The FX/Hulu series “Under the Banner of Heaven” has generated a social media storm among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as former Church members and observers.
It tells the story of the gruesome 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, at the hands of her husband’s two brothers. The story is built on the best-selling book of the same name by journalist Jon Krakauer, whose thesis is that religion is based on faith rather than reason and therefore all religion (especially Mormonism) inevitably leads to violence.
Three scholars of religion – Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University; writer and researcher Jana Riess of Religion News Service; and Janan Graham-Russell, who recently completed a Mormon scholarship at the University of Utah, met this week to discuss the series and the book’s findings.
Here are excerpts from the Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast.
What did you think of the book the series is based on?
Mason • Krakauer is a writer of phenomenal quality. I think his research was pretty good, especially when he focuses on Lafferty’s story itself. And I actually think his research on Mormon history and the way his ability to translate that for a general audience is obviously quite effective, as the book sales indicate. In fact, I liked the book better than many of my colleagues and peers in the field and in the church. But his general argument goes far beyond what the evidence can actually support.
Riess • I’m more negative about the book than Patrick. Yes, it’s well written, and it’s a very enjoyable read. But, to me, the fact that Krakauer draws what appears to be a straight line between Mormon violence in the 1830s, 40s and 50s, and this incident of Mormon violence in 1984, without ever really delving into the sea change that has church has suffered over these decades, it ruins the whole book. It’s not history. The story chronicles change over time, trying to interpret it as best we can. And, to me, Krakauer seems to be presenting his book as a story when it isn’t.
Graham Russell • I think Krakauer really misses the mark with the way the story is told. Every time I think of this book, I hear my advisor’s voice in my head say, “You know, that’s not how history is made. There is this past and this present and a number of points along the way. … The same goes for the series. You have these quick snippets of Joseph Smith and Emma Smith, and it’s kind of these quick cuts, and it can be a little confusing at times, but it really tries to support this point that 19th century Mormonism really has an impact on what happened with the Lafferty brothers.
In the Book of Mormon there is the story of Nephi killing Laban with the voice of God in his head. And, of course, in the Bible there is a story of Abraham trying to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you think these stories inspire believers to stand up for what they see as righteous violence?
Mason • Violence is projected through Latter-day Saint scriptures, both ancient and modern. For me, one of the things the show can do is maybe open up a conversation about it so we can talk more honestly and frankly and come to grips with it. It could be a really healthy thing. Essentially, the violence in our scriptures and in our past is one of those “we’re not talking about Bruno” issues. We just put it aside and it’s not comfortable. We don’t really have the tools to talk about it. … There is a connection to the Laffertys because Dan Lafferty actually said he saw himself in the role of Nephi when he did this… My students, many of whom are Latter-day Saints, said: “We never even thought about it in that way. It was just a story we read…. on faith, on obedience to God, on something like that. We never even thought about the fact that [Nephi] was like beheading someone and blood and violence, the ethical dimensions of it.
Riess • I think it would be helpful to say to the Primary children, “God, this is a complicated story and we really don’t want you to go out and behead your friend just because you think God told you to. do it. But we don’t have the conversation. And so I agree that if anything good is going to come out of this, it would be that we start addressing the issues of violence that are, you know, frankly, in all religious traditions.
Graham Russell • The LDS Church has really struggled with this for some time. And so, you know, when somebody dresses up as Captain Moroni in the [Capitol] the insurrection, which does not come out of nowhere, that these stories marinate in this broader Mormon culture, reflecting on faith and obedience and what it means as a Latter-day Saint and also promoting violence .…We need to think about the violence of treatment of the native American Indians, the “Lamanites”…and about the priesthood and temple restrictions on blacks and the kind of violence that was kind of cultivated in the church. Having these conversations would be so good for the church.
The idea of personal revelation is the foundation of Mormon theology. It’s a nice idea for many, but also full of potential dangers. What could the church do to take care of this?
Mason • What religious communities do is they build all kinds of structures and hedges to guard against this extremism, to guard against the most radical impulses that actually help fuel religious devotion. I think there’s a lot to that. Within Mormonism, in particular, personal revelation is an extremely important source of authority, but it is not an exclusive source of authority. It has to be in conversation with the scriptures, it has to be in conversation with the teachings of the prophets, it has to be in conversation with the community. So when Mormonism is functioning properly, all of these things should provide control over the worst impulses or the most extreme impulses, and vice versa, personal revelation should provide control over prophetic authority. All of these things should work in balance.
Graham Russell • What do you do when people have different ideas about the meaning of a particular scripture? When you think about the meaning of dark skin, you know, today the LDS Church says it’s a sign of some kind of face. But a few decades ago, that meant something very different. … I think that’s a really important conversation to have in terms of those checks and balances. But, again, even within that—and it’s not just Mormonism—the power of interpretation has meant its inclusion or exclusion.
Riess • I was just thinking of Christopher Blythe’s book “Terrible Revolution”, which is a very interesting look at revelation in Mormon history and some of that extremism. One of the points he makes is that in the 19th century it was much more common for people to stand up in sacrament meeting and share the personal revelation they had had on great spiritual matters. Not only have you received personal revelation for yourself or for your children, but for the world and the end times and all these other matters. And the church started to really strongly discourage that and urge those discussions to take place in private…. It’s good in a sense that it curbs extremism, but, on the other hand, it makes it private. Instead of having the checks and balances that Patrick was talking about, we’re not subjecting any of this to community investigation. We just leave it there and people can form their own very strange beliefs as if it were the norm.