A “Krakauer Problem?”

By July 14, 2015

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?


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice work, Max.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 14, 2015 @ 9:44 am

  2. Interesting piece, Max. I think much of it comes down to readability. Krakauer’s prose is eminently more readable than most authors. Similar to Brodie/Bushman–Brodie is much easier to read and thus gets a wider audience.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 14, 2015 @ 10:13 am

  3. My experience with Under the Banner of Heaven is that most of the people I have met who have read it are very intelligent – generally those with advanced degrees. This makes it all the more surprising that they all seem to swallow it whole. Often, they will have this look on their face, like: Oh yes, I’ve read it, and now I know _all_ about your religion . . . . It’s quite annoying that this is the source upon which many intelligent people base their knowledge of Mormonism.

    Having read it myself, I couldn’t agree more that the book is amazingly well written and incredibly gripping. It’s just substantively crap.

    Comment by JT — July 14, 2015 @ 10:28 am

  4. Very good read, like all your pieces, Max. I think like J Stuart said it’s largely readability, but perhaps also the element of true crime, a very popular genre in literature. Any of you academic types willing to convert your next weighty tome into true crime?

    Comment by Amy T — July 14, 2015 @ 10:33 am

  5. Well done, Max. I love the point you close the essay with (via JB) regarding Elizabeth Smart.

    Comment by Ben P — July 14, 2015 @ 10:38 am

  6. It’s been a long time since I read Under the Banner of Heaven, but the impression I recall having was that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been made out to be. I did not understand his point to be that the Mormon church is bad and the same as modern day polygamists, but rather that anybody who believes in God, and especially those who believe in a God that still speaks, needs to think seriously through the dilemma of how to distinguish the voice of God from his own thoughts/delusions. And, to sort of raise the stakes on that question, he looks at it specifically through the moral paradox of believing in a God that could demand murder, and how does one who believes that God is asking him to commit murder ensure that it is really God, and not his own delusions. My experience of reading the book and thinking through that question was beneficial to my own faith, and did not weaken my belief in or commitment to the church. I did not take it as history, but as a meditation on the dark of side the nature of faith, with a sensationalist story as an illustration.

    I don’t disagree with the point that Under the Banner of Heaven is bad if taken as history. And the fact that so many people do take it that way is a problem. I’m just fascinated by the fact that my experience reading it was apparently so different from most people. I was already a fan of Krakauer’s other writing, and had been exposed to a fair amount of LDS history, so maybe that made the difference. But I remember thinking at the time that the church’s response seemed overly defensive.

    Comment by JKC — July 14, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

  7. Short answer: creative nonfiction. It’s a good read that throws selected facts into a compelling narrative rather than (as historians ideally do) one that throws selected facts into a plodding narrative or even no narrative at all. That’s why Krakauer sells books. I am not dissing historians or their work — but the point of inquiry here is not what makes good history but why straight history, academic history, is not as successful in the popular market as Krakauer history.

    Comment by Dave — July 14, 2015 @ 2:50 pm

  8. Good essay, Max. It’s interesting that Krakauer’s book has not only had impact on popular readership, but also some university press books as well. It seems like scholars of Mormonism necessarily have to be public historians, to both bridge audience gaps and separate sources and types of media for those audiences. Thanks, Max.

    Comment by Jeff T — July 14, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

  9. I think it works because it’s a riveting true-crime drama that integrates easily into a preexisting narrative about Mormons/religious people (they are dangerous, violent sectarians). What I find more interesting than the reception is the way that Krakauer has sometimes claimed the authority of the historian in his responses to criticism. It’s that whole notion of the perspicuity of history and distrust of the expert. I saw the book as two books, one which I thought was a fascinating true crime story, and one which I thought was a silly, DIY pseudo-history.

    Comment by Samuel Brown — July 17, 2015 @ 3:30 pm


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