Monday, June 16, 2008

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

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I want to depart from my usual practice of reviewing works of fiction in order to talk about an important (but not new) book about religion and religious extremism. The book is by the respected writer of mountain-climbing and outdoor adventure, Jon Krakauer, and is titled Under The Banner Of Heaven. It is not a happy book; indeed, it is sometimes grisly and depressing, and yet I think it is a book we should all read.

At least in my view, Krakauer is an even-handed and fair chronicler of the origins of Mormonism and of the contemporary fundamentalist offshoots grouped together under the title Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). There has been much in the news lately about the raid on one of these fundamentalist sects located in Texas, and I can think of no better way of getting some perspective on what is happening there than to read Krackauer’s excellent book.

Krackauer began researching for this book because of his interest in two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, who claimed to receive a commandment from God to kill the wife and baby of a third brother. The Lafferty brothers were from a large and very well respected Mormon family which had long been active, fervent, and influential. The murders occurred in 1984 in a lazy small town just south of Salt Lake City and received national attention for sometime afterwards. As all of you probably know, the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has for many years sought to distance itself from these splinter groups (which still actively practice polygamy), but it took very little research by Krakauer to discover that the practice of polygamy has deep roots within the main established church, and that these splinter offshoots, rather than bizarre anomalies, are actually the quite natural consequence of the beliefs and practices of the main church. Indeed, the scriptures of the main church and the splinter groups are identical, and those in the reform churches insist that they are simply returning to pivotal parts of the doctrine abandoned by the main church because of pressure from the federal government. The reformists insist that it was a matter of cowardice (rather than divine guidance) that led to these doctrinal changes, or a combination of cowardice and the desire to grab and hold power and exclusive claims to sanctity.

I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and my staunchly Mormon mother insisted that her sons always proudly use their middle name of Smith to lay claim to what she insisted was a direct genealogical line to the originator of this wealthy and huge religion (the fastest growing church in the world), the alleged seer and prophet, Joseph Smith. The youngest of four sons, I was expected to do what my brothers had failed to do, namely, go on a Mormon mission to convert others to The Truth. That this prospect loomed in my future made me a particularly serious and inquiring young man who listened intently at testimony meetings to all those who claimed to know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the teachings of the Mormon church were the one and only truth, and that adherence to its doctrines was the only way to achieve the Celestial Kingdom, the highest degree of glory in the afterlife. I believed, but could not claim to know, and thus began the search that eventually led me away from the Church and its claim to exclusive truth.

From my earliest forays of curiosity regarding Mormonism and its claim to exclusive truth, I noticed that there seemed to be a cloud of secrecy concerning the actual history of the Mormons and its originator, and that historians who sought to pierce that cloud and/or to present a view of its history different from the almost Disney-world version presented by what we simply called The Church were dealt with harshly. Indeed, even devout Mormons who dared to reveal some of the shady behavior of the young Joseph (or the persecutions by early Mormons of non-Mormons traveling through Utah) were promptly excommunicated. I recall reading the excellent and mostly innocent history written by Fran Brodie, No Man Knows My History, and being warned by Mormon friends that even reading the book constituted grounds for expulsion.

Krakauer is hardly the first writer to point out that the Mormon Church has gone to extremes to suppress much of its actual history, even buying up and vaulting historical documents that contradict the official view (sometimes paying exorbitant sums for what turned out to be fraudulent documents). But the reaction to Krakauer’s book, like those of writers before him who dared to expose the philandering of Joseph Smith (long before the practice of polygamy became an official ‘revealed’ doctrine) or of historical inaccuracies in the church’s accepted account has been typical. Mormons are instructed, commanded is really a better choice of words, not to read the book, and Krakauer (like so many before him) has been vilified.

However, what I am asking you as readers to do is to read this book for yourselves. I think you will be (as I was) astounded by some of the documented history of not simply the so-called extremist offshoots of Mormonism but of the church itself, from its very inception. I think you will see the contempt Mormons (and so many other churches) have had towards secular authorities, and how little they really believe in the separation of church and state (except when it is convenient for their purposes to insist on such a separation). From the first, their arrogant conviction of standing in the Truth has led to a flaunting of civil law and to a dismissive disregard of all those outside the fold.

But I think you should read this book not simply as a way of seeing the dangers in Mormonism. If you look closely enough at the history of your own favorite religion, I think you will come to see quite quickly that claims of being specially chosen by God, of being in exclusive possession of The Truth, are central in religion, and that chosen-people mentality has been one of the most divisive forces in history. Furthermore, I think if you are open and fair in your examination of the histories of the various major religions, you will see that the current so-called evangelical atheists, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (among others) are not the intolerant and strident voices that many commentators have insisted, but instead brave folks who are warning us of the very real dangers of religious fundamentalism. It is not they, I would insist, who are the intolerant or fanatical voices.

In the final analysis, books like Krakauer’s may be even better than the more abstract and intellectual critiques of religion, because his book shows so clearly that the so called extremes are not accidents, not anomalies, but are born in the very crucible of religious fervor. It is religious views that must be scrutinized in the light of genuine, rational morality, and not the other way round (as so many religions seem to insist).

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

I want to talk to you today about one of the most brilliant writers ever to write, and since she is still alive, I would also say she is one of the two or three best writers writing today. Readers I know, especially those who are also writers, await each new work of hers with an eagerness bordering on avarice, and several I have known have confessed that upon discovering her, they have felt compelled to read up everything she has written in the space of a few days or weeks. Her name is Alice Munro, and what makes what I have said above even more incredible is that she is almost exclusively a writer of short fiction, short-stories so-called. And so many readers have told me how they avoid short stories, how they find them tempting but incomplete and disappointing. If you are one of those readers suspicious of short fiction, now is your chance to give up your suspicions. Each of Munro’s stories opens up such a universe, such emotional richness and complexity, that instead of seeming like short stories, they seem to be novels that have been reduced down to an astonishing essence. One commentator, after the usual comparison with Chekhov and other masters of short fiction, insists that Munro’s ability to capture so much so quickly makes novelists seem almost wasteful in needing so many words to say their piece.

The collection I am talking about today, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, was published in 2001 and is one of the very best of the dozen books that comprise her life’s work. If this is the first Munro that you read, you will be one of the lucky ones who has a baker’s dozen left for the future. Space them out like dessert; savor them for times when you begin to doubt the power of fiction to capture and hold your attention. Or simply plunge in and read them all, prepared to be amazed, transported, enlightened.

As the title of this volume makes clear, Munro is at her very best when talking of relationships, and while it is the lives of girls and women she knows best, I think you will also find her depictions of sons and lovers, husbands and boyfriends to be both right on the mark and incredibly compassionate and forgiving. Although quite able to write about big-city life and the larger world, she is most at home when talking about ordinary people in small towns in Canada. There are only nine stories in this volume, and each could be a novel; indeed, each seems like a novel that simply leaves some parts to be filled in by the imagination of the reader.

Munro does not write about the rich or the beautiful or the famous; rarely do her characters have much power or influence in the world. But that is not to say that they do not have depth nor that the reader cannot learn a lot about relationships and the world by reading her. My task now will be to try in just a few words, a few quotes, to entice you into reading one of her stories; after that, the hook will be set.

While the male characters in Munro’s stories are often shadow figures, away at work when the women meet, or on the sidelines during illness and family crisis, Munro understands that their emotional reticence is as much a part of their upbringing as is the emotional intelligence of many of her female characters. Many of the stories in this volume are about death and illness and dying, but then so much of life is about such things. One story, “What is Remembered,” begins with preparations for a funeral—a youngish husband and his wife going to the funeral of a childhood friend of the husband. But the husband has said almost nothing about the death itself, or about the friend, their childhoods together. He talks only of the funeral and the preparations for it.

His suit to be cleaned, a white shirt obtained. It was Meriel who made the arrangements, and Pierre kept checking up on her in a husbandly way. She understood that he wished her to be controlled and matter-of-fact, as he was, and not to lay claim to any sorrow which—he would be sure—she could not really feel. She had asked him why he had said, ‘Suicide,’ and he had told her, ‘That’s just what came into my head.’ She felt his evasion to be some sort of warning or even a rebuke. As if he suspected her of deriving from this death—or from their proximity to this death—a feeling that was discreditable and self-centered. A morbid, preening excitement.
Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as about the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century. It was the women, then, who could slip back—during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children—into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.

In another of the stories, “Comfort,” we are told about a small town biology teacher who is dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and about his lifelong struggle with school-boards and religiously conservative parents who want creationism taught as an alternative to evolution. The story actually begins with the suicide of the teacher, a suicide that his wife knows is coming and has to some extent prepared for, although he has not told her that he has chosen just this day and this time. I spent a good part of the last year reading what have been called the evangelical atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others, and I very much appreciate their bravery in writing their warnings about religious fundamentalism. But I have to say that Munro is able to point out many of the same dangers in a much more understated way, and one which somehow understands the allure of tidy, simplistic religious worldviews while also seeing the blindness and ignorance they perpetuate. I wish I could say just how and why this reader did take comfort in the simplicity and honesty of this rather sad story.

Munro is the master of ‘what if?’ stories. What if she had let the affair happen, had even run off with the other man? What if the child had not died? What if she had decided to leave this small town and go to college?

Maybe you didn’t find out so much, anyway. Maybe the same thing over and over—which might be some obvious but unsettling fact about yourself. In her case, the fact of prudence—or at least some economical sort of emotional management—had been her guiding light all along.

My suspicion is that readers who really dive into Munro’s world will learn a lot about themselves, a lot about relationships, about love and life and death.