Monday, June 06, 2005

Faith is a fine invention

Sorry for the delay in posting, peeps. My boss, in an attempt to get the eff out of Dodge for the summer is working like a crazy person, and is thus keeping me busy. Hope y'all had a great weekend.

I finally finished Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer. Interestingly, the same weekend I finished that, This American Life's theme was "Godless America." It ruled. The book was pretty great too. Anyway, first the book.

You may be familiar with Jon Krakauer as the writer of the best seller Into Thin Air about the ill-fated 1996 expedition to scale Mt. Everest. Krakauer is a prodigious writer and he always conducts an amazing amount of research before he sits down to write. I've read Into Thin Air, which seriously makes mountain climbing fascinating and a page-turner. This was Krakauer's first foray into a subject outside of man and the outdoors, so I was a little nervous about what kind of job he would do.

Under is the true story of Dan and Ron Lafferty, fundamentalist Mormons who murdered their sister-in-law and baby niece because they believed they had been instructed to do so by God. Krakauer presents the story of the Lafferty brothers, alongside the history of Mormonism, the fundamentalist off-shoots of Mormonism, and the personal stories of other fundamentalist Mormons. It was exhaustively researched (Krakauer spent three years interviewing and researching before he sat down to write) and as is universal to his works, laid out in a suspenseful and comprehensible manner.

The belief, not just in God, but in the notion that God is speaking directly to you and commanding you to do unspeakable acts, in a person who is otherwise mentally sane, is a disturbing idea. And it's something that Krakauer addresses at length. My one complaint with the book involved Krakauer's jumping about. In an attempt to better understand fundamentalists, Krakauer does an excellent job of explaining how Mormonism got started, Joseph Smith's background, the horrendous persecution that early Mormons suffered, the polygamy situation, and the church all the way up to the 20th century. As such, he skips around. My problem is that the story of the Laffertys is so riveting and disturbing, that one wants to know right away what happened when they were on the run from the law. Instead we must wade through more Mormon history, which is highly relevent and important to the central themes of the book, but is rather annoying when the reader wants to know what happened next.

This American Life on NPR covered Christians in America, and specifically the entire idea behind whether we are a country that was supposed to have a separation of church and state or not. This story was informative and interesting, but it was the second half of the show that really caught my attention. Julia Sweeney, formerly of Saturday Night Live, performed a portion of her new one woman show called "Letting Go of God."

Julia started out talking about two Mormon missionaries who came to her door and told her the story about Mormonism. As I had just finished the book, I couldn't help but laugh at Julia's reaction to the story of Mormonism. Long story short, Mormons believe that the tribe of Levi lived in Israel, and then one day God told him and his family to get on a boat and sail away. So they came to America. While in America, two of the children - Nephi and Laman had lots and lots of babies and eventually started fighting with each other because Nephi was gooooood and Laman was eeevvvviiiillll. Then, when Christ was resurrected and on his way up to heaven, he swung by America and told the Nephites that if they stayed good, they'd win the battle. But they didn't and they all got killed by the bad Lamanites, except for Moroni who hid in the woods and wrote it all down so that Joseph Smith could dig it up thousands of years later and become a prophet to the Mormons. The End. Julia listened incredulously and thought "Boys, a word to the wise? Don't open with this story if you want to convert someone. I mean, even the scientologists know to give you a personality test before they launch into Xenu the evil intergalactic overlord."

Sweeney then thought about it and realized that if she had never heard about Catholocism before, she might think the story about God impregnating a very young virgin without sex, and thus the virgin gave birth to the son of God, was quite strange. The entire point of her piece is about how she came to become an atheist. It's very moving, entertaining and as opposed to making scientific arguments about why she does not believe, she relies on her emotional response to the bible. It was fascinating and if you have time to listen to it, I highly recommend it.

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