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Having just finished watching Hulu’s excellent seven-part series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” I was struck at how enlightening it was about a central dilemma for many believers. Loosely based on a 2003 true-crime nonfiction book of the same title by Jon Krakauer, the author stated in his book that he initially asked himself, “How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine? How does one sustain belief when confronted with facts that appear to refute it?”

Although the Hulu series adds some characters to the book’s list—primarily two fictional detectives, Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) and his partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham)—the two questions Krakauer asked himself continue to permeate the drama’s seven episodes. This is especially true for detective Pyre, who is a Mormon investigating the death of a Mormon mother, Brenda, and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, and who suspects other Mormons were the killers. (Series-film-director Dustin Lance Black was also raised Mormon, more formally as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS).

Having been raised religiously myself, including more than 20 years of Catholic education, but also being one who values highly scientific and historical truth, I sympathized with Pyre in his struggle to reconcile faith and more objective truth.

This struggle reminded me of one the Danish philosopher and religious thinker Søren Kierkegaard described in his 1843 book, Fear and Trembling, which focuses on the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. According to it, God told Abraham to offer up Isaac as a burnt sacrifice, and Abraham was ready to do so until an angel stopped him at the last minute. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, sometimes referred to as “the father of Protestantism,” praised Abraham for his faith and obedience to God. In the 18th century, however, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, born into a Lutheran family, concluded that Abraham should have realized that the voice he heard was not God’s and thus rejected the command.

I’m with Kant. Our own reasoning and thinking can be wrong, but if a religious authority or a “voice” we think we hear tells us to do something that goes against our basic values (like killing a child), then I would say, “Don’t do it.” Believing that one is told by God to do something is especially problematic. In his book Krakauer writes, “This issue was especially germane for Latter-day Saints [Mormons], given the unusual importance Mormons have always placed on communicating directly with the Almighty. Their entire faith is based on talking to God.”

A scene in Episode 3 clearly identifies the main problems. Detective Jeb Pyre, his wife (Rebecca), and two daughters go to a Mormon bishop in preparation for the two daughters’ baptism. The bishop asks them if they believe that their Mormon church “ is the one true church on the face of our planet,” and the children say yes. After his wife and daughters leave, Jeb remains behind to bring up a few additional matters. The first has to do with his mother, who lives with his family and who has dementia. Jeb relates that at times she experiences great pain and says “she doesn't want to be here anymore.” “What do I do?” he asks. The bishop recommends medicines, but insists Jeb cannot in “any way help abbreviate” her life.

But the second matter seems to trouble Jeb more. He explains to the bishop that he is investigating a double murder and most of the evidence points “towards the early days of our people, to beliefs that I…only ever heard whispers of.” Jeb says that a suspect’s wife mentioned “blood atonement,” and that the idea “came from the words of our prophets.” The bishop’s response is, “I don’t go digging in the past…and neither should you. You place your trust in today's prophet [and Mormon president], Spencer W. Kimball. You leave the things you do not understand on a shelf. And you trust that the prophet will never lead us astray.”

Jeb’s scene with the bishop reminds me of three problems I have with most religions. First, the bishop’s claim that his religion “is the one true church.” Such a claim seems to lack humility, which many religions preach we should seek. Secondly, the bishop’s advice that Jeb should “leave the things” he does “not understand on a shelf…and trust the prophet,” seems contrary to my conviction that we should first be truth-seekers. Thirdly, trust placed in religious authorities is often unwarranted.

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A good recent example of this last point is the following: “When allegations of sexual abuse came, the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention betrayed it all. Those men—and they seem to have all been men—must have listened to hundreds of hours of pious sermons, read hundreds of high-minded theological books, recited thousands of hours of prayer, and yet all those true teachings and good beliefs had no effect on their actual behavior.”

Lest this present review seem too critical of religion, readers should read what I wrote earlier this year about valuing religion. But in that same piece I quoted Pope Francis, who in a 2013 sermon warned Christians against making their religion into an ideology: “When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith… But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians…. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.” He urged Christians “to remain humble, and so not to become closed.”

The killers in Hulu’s “Under the Banner…”, as in the book, are two Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan. And it is true that before the double murders, they had gone over to a fundamentalist version of Mormonism condemned by the mainstream church. And after the killers were arrested, the mainstream church authorities strongly insisted that the apostate brothers had left the true faith and its teachings. Yet both the book and Hulu series stressed the violent and dogmatic history of early Mormonism, especially that of Brigham Young (1801-1877), and tied many of the fundamentalist beliefs and actions of Ron and Dan Lafferty to that history.

In addition, pointing out that the brothers had left the “true” faith does not deflect us from Krakauer’s central question,“How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine?” It remains a crucial one.

In the series’ last episode, Jeb asks his Native American (and non-believing) partner Bill, “How do you do it? Just walking through life with no compass?” And Bill answers: “The gut is wiser than most people think. It’s a compass. It’ll give you all the wisdom you need.” But, although Bill generally acts as a voice of reason and common sense, his answer here is unsatisfactory. It sounds too much like George W. Bush and Donald Trump, who liked to think that they could trust their gut instincts.

But Bill was right to suggest we need wisdom as a compass in life and that Jeb had chosen the wrong one—in my view, his Mormonism was too (in the word of Pope Francis) “ideological.” Bill was only wrong in thinking wisdom comes from our gut.

In a long essay on the “Wisdom of E. F. Schumacher” I quoted that British economist and environmentalist as stating, “All subjects, no matter how specialized, are connected with a centre; they are like rays emanating from a sun. The centre is constituted by our most basic convictions [or values], by those ideas which really have the power to move us.” Wisdom consists in having good values and applying them correctly (in the right hierarchy) in our lives, and the absence of such wisdom is a major problem in today’s world. Not enough people even go to the trouble of thinking out what are their value priorities.

This whole process is not easy. One can be a truth-seeker, and still go far astray. Perhaps even the Lafferty brother murders sought the truth when they claimed to hear God speaking to them. If humility requires us not to become ideological believers, it also means we should not become overconfident in our reasoning ability. And perhaps considering the words and advice of religious authorities sometimes makes sense, but ultimately we need good values—like love, kindness, empathy, and tolerance—and we need to apply them wisely.

Although the reviews of the Hulu series have generally been positive, as were those of the book, there have been negative ones also, especially by Mormon authorities. (See here, for example, for a criticism of both the book and series from a respected scholar.) Nevertheless, not only does the series raise important questions, but it is well acted and consistently maintains interest. The moral struggles of Detective Jeb Pyre and even of the Lafferty brothers are believable—instead of going like brothers Ron and Dan in a fundamentalist direction, brother Allen ends up rejecting any type of Mormonism. In addition, the series provides additional food for thought regarding gender relations, truth and falsehood in constructing history, and the treatment of Native Americans. Stimulating thought and entertaining—what more can one ask from a TV series?