Mormon leaders are condemning a fast-selling new book by a popular author that paints an unflattering picture of church history and Joseph Smith, the religion's founder and prophet.
Jon Krakauer's “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” likely will be ignored by the 90,000 to 100,000 Mormons who live in the East Valley, said Don Evans, Arizona spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I'm not going to waste time reading it,” Evans said. “Krakauer's take on this is old news. There's nothing original about his ideas at all.”
The nonfiction book details a 1984 slaying in Utah of a woman and her 18-month-old girl by two zealots who believed God ordered the murders. In examining the darker, sometimes violent side of religion, Krakauer also raises questions about the rationality of religious faith itself.
Critiques of Mormonism are nothing new and usually draw little attention from the Salt Lake City-based church. But before the book's general release last month, Mormon officials issued two responses stating it contained inaccuracies.
“Krakauer does violence to Mormon history,” wrote Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the church's history department. A national church spokesman said the author “cuts corners to make the story sound good.”
Meticulously researched, the book describes how Smith reportedly earned a living as a fraud who convinced people he could find buried treasure using magical “seeing stones.” Krakauer writes that four years before completing the Book of Mormon in 1830, Smith was tried and convicted for fraudulent activities.
Mormons believe Smith translated the Book of Mormon from an ancient text made of gold that he found on a New York hillside. Numerous Internet sites show that some Mormons dispute many details of the 1826 trial, arguing, among other things, that Smith was found not guilty.
Rather than causing an exodus from one of the world's fastest growing religions, Krakauer's effort might even have the opposite effect, said Carolyn Marz, who works at Seagull Book and Tape in Mesa.
“We get more converts from this kind of book,” Marz said. “It just piques their curiosity.”
The beliefs and history of Mormons are routinely criticized. Scientists dismiss the Mormon idea that American Indians are descended from ancient Israelites. Some Christians maintain that Smith's teachings, such as the idea that God was once a man and men can become gods, amount to blasphemy.
The Mormon church rarely acknowledges such critiques.
But in this case, Krakauer's fame for his earlier works on adventuring and mountain climbing — like his personal account of the 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest “Into Thin Air” — is likely to propel sales of his new book. Employees at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Scottsdale and Chandler report that “Under the Banner of Heaven” is selling briskly. It was featured on the cover of the Sunday edition of the New York Times book section and has received generally positive reviews.
Krakauer is making the rounds in other large cities, but has not yet scheduled any appearances in the Valley. A July 18 book reading and signing in Salt Lake City drew 800 people, said Jan Sloan, an employee of King's English bookstore.
“If it had been anyone but Krakauer, it would not have received the attention it did,” Sloan said. “It stirred quite a bit of interest, pro and con.”
Evans and other Mormons admit it's possible many non-Mormons who read the book may come away with the idea the religion is weird at best, and at worst — according to national Mormon spokesman Mike Otterson — that its adherents may have a “tendency to violence.”
Because the two murderers of Krakauer's study were Mormons who converted to fundamentalist Mormonism, polygamist outposts such as the country's largest in Colorado City are discussed at length. But his thesis lies in the philosophical troubles that arise when alleged prophets claim to speak for God.
The Mormon church teaches that only their highest leaders — who are considered prophets — can receive messages from God concerning the church, like the revelation by Smith that led to polygamy, and revelation in 1890 by church President Wilford Woodruff that led to the demise of the practice. Yet church members are encouraged to pray for and receive revelations from God concerning their personal and family affairs.
Such beliefs can lead to rationalized violence, Krakauer contends. In one passage during a jailhouse interview with one of the murderers, Dan Lafferty, Krakauer asks him why he is any different than the followers of Osama bin Laden.
“They were following a false prophet, and I'm not,” Lafferty replies.
In the end, a prophet's message is valid only if the prophet's followers believe it to be so, said Richard Wentz, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Arizona State University.
“You can't prove what is considered to be revelation . . . on empirical grounds,” Wentz said.
Mary Christensen, a 25-year-old Mormon from Phoenix shopping at Seagull bookstore, said she understands that the question of who speaks for God can get “sticky.”
But “if you believe in Joseph Smith's word, you should believe the prophets,” she said.