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Discussion Guide

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

By Jon Krakauer

This extraordinary work of investigative journalism takes readers inside America’s isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities, where some 40,000 people still practice polygamy. Defying both civil authorities and the Mormon establishment in Salt Lake City, the renegade leaders of these Taliban-like theocracies are zealots who answer only to God.

At the core of Krakauer’s book are brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a commandment from God to kill a blameless woman and her baby girl. Beginning with a meticulously researched account of this appalling double murder, Krakauer constructs a multi-layered, bone-chilling narrative of messianic delusion, polygamy, savage violence, and unyielding faith. Along the way he uncovers a shadowy offshoot of America’s fastest growing religion, and raises provocative questions about the nature of religious belief.

 

This discussion guide and recommended reading was shared and sponsored in partnership with Penguin Random House.

Discussion Questions

Use these discussion questions to guide your next book club meeting.

In his prologue, Jon Krakauer writes that the aim of his book is to “cast some light on Lafferty and his ilk,” which he concedes is a daunting but useful task for what it may tell us “about the roots of brutality, perhaps, but even more for what might be learned about the nature of faith” [p. XXIII]. What does the book reveal about fanatics such as Ron and Dan Lafferty? What does it reveal about brutality and faith and the connections between them?

Why does Krakauer move back and forth between Mormon history and contemporary events? What are the connections between the beliefs and practices of Joseph Smith and his followers in the nineteenth century and the behavior of people like Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brian David Mitchell, and others in the twentieth?

Krakauer asks: “if Ron Lafferty were deemed mentally ill because he obeyed the voice of God, isn’t everyone who believes in God and seeks guidance through prayer mentally ill as well?” [p. 297] Given the nature of, and motive for, the murders of Brenda Lafferty and her child, should Ron Lafferty be considered mentally ill? If so, should all others who “talk to God” or receive revelations—a central tenant of Mormonism—also be considered mentally ill? What would the legal ramifications be of such a shift in thought?

“Scrupulously reported and written with Krakauer’s usual exacting flair, Under the Banner of Heaven is both illuminating and thrilling. It is also the creepiest book anyone has written in a long time—and that’s meant as the highest possible praise.” —Newsweek

 

“Riveting. . . . Intriguing. . . . Breezy, smooth and vigorously written, this ambitious book is entertaining and informative. . . . Krakauer reconstructs the Lafferty brothers’ descent into fatal fanaticism magnificently, interweaving their story throughout the book and giving this wide-ranging work narrative coherence and emotional resonance. . . . [He is] a superb storyteller.” —The News & Observer

 

“Powerfully illuminating. . . . Almost every section of the book is fascinating in its own right, and together the chapters make a rich picture. . . . An arresting portrait of depravity.” —The New York Times Book Review

 

“Engrossing. . . . Incisive. . . . [Krakauer is] a very careful reporter. . . . His clear-headed, unbiased examination of the church—leavened with genuine respect—and his conclusions . . . are hard to argue with.” —Boulder Daily Camera