of course, calling for the entire field to turn to this type of writing—heavens no—but I do think there should be more conscious efforts along these lines. For, until we speak to the questions and issues that Krakauer does, and do so in prose that is not jarring for people outside the ivory tower, the general populace will continue to turn to books like Under the Banner of Heaven.
Or, to put it another way, we need at least some informed historians and practitioners of Mormon Studies to write books that are just as likely to be sold in airport bookstores as they are in Benchmark Books.
* Stephen Prothero, “Belief Unbracketed: A Case for the Religion Scholar to Reveal More of Where He or She is Coming From,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 32/2. Also see the replies. For some weird reason, I can’t find these online anymore.
Another reason for Krakauer’s continued relevance, but which is a completely different topic altogether, is the consistant desire to identify Mormonism as the exotic “other” that is separate from the American mainstream and belongs on stage, on film, or in sensationalist nonfiction books—close enough to entertain, but far enough to not indict American culture as a whole. Hence Big Love often being used in conjunction with Under the Banner of Heaven, as it is in the reviews of Matt’s book quoted above. But that issue deserves its own treatment.