Written in chapters that alternate between the violent modern-day murders of the Lafferty brothers, and the 19th-century founding and pilgrimage of the Church of Latter Day Saints, “Under the Banner of Heaven” paints a grim picture of misguided faith. Krakauer is a skilled writer, and his ability to re-create narratives from over a century ago is perhaps unrivaled (compare this to David McCullough, and McCullough doesn’t stand up at all). Yes, the criticism of this book is valid: it doesn’t show the positive side of religion in America, or of the Mormon Church. But that is not the book’s purpose.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” argues that religion can be a dangerous institution, and that all faith and “communication with God” is not necessarily a good thing. And Krakauer is smart enough not to make more than a couple passing 9/11 references. The parallels between Lafferty and Bin Laden are easy enough to draw, and Krakauer respects our intelligence.
Also, the latest edition of this book includes the Mormon response to its publication, and Krakauer’s scathing (and amazingly convincing) counter-argument to their claims. Worth the price of admission, and could teach a class on the best practices of persuasive writing and argument.