Religion & Politics has allowed us to excerpt a section of my meditation on the enduring popularity–and the problems therein–of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.
Thanks to my colleagues at JI and friends of JI for their input on this piece. And thanks to JI for allowing me to share it with you.
…This is what I call the “Krakauer problem”: more than twelve years after it was first published, and after Romney’s presidential campaigns helped make Mormonism an acceptable American religion, Under the Banner of Heaven remains the definitive book on Mormon history in popular culture. Under the Banner of Heaven spent months on The New York Times bestseller list, and it is still ranked number one on Amazon’s bestsellers in the “Mormonism” list. Its popularity is also reflected at social events—even social events with other scholars of religion. When historians of Mormon history like me explain what they study, most of those who have read one book on the faith will tell us that they’ve read Under the Banner of Heaven. And, as Krakauer himself intended, they will also tell us that they understand it to be not only an exposé of Mormon fundamentalism, but also a reliable history of the origins of the LDS Church, too. To be sure, this is a problem for the LDS Church and for its members. Mainstream Mormons don’t want to be called upon to answer for Jeffs anymore than “mainstream” Muslims want to be called upon to answer for jihadists. Yet, this is also a problem for scholars of Mormonism, a problem that we’ve yet to solve. Scores of both scholarly and popular books on Mormonism have been published since Under the Banner of Heaven was first released in 2003. Yet none have come close to displacing it as the dominant portrayal of Mormon history in American culture.
THE QUESTION IS, WHY? What’s so compelling about Under the Banner of Heaven? That is, what makes it such a gripping and troubling read?…
Read the rest of the piece here.
I’d love to throw this out to the JI readership–What is your experience with Under the Banner of Heaven?