‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ misses the mark, say religion scholars, but here’s how Latter-day Saints can learn from it

Violence in the faith’s scriptures should be examined with more scrutiny.

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 members and church 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 bestselling book of the same name by journalist Jon Krakauer, whose thesis is that religion relies on faith rather than reason and thus all religion (especially Mormonism) leads inevitably to violence.

Three religion scholars — 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 fellowship in Mormon studies at the University of Utah — came together this week to discuss the series’ and the book’s conclusions.

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast.

What did you think of the book on which the series is based?

Mason • Krakauer is a phenomenally good writer. I thought his research was quite good, especially when he’s focusing on the Lafferty story itself. And I actually think his research into Mormon history and the way his ability to translate that for a general audience is obviously quite effective as the book sales indicate. I actually liked the book better than a lot of my colleagues and peers in the field and in the church. But his overall argument goes well beyond what the evidence can actually support.

Riess • I’m more negative on the book than Patrick is. Yes, it is well-written, and it’s a very breezy read. But, for me, the fact that Krakauer is drawing what seems 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 massive sea change that the church underwent in those decades, that ruins the whole book. It is not history. History is chronicling change over time, trying to interpret it the best we can. And, to me, Krakauer seems to be putting forth his book as history when it’s not.

Graham-Russell • I do think Krakauer does really miss the mark with how history is told. Whenever I think about that book, I hear my adviser’s voice in my head saying, “You know, this is not how you do history.” There’s this past and the present and a number of points along the way. …The same goes along the lines with the series as well. You have these quick snippets of Joseph Smith and Emma Smith, and it’s sort of these quick cuts, and it can be kind of confusing at times, but it really is trying to support this point that the Mormonism of the 19th century is really impactful in what played out with the Lafferty brothers.

(Courtesy photos) From left, Patrick Mason, Jana Riess and Janan Graham-Russell.

In the Book of Mormon, there’s the story of Nephi killing Laban with the voice of God in his head. And, of course, in the Bible, there’s a story of Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son Isaac. Do you think these stories set up believers to defend what they see as righteous violence?

Mason • Violence is shot through Latter-day Saint scripture, both ancient and modern. For me, one of the things that the series can do is maybe open up a conversation about that so we can speak more honestly and frankly and grapple with that. That could be a really healthy thing. For the most part, the violence in our scripture and in our past is one of those issues “we don’t talk about Bruno” kind of things. We just kind of shove 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 Nephi’s role 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…. about faith, about obeying God, about something like that. We never even thought about the fact that [Nephi] was like decapitating somebody and the blood and the violence, the ethical dimensions of it.”

Riess • I think it would be helpful if we told Primary kids, “Gosh, this is a complex story and we really don’t want you to be going out and decapitating your friend just because you think that God told you to do so.” But we’re not having the conversation. And so I agree that if anything good is going to come out of this, it would be that we start to address issues of violence that are, you know, frankly, in every religious tradition.

Graham-Russell • The LDS Church really has struggled with that for quite some time. And so, you know, when you have someone dressing as Captain Moroni at the [Capitol] insurrection, that’s not coming out of thin air, that these stories are marinating in this larger Mormon culture, thinking through faith and obedience and what that means as a Latter-day Saint and also fostering violence.…We need to think about the violence of treatment of Indigenous Native Americans, the “Lamanites”… and about priesthood and temple restrictions on Blacks and the type of violence that has been sort of cultivated in the church. Having these conversations would be so good for the church.

The idea of personal revelation is bedrock Mormon theology. It’s a lovely idea to many but also fraught with potential danger. What could the church do to be careful about that?

Mason • What religious communities do is they build all kinds of structures and hedges to guard against that 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 a hugely important source of authority, but it’s not an exclusive source of authority. It has to be in conversation with scripture, has to be in conversation with the teachings of the prophets, has to be in conversation with the community. And so, when Mormonism is functioning properly, all of these things should provide a check on the worst impulses or most extreme impulses and, vice versa, personal revelation should provide a check on prophetic authority. All these things should work in balance.

Graham-Russell • What do you do when people have different ideas about what a particular scripture means? When we think about the meaning of dark skin, you know, today the LDS Church says that it’s a sign of one sort of countenance. But a couple of decades ago, it meant something very different. … I think it’s a really important conversation to do in terms of those checks and balances. But, again, even within that — and it’s not just Mormonism — the power of interpretation has meant one’s inclusion or exclusion.

Riess • I was just thinking about Christopher Blythe’s book “Terrible Revolution,” which is a really interesting look at revelation in Mormon history and some of this extremism. One of the points that he makes is that in the 19th century, it was far more common for people to get up in sacrament meeting and share their personal revelation that they had had about big spiritual topics. Not just you’ve received personal revelation for yourself or for your children, but for the world and the end times and all of these other issues. And the church began really strongly discouraging that and to urge those discussions to take place in private…. That’s good in one sense in that it does curb the extremism, but, on the other hand, it makes it go private. Instead of having the checks and balances that Patrick was talking about, we are not subjecting any of that to the inquiry of the community. We are just leaving it out there and people can form their own very strange beliefs as if that is the norm.

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