Why ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ on Hulu offends Mormons

“Under the Banner of Heaven” follows Det. Jeb Pyre, a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as he tries to understand what prompted two brothers in Utah in 1984 to commit a brutal double homicide, of which they claimed was inspired by divine revelation.

The case becomes both a spiritual and criminal investigation for Pyre (Andrew Garfield), who is forced to confront the faith in which he was raised and the darker episodes in his past portrayed through historical flashbacks . Although he never decisively breaks with the church, by the end of the series it is clear that he has become disillusioned with the beliefs that once anchored his life.

The Hulu series, which concluded Thursday, is based on Jon Krakauer’s bestselling nonfiction book, which uses the real-life murder of Brenda Lafferty and her young daughter to delve into the tumultuous history of the Mormon religion. But Pyre is a fictional character created by showrunner Dustin Lance Black — himself a former member of the Church — to tie the disparate strands of the narrative together.

“Banner” has resonated with others who have left the faith and see themselves in Garfield’s mentally disturbed family man and in Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones), the feisty young mother murdered by her husband’s deranged brothers who find themselves removed from the mainstream had Mormonism in martial fundamentalism.

In certain corners of social media, including #exmormon TikTok and Reddit, users have lauded the series for showing the mundane details of Latter-day life as well as the “existential sense of what it means to see the world through Mormon eyes.” experience”, capture. as a self-proclaimed “ex-believer,” Nadine Smith wrote in GQ. (The leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discourage the use of the term “Mormon” and the abbreviation “LDS,” although both terms are still commonly used by the general public and by some members of the faith.)

But many active Latter-day Saints, even some who have publicly criticized the church, feel that the series slanders its faith and misrepresents key moments in its history, all in service of the disturbing idea, as one character puts it, that Mormonism “makes dangerous men.” (They also have a lot of more detailed critiques of nuances like the number of times characters say “Heavenly Father.”)

“To us, to say ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ is a representation of Latter-day Saints is like saying ’24’ is a representation of the Islamic community,” said CD Cunningham, editor-in-chief of Public Square magazine , a publication that examines culture and current events from the perspective of Latter-day Saints, but has no official ties to the Church.

“That’s not what representation looks like. This does not help people understand who we are as a people or spread this message. It’s supposed to make us look alien and foreign,” he added.

A wagon train in the old west

“Under the Banner of Heaven” looks back from 1984 to key moments in early Latter-day Saint history.

(Michelle Faye/FX)

When Krakauer’s book was published in 2003, the Church issued a staunch disclaimer, calling it “not only a slap in the face to modern Latter-day Saints, but also a misunderstanding of religion in general.” But it didn’t stop Under the Banner of Heaven from becoming a bestseller and one of the most widely read books on the Mormon faith.

The Church has not officially commented on the series since its debut in April, but David Bednar, a member of the Governing Body of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently suggested that it is part of a long pattern of discrimination and misunderstanding.

“We’ve been mischaracterized since 1830, when the Church was organized,” he said during an event at the National Press Club last month. “I don’t think it will ever go away.”

These perceptions are particularly frustrating because the church has evolved since its inception nearly two centuries ago, said Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service who is an active Latter-day Saint (though at times she “crosses the lines of orthodoxy ‘ in her letter.)

She believes that while “Banner” has done a good job of distinguishing between the mainstream church and its fundamentalist offshoots, it has failed to take into account the dramatic change the church has undergone over the past two centuries.

“The show is trying to say that all of the violence happened during these really turbulent times [in the 19th century] still lurks just beneath the surface for ordinary Latter-day Saints. And that thesis is very problematic,” she said, describing the show as “agenda-driven. Black kept trying to subtly emphasize that Mormonism is violent.” (By contrast, Riess once wrote a favorable review of the irreverent Broadway musical Book of Mormon because “it started from the premise that Mormons are not murderers are”.)

“Everyone wants to believe that we’re not as boring as we actually are,” she said.

In an interview on Friday, Black said he’s received a barrage of mostly positive messages from people who said the series has made them “feel less alone in their questions, less alone in their worries, which for me The aim is”.

He also addressed criticism leveled at the show by current members of the church — particularly the suggestion that it portrays Mormonism as inherently violent.

“I’m not saying it exclusively produces dangerous men,” he said, “but it does have something to do with teaching little boys that this patriarchal structure is godly and lasts into the afterlife and gives them this power over women. Blurring the lines between selfish desire and the voice of God can produce dangerous men.”

“I don’t think most Mormons are violent; thank goodness most aren’t,” Black said. “But I’m not talking about physical violence. I think if you participate in a patriarchal structure that harms women, you may not recognize the violence you support in doing so.”

Riess was particularly disturbed by a scene in the finale, however, in which Brigham Young (Scott Michael Campbell), who took over the Church after the assassination of founder Joseph Smith, explains that if any “non-Mormon” — or non-Mormon — enters their territory “we must make an example of him”. A Latter-day Saint militia then slaughtered dozens of settlers who had just arrived in Utah, in an infamous incident that occurred in September 1857 and became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

“There is a difference between claiming that the Church attempted to cover up the Mountain Meadows massacre, which is well supported by extensive historical documentation, and arguing without evidence that Brigham Young ordered it,” she said. “It’s really unlikely that he ordered the massacre, and yet the show just treats it as a fait accompli.”

But, Black pointed out, Young is not present at the massacre, nor does he specifically order the attack. And his use of fiery rhetoric in the period leading up to the attack is well known. Black cites an August 1857 quote by Young in which he urged his congregation to “take up the sword and fight against the heathen.”

The police escort a murderer with a long beard down a flight of stairs

Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre, center top, Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty, center, and Sam Worthington as Ron Lafferty, center bottom.

(Michelle Faye/FX)

“This is not a man afraid of shedding blood,” Black added.

To Liz Busby, a critic who wrote of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Pyre’s spiritual crisis rang hollow. “As soon as he hears something that contradicts the simplest version of his beliefs, he gives up,” she said. In her estimation, the show “didn’t have any of the good parts of the tradition. There’s literally nothing that shows why either of us would want to stay.” (In contrast, she praised an episode in the final season of Stranger Things that portrayed the “loving chaos” of a large Latter-day Saint family. )

In her view, the series also exaggerated the pressures Mormon women face to assume traditional domestic roles and blindly support their “priesthood holders” — their husbands. “I’ve never seen it like that,” said Busby, who was born in the 1980s. “Messaging has changed over time. That’s the unfortunate thing about making a show set 40 years in the past. Nobody wants to be represented by the 40-year-old version of themselves.”

The show’s depiction of the Temple’s endowment ceremony was similarly frustrating for some viewers. Not only did it represent a sacred ritual normally closed to outsiders—a fact many Latter-day Saints found inherently disrespectful—but it also emphasized aspects of the sacred rite that have since been eliminated: a menacing gesture of cutting through the throat symbolizing the punishments facing those who have broken their covenant with God, and the anointing of the naked body, including the intimate areas, with oil.

“It’s inappropriate to treat a religion’s sacred rites and ordinances that way, but they also left out all of the context,” said David Snell, host of the YouTube channel Saints Unscripted, where he explains the church and its teachings in an accessible way. As he noted, penalties at the endowment ceremony were removed in 1990, and people are now only anointed on their heads while clothed.

“They’ve focused on the specific things that made people most uncomfortable in the past — and rightly so — and those are the exact same things that have changed since then,” Snell said. “It’s like saying, ‘Hey, look at these things that are so weird that don’t apply anymore, but we’re not going to tell you they don’t apply anymore.'”

For his part, Black sees the series as a challenge to the dominant narrative being taught to church members.

“You can be picky,” he says. “But it doesn’t make the problems go away. Until Mormons show the courage to look into their own shadows, the Church will not improve.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-06-04/under-the-banner-of-heaven-hulu-mormon-church-latter-day-saints-reactions Why ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ on Hulu offends Mormons

Sarah Ridley

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