(RNS) – “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a new Hulu miniseries with an all-star cast that debuts Thursday (April 28), may not make many members of the Church of Jesus Christ happy. Latter Day Saints. But then again, neither was Jon Krakauer’s 2003 bestseller on which the seven-part series is based.
The miniseries closely follows Krakauer’s account of the gruesome 1984 murders of 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty, played by “Normal People” Daisy Edgar-Jones, and her 15-month-old daughter near Salt Lake City, Utah. Like the book, it explores the underworld of Mormon fundamentalism and polygamy, following a family of brothers’ descent into madness, misogyny, and violent religious extremism.
But Hulu adds a fictional element to the character of Detective Pyre (pronounced “Pie-ree”), a devout member of the mainstream church whose investigation loosens the moorings of his conventional, taken-for-granted Mormon faith. Andrew Garfield shines in this role, utterly believable as a good-natured detective, returned missionary, and family man.
I approached the series with a certain suspicion. I read Krakauer’s book nearly two decades ago, but it is notoriously filled with historical errors and misleading generalizations, which caused the LDS church at the time to issue multiple statements of protest or clarification. Some professional historians have also challenged Krakauer’s sources and conclusions – most notably his general idea that if Mormonism could be proven violent in the 1830s or 1840s, it must surely still be violent in 1984, when Brenda Lafferty was killed. , and in the post-war period. The 9/11 era when “Banner” was released.
Krakauer’s book regularly violated the basic principle of the study of history, which is to carefully record changes over time. Historians do not allow themselves the luxury of pinpointing a few decisive moments from the distant past and presenting them as “evidence” of this or that current event, as if nothing had happened in the meantime. Yet that’s what Krakauer’s book did repeatedly, drawing direct lines from the actions of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young to the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her child.
More than any specific historical inaccuracy, however, was the underlying theme of the book: that religion is deeply illogical and often dangerous. “Faith is the very antithesis of reason, unconsciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion,” Krakauer wrote. “And when religious fanaticism trumps ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Everything can happen.”
“Faith is the very antithesis of reason.” Think about it. This means that, according to Krakauer, it is not just violent extremists like the Lafferty brothers who are to be feared. It’s not even just the Latter Day Saints. It’s all of us, anyone who dares to believe that God can inspire people, speak to them or guide their actions.
These common elements of faith are totally irrational, according to Krakauer — and therefore dangerous breeding grounds for violence. (Never mind that some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century occurred in state systems that did not condone religion. It would be news to Stalin’s millions of victims that religion was responsible for their deaths.)
I had hoped, in the nearly 20 years between Krakauer’s book and the Hulu miniseries, that these fundamental misconceptions about religion would be challenged and found wanting. It was heartening to learn that one of the miniseries’ creators, Dustin Lance Black (who won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk”), grew up a Mormon and struggled to speak to church members and leaders. on the proposed series when it was in development.
Mormons “are so often stereotyped,” Black told reporters at a news conference last month. So, he said, he asked church leaders and members if there was anything they wanted corrected from Krakauer’s book, and then redoubled his efforts to plot a clear line of demarcation “between fundamentalists and members of the LDS Church”.
In this I think he succeeded. It’s crystal clear throughout the series that there is a major difference between fundamentalists (who practice polygamy and are portrayed in the series as wearing pioneer clothes and living in compounds) and most traditional members of the LDS church in the early 1980s.
The latter are depicted in tidy nuclear families as they do mundane things like kneeling for family prayer or meeting with the bishop to prepare their eight-year-old children for baptism. They own Cabbage Patch dolls and play board games. Local LDS leaders are portrayed as horrified by polygamy, excommunicating any traditional Mormons who attempt to practice it.
In fact, the series does a good job of showing that even within the LDS church there is some diversity. Brenda’s parents are devout Mormons, but they encourage her to go to school and delay her marriage. They are suspicious of the youngest brother Lafferty whom she brings home to meet them, believing that his ultra-conservative family seems controlling and would try to limit his choices; tragically, of course, they are all too right.
Still, my overall impression after watching the first five episodes available to reporters is that despite a few additional nuances, the series closely follows Krakauer’s basic premise: that religion is built on a decaying foundation of violence and a craving. to be able to. The show adopts Krakauer’s breathless way of going back and forth between the distant past and the immediate present. There is a dizzying interplay of short clips from the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the latter being described as one-dimensional.
Emma Smith (Tyner Rushing), who opposes both her husband’s practice of polygamy and cartoonist Young, comes off as a hero as she tries to keep Smith on the straight and narrow. She refuses to tolerate polygamy or violence.
The general message of these flashbacks is that Mormon history is not as sweet or as faith-promoting as church members like Pyre have been taught to believe. A born investigator, Pyre goes down the rabbit hole to find out more, despite being warned by his bishop to stop digging into the past. The bishop advises him to “put aside the things you don’t understand” and follow the prophet.
The “shelf” language returns frequently in the fourth episode, its own kind of historical anachronism. It is a contemporary expression used by people whose testimony of Mormonism has been shaken, or who have left the church because of various historical or theological problems they have encountered.
Pyre, then, suffers a recognizable 21stCrisis of the Mormon Faith of the Century in 1984. I cannot comment on what will happen in the last two episodes of the series, having not yet watched them. But it seems likely that the seeds of doubt he now feels — not only about troubling aspects of Mormonism’s past, but also about how church leaders all around him seem to be conspiring to hinder his investigation — will lead a complete break with his faith.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this character left the church or remained a Mormon in name only, putting on a brave face for his wife and daughters. As the series has portrayed thus far, his sincere kindness and thoughtful curiosity have no place in a religion in which the default mode is violence and repression, even if the church obscures those impulses under a neatly curated outer varnish of love.
At one point, Pyre invokes his status as a priesthood holder in his household to declare that his planned course of action on something is final and his wife must follow through. You can tell he hates himself for it – and when the tension between what his religion expects of him and what his family expects of him becomes irreconcilable, he will choose his family, because he really is a good person.
At the March press conference, Black suggested he saw people being harshly punished for speaking out against Mormon church leaders. “In Mormonism, it’s incredibly dangerous,” he said, noting that people can lose family and community, not just church membership.
Then he said something else that caught my attention: that if you take a deep creative dive “into any religion, but especially Mormonism,” the result will be either a musical or a dark, violent twist. .
I disagree that these are the only options. And while “Banner” as presented on Hulu features outstanding dramatic performances and is a top-notch production, as a person of faith, I was left with the same wary bewilderment I felt after having read Krakauer’s book. There is a world of nuance missing here, in which it is possible to remain a believing member of a religion and not be inherently irrational or prone to violence.
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