Do You Hate Mormons?

Jana Riess tips us off to an interesting finding in the much-discussed tome, American Grace.  She tells us that Mormons are the third-most-hated religious group in America.  She sums up the findings: “Mormons like everyone else, while almost everyone else dislikes Mormons.”

But Jana doesn’t stop there.  She goes on to chide her co-religionists to change.  For one thing, she has already asked the church to change its stance on homosexuality.  Now she goes further:

it would help if we stopped regarding ourselves as the finest people on the planet. We ought to take a long, hard look at the fact that we voted our own group tops in this research. It’s one thing to be proud of our religious group and its teachings, but it’s another thing entirely to communicate, as many Mormons seem to, that we feel we have a monopoly on religious truth and strong families. A dose of humility is in order here.
I’ve been in communication with Jana recently over my own discomfort at Mormon history and teaching, prodded by my recent reading of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, about the religious murder of a mother and child in 1984 by Dan and Ron Lafferty.  It’s a compelling and disturbing book, and I imagine it’s all the more so to a member of the LDS Church.  It is also controversial, as Jana and others have told me.
I’ve read three Krakauer books this year, and I honestly think this is the weakest of the three — though it’s a great read.  It’s simply too convenient of a connection to make from a violent, fundamentalist sect of a religion to the adherents of the mainstream religion.  It’s like saying that the Westboro Baptist Church idiots are representative of 2.1 billion Christians.  Here’s the New York Times hesitation,
However valid Krakauer’s linkage of past and present, it steepens an already formidable storytelling challenge. The contemporary parts of the book -skipping from the Lafferty case to sketches of two fundamentalist towns to a late-breaking chapter on Elizabeth Smart — can themselves disorient the reader with disparate detail. (From a strictly literary standpoint, polygamy’s main downside is its creation of lots of characters with the same last name.) With long historical sections mixed in, the momentum dissipates further. Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture, but there is little narrative synergy among them.
In fact, this is the very thing that Terry Eagleton, the atheist-Marxist philosopher, accused “Ditchkins” of doing in his excellent book, Reason, Faith, and Religion: Reflections on the God Debate — I’m currently listening to the lectures on which that book was based, available on iTunes U.

However, my strange discomfort with Mormonism continues.  So Jana and I have talked about a blogalogue in the second half of 2011.  Watch this space for more details…

Meaningful Deaths

That seems to be the sweet spot of Jon Krakauer’s writing.  Driving to and from Dallas in the past week, I listened to two of Krakauer’s books, Into Thin Air and Into the Wild.

The first is the author’s firsthand account of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster in which eight climbers died in one day, and 15 in that season.  The second is his investigation of the journeys and eventual starvation of Chris McCandless, also made into an eponymous movie.

Here’s what’s particularly moving about these two books: In each, the reader knows the outcome (tragic, unnecessary death), yet Krakauer tells the tales so compellingly that it doesn’t matter.  And here’s why: Krakauer redeems these deaths by telling the stories of the individuals who died.  That is, as a reader, I felt that I truly got to know these people.  So his are not tragedies-for-tragedies’-sake.  They are true character studies.  They tell us something about what it means to be human.

His new book, just out, is Where Men Win Glory, and it recounts another unnecessary, but meaningful death, that of Pat Tillman.  Early reviews of this book have been strong, so it’s going to be high on my reading list.