Under the Banner of Heaven—Jon Krakauer and Dustin Lance Black

What is the book Under the Banner of Heaven about?

Under the Banner of Heaven relates the story of Dan[BIO] and Ron Lafferty,[BIO] how they became Mormon fundamentalists,[1] and their murder of Brenda[BIO] and Erica Lafferty.[BIO][2]

The book also compares the brothers' transition into Mormon fundamentalism and their murders with the foundations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[3] and criticizes religion broadly, specifically on its connection to violence.[4]

What is the Under the Banner of Heaven FX mini-series about?

The FX mini-series adapts Krakauer's book Under the Banner of Heaven and depicts a fictionalized detective, Jeb Pyre, who investigates the Lafferty murders.[5] In the series, Detective Pyre has a faith crisis as Allen Lafferty[BIO] tells him more about Church history and he sees the horror of the murders.[6]

What is a Mormon fundamentalist?

Mormon fundamentalists are individuals or groups that break off from the Church because they believe that the Church was wrong to stop the practice of plural marriage.[7] The Church excommunicates those who practice polygamy today.[8]

Does religion lead to violence?

Yes, religious beliefs can lead to violence.[9] They can also lead to peace.[10]

Religious criticism in Under the Banner of Heaven

Reference

Quote

Prologue

“Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion.”[11]

Prologue

"As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane, as a means of inciting evil. . . there may be no more potent force than religion."[12]

Prologue

"Extremism seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperament or upbringing towards religious pursuits."[13]

Chapter 6 (pg. 70)

“All religious belief is a function of nonrational faith. And faith, by its very definition, tends to be impervious to intellectual argument or academic criticism.”[14]

Besides religious violence, are there any other themes in the book?

Yes, the book also talks about the practice of polygamy.[15] It notes that while the Church stopped practicing polygamy, Mormon fundamentalists continued the practice.[16] The book also conflates these two religious movements that share a common founder and common scripture.[17]

Who wrote Under the Banner of Heaven?

Jon Krakauer.[BIO] He is a journalist, a mountaineer, and the author of best-selling non-fiction books.[18]

What is the author's connection to Mormonism?

In a 2022 interview, Krakauer said, "I grew up with Mormons and I envied them and admired them. They were my friends . . . they were cheerful, and their families are so welcoming — until high school, when I didn’t convert. Then they just ghosted me and that hurt my feelings. So all of that is what led me to write this book."[19]

Who wrote the Under the Banner of Heaven mini-series?

Dustin Lance Black[BIO] wrote Under the Banner of Heaven.[20] Black is a screenwriter, director, film and television producer, and an LGBTQ+ activist.[21]

Did any active Latter-day Saints consult on the mini-series?

No. It was reported that there were no active members were paid to write or produce the show.[22] FX stated they hired two consultants, Troy Williams[BIO] and Lindsay Hansen Park,[BIO] both former members of the Church.[23] However, Andrew Garfield said he met with "members of the LDS church, ex-members of the church, future ex-members of the church" in researching his role.[24]

What is his connection to Mormonism?

Dustin Lance Black is a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints[25] and has worked on some media productions related to the Church and Mormonism, including the documentary 8: The Mormon Proposition[26] and the TV series Big Love.[27]

Is the book Under the Banner of Heaven accurate?

Sometimes. While Under the Banner of Heaven seems to portray the facts of the Lafferty murders accurately,[28] Krakauer sometimes misrepresents or oversimplifies the Church and its members.[29]

What did critics think of the book?

Some critics praised the book, believing that it accurately and articulately showed tensions between faith and violence.[30] Other critics have pointed out the author's inaccuracies and sensationalism.[31]

Sample Reviews of Under the Banner of Heaven (book)

Source

Review

Church Newsroom, June 27, 2003[32]

". . . Krakauer unwittingly puts himself in the same camp as those who believe every German is a Nazi, every Japanese a fanatic, and every Arab a terrorist."

Kirkus Book Reviews, July 15, 2003[33]

"At the moment 'when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination,' then 'all bets are suddenly off.' Krakauer lays the portent on beautifully, building his tales carefully from the ground up until they irresistibly, spookily combust."

Jane Lampman, Christian Science Monitor, July 17, 2003[34]

". . . while this compelling book raises important issues - some pertinent to today's news - it also delivers a skewed and misleading picture of a faith now practiced by 11 million people worldwide."

Benjamin Park, Juvenile Instructor, February 20, 2012[35]

"What, we wonder, made Krakauer’s caricatured telling of Mormonism’s “violent” past so crucial that to avoid it in a historical survey of the LDS Church is worthy of being charged with negligence? . . . Put simply, it’s a shoddy work of history, and should have been destined to be another flash-in-the-pan sensationalist work that soon fell into insignificance."

Karina Wetherbee, Summit Daily, June 13, 2015[36]

"Respectful, but hard-hitting in his reporting, Krakauer hits another one out of the park with 'Under the Banner of Heaven.'"

Is the Under the Banner of Heaven mini-series accurate?

Sometimes. Historian Ben Park said that the series did well on showing a variety of Latter-day Saints and Mormons and improved on the history shown in the book, but had some notable issues.[37] However, Brenda Lafferty's sister Sharon Wright Weeks[BIO] described the series as "absolute fiction."[38]

Dustin Lance Black explained, "I did my research and I worked incredibly hard to get this thing right."[39]

Sample Reviews of Under the Banner of Heaven (mini-series)

Source

Review

Daryl Austin, Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2022[40]"Early on, the show takes a dark view of the faith. And it depicts Mormons as bizarre, one-dimensional puppets—conversing in dialogue as foreign to members of the faith as to outsiders. Ominous tones overshadow even something as innocent as a father presenting his young daughter with a Choose the Right ring, the Mormon equivalent of a What Would Jesus Do? bracelet."

Katie McKlellar interviewing Sharon Wright Weeks, Deseret News, May 10, 2022[41]

"'This series, it’s absolute fiction,' Weeks said. So Weeks wants to set the record straight. She wants the show’s viewers to differentiate fact from fiction. She wants them to know who Brenda truly was — and what the show gets wrong about her sister’s memory, her personality, and even her relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Hal Boyd, Deseret News, April 25, 2022[42]"We must work to foster genuine peace. But it won’t happen if our entertainers continue to sell us fear and resentment. Sadly too much of the latter is what’s produced these days under the banner of Hollywood."
Benjamin Park, Religion Dispatches, April 25, 2022[43]"Instead, the perspective follows that of Allen Lafferty who, after digging into the faith’s past, and witnessing its worst expression, issues a clear verdict: 'If you really still believe your god is love,' he tells Pyre, 'then you don’t know who you are, brother.' Mormonism, at its root, 'breeds dangerous men.' Far from countering this opinion, offered in the first episode, the series only confirms it."
Jana Riess, Religion News Services, April 25, 2022[44]"There’s a world of nuance missing here, in which it is possible to remain a believing member of a religion and not be inherently irrational or prone to violence."

Dustin Lance Black, Salt Lake Tribune, March 29, 2022[45]

“If you do a deep dive into any religion — but I think particularly the Mormon religion — there’s only two ways to go. It’s either going to become a musical comedy, or it’s going to turn to terror and horror. And there are things that need to be changed in this church. . . . And this show presents some of those things that need to be changed.”

Max Mueller, Slate, May 20, 2022[46]

". . .Black and Krakauer put forth an anti-religion polemic that itself verges on fundamentalism: All faiths corrupt. Absolutist faiths like Mormonism—be it the brand based in Temple Square or found in some off-the-grid compound in a remote corner of the West—corrupt absolutely."

Did the Church issue a response to Under the Banner of Heaven?

Yes. The Church issued several responses to the book,[47] listing specific factual errors.[48] Krakauer has acknowledged some of these errors[49] but generally disagreed with the critiques.[50]

Other Latter-day Saints have published both positive and negative reviews.[51]

Did the Church issue a response to the Under the Banner of Heaven mini-series?

No.[52]

What does the Church say about violence?

The Church condemns violence.[53] Scriptures also echo this message of peace.[54]

The Facts

  • Jon Krakauer published Under the Banner of Heaven in July 2003.

  • Krakauer is a journalist, atheist, and critic of religions.

  • Dustin Lance Black wrote and directed the Under the Banner of Heaven mini-series released by FX in 2022.

  • Black is a former member and critic of the Church and has worked on a number of Church-related media productions.

  • Under the Banner of Heaven chronicles the Lafferty murders while also commenting on religion broadly and Latter-day Saints specifically.

  • The Church issued three different critiques for the book Under the Banner of Heaven in one release.

  • The book Under the Banner of Heaven received mixed reviews from Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints.

  • The Church condemns violence and lawless behavior.

Our Take

Under the Banner of Heaven presents an alarming story—pulling from violent and terrible events. Both Krakauer and Black both tell the story of the Lafferty murders and connect the Church and religion to violence. This narrative raises questions like, "Did something about the Church cause the Lafferty murders?" or "Does Mormonism make people violent?"

These questions are worth examining, especially for those who want to evaluate if the Restored Gospel brings forth good fruit. While Krakauer and Black accurately portray many of the details of the murders, they sometimes misrepresent the Church, particularly in relation to Mormon fundamentalists. It can be concerning when members or in this case, former members, use religion to justify their violence. However, the Church has denounced violence in the past and continues to do so today.

It's important to regularly inspect our culture and our interpretations of divine truths, to make sure we best reflect the love of God and love for all people in our worship and actions. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of peace and love for all people, and church members should strive to exemplify that.

What's Your Take?

280 characters remaining
These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Elle
    As a non-Mormon, I don’t think it painted “all LDS” negatively, it showed a range (I’ve known several great LDS, including a yoga teacher). I do wish the bro’s collective descent into madness was explored w/more depth, what a psych study. Including the history was interesting.
  • Amber
    To me , this series is more about what happened to the people, than the LDS faith. Remember movie/tv makers, will follow a story but will add their twist to make a show more interesting.
  • Don G
    My take is that the series did not have any active members of the Church as consultants but hired those who had a grudge against the Church. As a member of the Church for over 60 years I do not know who this film is describing, we do not communicate in this manner!
  • Holly
    Gosh it brought back so many memories. I like how it shows how different the LDS members are in different places.
  • Geoffrey
    I hate it when people say religion has caused more violence than anything in history. No, people twist religious beliefs to serve their agenda. That's like saying science is bad because it caused the anti-vax movement. No, Andrew Wakefield twisted science to suit his own agenda.
  • Elijiah
    This was not a criticism of the church but rather of people. I thought every episode of the miniseries was beautifully crafted and the story itself intense. All the history scenes were shot with the truth in mind and you can really tell. Any anti Mormon sentiment was pretty vague
  • Rachelle H.
    This book is horrible! I knew Brenda, we worked together. It does a grave disservice to Brenda and her sweet Erica. The Laffert robbers were pure evil.
  • Adrienne P.
    It was made obvious in the mini series that there are good Mormons. Mormons just like the leading character. He isn't a lone wolf. There are kind, compassionate, seekers of the truth and facts. Blind faith is insidious to religions and this Mormon cop's eyes were opened.
  • Cheryl T.
    This is truly an inaccurate depiction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It is obviously done by someone with a grudge towards the religion who has no intent on making it look good to non-members. The way he has them speaking to ALL members is so inaccurate.
  • Aaron
    200 year old history is always hard to examine. However we have a pretty good idea that, from multiple journals and testimonials and other sources, that Krakauer got his history wrong to an almost fictional level.
  • Convert, Return missionary & Desert Storm Veteran
    Hard to watch. The Author could not get basic beliefs right. He put all LDS in a box. 99% of historical portrayal was way off. I mean, get it right. LDS Women serve Missions, drive tractors, serve in the military, and we have opinions. SMH
  • Wendy B
    Ultimately, what needs to be understood by people, is that these people are a totally different religion. They took a church that doesn't preach or practice violence, nor polygamy, and twisted it to fit their sadistic minds. They are NOT real LDS members.
  • John
    You state that “the church has denounced violence in the past and continues to do so today.” With that in mind, can you speak to the churches practice of blood atonement in the 1800’s? Additionally, why do so many members glorify Porter Rockwell?
Footnotes