I just finished reading a very interesting book by John Krakauer. Krakauer wrote one of my favorite books, “Into Thin Air,” a true story about a group of climbers who got caught in a storm at the top of Mt. Everest. The book is a gripping narrative and sparked in me a strong curiosity about Mt. Everest (although I would never want to try and climb it myself!). Krakauer has a way of highlighting the dramatic elements in a story that makes it feel like well-crafted fiction.
This last book is called, “Under the Banner of Heaven.” It starts with the account of a double-homicide carried out by religious fanatics, and launches from there into an examination of Mormonism and some of its fundamentalist spinoffs. While the book focuses a lot on the history of Mormonism (I never knew it was so violent!), it also looks at home splinter groups have broken off from the main church, often over the issue of polygamy. I didn’t find the book to be anti-Mormon at all, but it certainly is biased (and understandably so) against the fundamentalist sects that have broken off from the Mormon church.
I found the book to be a fascinating read that raised a lot of spiritual questions for me. At one point, when Krakauer is discussing the men on trial for the murders, he makes the point that he believes at least one of the men committed the crimes because he truly believed it was the will of God. There was an argument about whether or not the defendant should use the insanity defense. If he did so, and was found guilty, would it imply that anyone who claimed to be following the will of God could be considered insane?
Another question the book raised for me had to do with God’s revelations. The Mormon faith is founded on the work of Joseph Smith, who claimed to receive direct revelations from God (including one about “spiritual marriage” or polygamy). His revelations were so influential that they have spawned a worldwide religion. While I don’t doubt the authenticity of Smiths’ revelations, unfortunately, I’ve never had God speak directly to me in such a blunt way, so it’s hard for me to understand how this process works.
How do we measure whether a direct revelation is authentic or not? We could measure it against the standard of the Bible, but as you know you can use the Bible to prove or disprove almost anything (including polygamy). Do we then measure it against what makes sense? Or against our own innate understanding of right and wrong? As Krakauer’s book so vividly points out, just because someone says God told them something doesn’t mean it was actually God speaking.