The second episode of FX’s new miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven opens with a Mormon family preparing for their daughter’s baptism at home, all clothed in white. The 8-year-old girl points to a ring on her finger and asks her father if she should keep it after her baptism.
As investigator Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) explains, the ring is small and silver with a green shield in the center, imprinted with three letters: CTR, which stands for “Choose the Right.” It’s a distinctive ring that Mormon youngsters are urged to wear as a reminder to follow their Heavenly Father’s rules and commandments.
The CTR ring provides an immediate weight for anyone who has spent substantial time in the pews of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as do many of the symbols of Mormon culture and cosmology in Under the Banner of Heaven (LDS). The picture of a CTR ring brings back a specific sensation from childhood for me as an ex-Mormon, descended from solid pioneer stock and raised actively in the church before leaving in my late teens.
I can still feel the cold nickel around my finger from twisting the ring over and over in Sunday School while listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “Choose the Right.”
Although Mormonism is no longer a part of my life, the experience is so distinct and unique — from religious rituals to colloquialisms and casserole-heavy cuisine — that it’s difficult to explain to others.
And there hasn’t been an authentic portrayal of Mormonism in the media to turn to – the pop cultural record on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has primarily been written by non-members, such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone of The Book of Mormon musical. In HBO’s Tokyo Vice, the CTR ring reappears as a symbol of one character’s secret ex-Mormon history.
However, while the show’s unexpected Mormon subplot is a fairly delicate if the sensationalized portrayal of the struggle to leave the religion, it remains an outsider’s perspective and simply one small kernel of a much bigger narrative.
Though none of the main cast members are current or former Mormons, creator Dustin Lance Black was reared in the religion and rose to prominence as the sole writer with Mormon experience in the writer’s room for Big Love, HBO’s infamous series about a polygamous family in Salt Lake City. Both Big Love and the original Jon Krakauer novel Under the Banner of Heaven, which is based on the real-life murder of a Mormon mother and her daughter, were highly controversial flashpoints for Mormons around the same time in the mid-2000s.
Big Love received backlash for its concentration on polygamy and sequences reenacting sacred temple ceremonies, while Under the Banner of Heaven drew criticism for exposing violent occurrences in Mormon history. Big Love aimed for cultural realism and realism, but it was ultimately about Mormonism in the same way that The Sopranos was about the mafia: a rich setting and framework for a greater thematic depiction of tragic masculinity.
In a way that Big Love never did, the TV adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven takes the faith of Black’s boyhood as its direct topic. It’s aimed at a secular audience – it’s often reminiscent of True Detective if Lovecraftian gobbledygook were substituted for Mormon doctrine, and it’s in tune with the culture’s obsession with true crime, scammers, cults, and extremism – but it also whispers authentically to an ex-believer like me, like the still small voice.
Mormons speak of. Outsiders may recognize some of the show’s signifiers and reference points, such as Detective Pyre’s use of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to guilt trip an LDS suspect or his caffeine abstention. However, there is genuine attention to detail, even down to the way certain characters speak.
When Jeb seeks guidance from the Bishop of his congregation (or “ward” in Mormon terminology) concerning his dementia-stricken mother, he discovers that the Bishop is a strong supporter of modern medicine, informing Brother Pyre that “Heavenly Father has given us the gift of pharmacology.” Though members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are taught to be suspicious of mainstream media.
the church has completely embraced contemporary technology, believing that the Internet and social media are divinely-inspired tools that can enhance missionary work. Even more than the modest clothes or happy demeanors of LDS characters, it’s the show’s discourse that transports me back to my youth–a striking reminder of how all-encompassing Mormon doctrine is, how every aspect of reality, down to pharmaceuticals, is linked into its heavenly cosmology.
Under the Banner of Heaven captures not only the specifics of Mormon culture but also a deeper sense of what it means to see the world through Mormon eyes. Jeb Pyre, the devoted Latter-Day Saint played by Andrew Garfield, is a show creation, a framing device that serves as the audience’s introduction to Mormon culture.
His presence also balances out the fundamentalist extremes depicted—Jeb may begin to doubt his faith and Church leadership’s intentions, but he also exhibits the real love and compassion that is at the heart of Mormon philosophy.
Under the Banner of Heaven, as critical of organized religion and patriarchal hierarchy as it is, demonstrates how religion may provide a solid cornerstone in your life. We see Jeb’s solace in the concept that they would be reunited in paradise and that her body will be “made whole” after suffering on Earth as he watches his mother battle with dementia.
Under the Banner of Heaven tries to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to faith, emphasizing the sense of connection that spirituality can produce while also highlighting how the same structures of the community may permit uniformity and repression.
Each episode includes free-associative flashbacks to Mormon history, which serve as near footnotes to the show’s believers’ continuous quotations and citations of their scripture. Some critics have complained that the flashbacks feel forced, but they also capture how, in many ways, being a Mormon is to live in history, as scripture study is an important part.
The Church’s practice and members are immersed in their pasts—or, at the very least, the version of the past that the LDS church wants us to believe—from a young age. It also depicts a world rife with guilt and humiliation, in which your ancestors’ expectations serve as a constant reminder to keep you in line. As my own beliefs began to falter, I felt the eyes of thousands of ancestors watching me.
Mormons use history almost like Jesus used parables, a type of narrative that teaches a moral and instructs us which route to take, as seen in Under the Banner of Heaven. Anointed prophet biographies are like living scripture that may be studied and learned from. I found myself in an uncomfortable folding chair in my teens, reading about Joseph Smith’s trials or the lost tribes of Israel who allegedly came to the Americas and founded entire civilizations, and wondering what men from hundreds or thousands of years ago could understand about my life in the twenty-first century.
Under the Banner of Heaven examines the current situation through a genealogy of religious fanaticism and gendered oppression, with an emphasis on how sexism can become established through tradition and law.
But, unlike their forefathers and foremothers, Jeb Pyre and Dustin Lance Black both show a willingness to learn from the past rather than applying its beliefs to the present—still, there’s goodness and love in the hearts of many of the show’s Mormon characters, but we also see the dangers of allowing fervent beliefs to run amok. If there’s one takeaway.
from Under the Banner of Heaven, it’s that parables are meant to be metaphors, not laws etched in stone and that interpreting history, rather than learning from it and developing, can lead to a hazardous path of blind faith.