A Review of the Cover of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A story of violent faith.

Author’s note: Yes, I’ve read the book.

Canaan Mountain is almost unbearably symbolic.

It’s a great slab of sandstone strewn with the sturdy plants of the desert.   It rises alone in the desert, hovering above Colorado City, Arizona (home of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Warren Jeffs’s people, modern polygamists) like a red-dark thundercloud, or perhaps, a thick pillar of fire.

Old Testament analogies are irresistible.  Canaan Mountain breaks the endless skyline of a desert on the outskirts of civilization.  It might be Sinai, giving refuge to the exiled people of God, a place of commandment, reorientation, covenant.   Or, given its name, it might be Nebo, marking the brink of the Promised Land, the place where God’s chosen pause one final time before heaving themselves into motion and reclaiming the land of their birthright.

This, however, is the use Jon Krakauer makes of the mountaintop: a hardbitten former member of the FLDS church takes Krakauer up the slopes and sagely observes while sitting on an overlook that the mountain “seemed like the only place where the religion couldn’t control us.” (327)  Indeed.  This is the true subject of Krakauer’s book: its narrative wanders from the central story of the mentally disturbed Lafferty brothers, for whom the twilight religion of Mormon fundamentalism became fuel for violent insanity, into the nooks and crannies of Mormon history more generally and, at the broadest level, into dime-store psychology of religion in total.   Religion, for Krakauer, begins with fantasy, progresses into control, and ends for some inevitably in violence.

The mountains of scripture are great rock embodiments of the religion of scripture, which is fundamentally about liberation: from sin, from slavery, from our own failures.   That this man turns the symbol upside down shows us that Jon Krakauer reads religion from a different perspective.  The mountain of Under the Banner of Heaven illustrates what Krakauer understands religion to be, which is, fundamentally, captivity.

Canaan on the cover looms over the tiny town below it; it may be a site of escape for LDS dissidents, but to the person who picks up the book in the airport, it’s the grim and disapproving face of God.  The banner of heaven is hard, gritty, unforgiving rock.  In scripture, civilization means Babylon and Egypt.  God’s mountain was a welcome escape; its wildness meant freedom and the presence of the living God.  For Krakauer – whose work always dances on the edge of the seductive and destructive extremes of the American wilderness – the desert is dangerous, its wildness frighteningly far from the safe rationality of American cities, and the mountain is its apotheosis.

The stark danger of Mount Canaan is reflected in the text beneath the cover photo.   It presents itself as dispassionate magazine copy.  The font is serious and blocky, and the horror that the words have to tell are all the more distressing for being marched out in this square, flat layout.  But graphic art can’t hide the book’s true progenitors, and the text itself betrays them.

The lines on the cover tell us of the Lafferty brothers, and the murders they committed.  Then it slyly, ominously, in Robert Stack’s voice, tells us that “The roots of this crime lie deep in the history of an American religion practiced by millions. . . .”    The ellipses are not mine.  They whisper of conspiracy and corruption curdling under the surface of this small town, and, adding their worry to the looming image of Mount Canaan, we cannot conclude but that religion is dangerous.

Under the Banner of Heaven’s literary parents are Arthur Conan Doyle and Zane Grey, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London – all who wrote nineteenth century penny dreadfuls premised on the notion that Brigham Young’s Zion was a totalitarian dictatorship, complete with secret police and young Mormon maidens pining for rescue from the grimly-bearded elders of the church.   How could a religion in which people told you what God wanted for you be anything but?

The idea stands particularly offensive to a man like Krakauer, who resembles something like a sober Teddy Roosevelt.   Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, his previous books, stand in a long line of creation myths: Walt Whitman, Thoreau, Frederick Jackson Turner, writers for whom the American character in born in the bloody labor of the heroic individual subduing the wilderness – and in the process, becoming a bit wild himself.  Krakauer’s work tends to bend a bit toward the tragic (he can never decide whether he admires Chris McCandless’s moxie or despises his naivete), but the myth of the fiercely independent American, reliant on nothing but his own wit and skill, rests deep in him nonetheless.  The special horror of Canaan Mountain, then, the wilderness itself bent into the service of anything so demanding on the individual as religion, is for him particularly repellent.

Krakauer’s myth is strong.  His book is still, ten years after its publication, regularly among Amazon’s bestsellers on Mormonism.  But this may be so because the myth is not his alone; Krakauer echoes the fears that Americans have long held, that their freedom might be subdued by a featureless, stony institution, their independence bent into enslavement.   The story is compelling, and Krakauer is writer enough to make it gripping.  But this is not to say that it is less myth than he believes his subject to be.





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  • Seth R.

    Mountaineering has always been, by nature a rather solitary and self-absorbed pursuit. It has to be, by necessity. As such, mountaineers – as a group of people – tend to be misfits. People who reject the social group and seek to find self alone on uncaring peaks in the face of death.

    It’s a kind of overwhelming obsession, and does not lend itself well to fostering understanding of other people and their concerns. The climber views the human city from a remote distance of 11,000 feet. Much the way I viewed an anthill as a boy. From a safe detached distance, and in complete ignorance of the majority of the activity going on there.

    To a climber, religion is a tourist attraction – a Nepalese monk whose main purpose and function in life is to hand out nifty prayer flags for you to tie onto whatever remote destination you happen to be headed to. Spin a candle, exchange some smiles, and bingo-bam-shazaam! Instant nirvana.

    Any time religion tries to be more than a postcard image at the Bannf Mountain Film Festival, it’s a dangerous threat to the climber’s existence. People trying to deny his right to “be” in solitude. Or at the very least, people making it harder for the climber to get a beer after coming back to town (often the only social time climbers get).

    In essence, to the climbing community, religion is something to be respected and indulged – until it actually starts to tell you how to live your life. Until it actually matters more than tying a trivial prayer flag to a pile of rocks at base camp.

    • Steve

      The prayer flag rituals are done out of respect for those who live in the country, not for the climbers to get “instant nirvana.” The true climbers who care about the mountains and the culture surrounding the mountains adapt to the traditions and sometimes superstitions held by the locals.

  • http://chriscarrollsmith.blogspot.com Christopher Smith

    Matt, you are a brilliant writer. That is all.

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    I read the book, I never thought much about the cover except that it makes me want to go back to Arizona again. You seem a little defensive — please be assured, people don’t associate mainstream Mormons with those nutjobs.

  • Zionssuburb

    Seth R,

    Great observation, I am familiar (through reading histories of mountaineering) with a member of the church who brought his religion with him while climbing with some of the worlds elite climbers. Early in mountaineering history Tom Frost went on some very famous climbs and certainly holds the high-altitude record for reading the Book of Mormon. I have seen references that I believe refer to him in climbing histories, or climbing accounts that say certain people were not selected to go on some of these big expeditions because they were ‘too religious’. I contacted Tom Frost several years ago after reading about him. I was interested to see if his climbing had affected his activity, his response was, well, we just had tithing settlement with the Bishop if that tells you anything. :) It was great to see a climber, well known for climbing photography, innovation on rock, and early American involvement in the Himalaya big mountain, still holding to his faith.

  • Richard J. Maloney

    While the author of this article is to be commended for detecting an insidious, God-hating, spiritual conspiracy in the grammar and the cover (mostly the cover) of Jon Krauker’s book, there is a misstep in the ninth paragraph. Mr. Bowman writes:

    “Under the Banner of Heaven’s literary parents are Arthur Conan Doyle and Zane Grey, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London – all who wrote nineteenth century penny dreadfuls premised on the notion that Brigham Young’s Zion was a totalitarian dictatorship, complete with secret police and young Mormon maidens pining for rescue from the grimly-bearded elders of the church.”

    Clearly, the sentence should read:

    “Under the Banner of Heaven’s literary parents are Arthur Conan Doyle and Zane Grey, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London – all of whom were more meaningful writers than Joseph Smith, who somehow thought that Native Americans were really Jews and left his church to a dude who revoked black members’ priesthoods, murdered interracial couples, closely identified the Mormon church with polygamy, and attacked federal troops.”


    • Matthew Bowman

      Try harder, Richard.

    • Seth R.

      Well Richard, seeing how many inaccuracies you promulgated in your last paragraph, I think we all know what to do with your opinion here.

      Nephi and Lehi weren’t Jews. And as such Joseph Smith couldn’t be accused of thinking Native Americans were Jews, could he?

      We can also detect the serious and scholarly bent of your mind by your wording in calling Brigham Young a “dude.”

      Oh, and if you want to claim Brigham Young “murdered interracial couples” then it’s your burden of proof to back that statement up. I’ve never seen anyone of actual scholarly credentials make this assertion. It seems to be something you came up with out of your own imagination.

      Care to back your words up? Or should I file this away under my “random rubbish someone said on the Internet for us all to ignore” drawer?

      Oh, and Brigham Young didn’t “attack federal troops.” The United States sent an entire federal army out to Utah with talk of slaughtering the entire community of farmers. Brigham Young sent out men to harrass the army, destroy food supply, and cause a nuisance. But not a single federal soldier was killed by any Mormon.

      Sounds more like restrained self-defense to me rather than an act of aggression.

      But context and nuance is not something I’ve come to expect either from Mr. Krakauer, or random Internet commenters who are obviously reading of the cliff notes version of “Mormonism 101″ they discovered over at exmormon.org.

  • Dan Maloy

    After reading this article the phrase “ever searching but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” came to mind. Often.

    Thank God the caravan moves on.