The current issue of a magazine directed at book lovers has named the Book of Mormon as one of "20 Books That Changed America," and many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will no doubt see such recognition of the faith's founding document as well deserved.

Yet the same July/August issue of Book magazine also reviews a new book, Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," which already has been publicly criticized by the LDS Church before its highly touted release next week for the way it ties early LDS leaders and doctrine to modern religious fanatics.

Latter-day Saints may feel both proud and perturbed by the dual articles.

Filled with feature stories, author interviews and book reviews, the magazine — co-owned by Barnes and Noble and with a current circulation of 150,000 — asked several noted authors, including Studs Terkel, Robert Vaughan and Tom Wolfe, to help select "crucial books that have shaped America along its way."

Other books on the list, which must have been written or compiled from the time of the nation's founding through 1978, include both novels and nonfiction titles that the magazine and the consulted authors believe have "had the greatest impact on the history of the country: the ones that led to concrete, definable changes in the way Americans live their lives."

The 20 choices range from Thomas Paine's revolutionary tract "Common Sense" to "The Communist Manifesto" and poet Allen Ginsburg's "Howl." Each of the titles was considered controversial at the time of its publication, but all have provided the grist for new social movements, ranging from Mormonism to feminism to environmentalism.

The Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints believe was translated by church founder Joseph Smith from gold plates inscribed by God's prophets in ancient America, "launched the country's biggest homegrown religion," the article says.

"Today, Mormonism has 11 million followers around the world; in the United States alone, its adherents outnumber Episcopalians or Presbyterians. The book provides the theological underpinnings for one of the world's most vibrant religions," the summary says.

Ronald Walker, a professor of history at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History at Brigham Young University, said the magazine's inclusion of the Book of Mormon is fitting on one hand and surprising on the other. "If the criteria is how a book has moved people and shaped culture and created a social result, absolutely you would include" it.

He said The Book of Mormon not only undergirded establishment of a new faith tradition but spawned the organization of at least 150 settlements in Utah, helped shape the Mountain West and served as the impetus behind much of the 19th-century LDS migration west.

Beyond its political impact, he said the personal life changes among members of the LDS Church wrought by the book's teachings are incalculable. "As a mover of people, let's put it right up there."

Walker said he was pleasantly surprised by the book's inclusion on the list because "we live in such a tremendously anti-religious and anti-institutional age. It's just the milieu where religion is set aside and despised and ignored, so this is quite interesting." The choice shows that "religion has a deep purpose, and it's hard to find that in literature today, whether popular, journalistic or scholarly."

With more than 100 million copies published in dozens of languages, the Book of Mormon has long been the subject not only of religious devotion, but of derision and attack by scores of authors and organizations seeking to debunk both its content and its origin. Latter-day Saints believe it is a literal history of a people who migrated from Jerusalem to the Americas some 600 years before Christ and built a flourishing civilization that was eventually destroyed by civil war.

Believers laud Joseph Smith as God's prophet, who translated the book under divine guidance to restore truths of Christ's original gospel that had been lost from the Bible. Antagonists see Joseph Smith as a charlatan, whose religious genius spawned the stories of people and places contained in its pages.

Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven" might be seen as supportive of the latter point of view.

In the magazine, reviewer Paul Evans praises the new publication, arguing that Krakauer makes the case that "the church's phenomenal success is an example of holy conquest, an American jihad as brutal as any fundamentalist Islamic parallel."

He concludes, "It's a dangerous maneuver to damn a religion because some of its practitioners are psychotic, and (author Jon) Krakauer, an avowed agnostic, comes close to doing so. And yet his study of faith and violence in Mormonism (chronicling the Lafferty brothers' infamous murders) . . . is not only provocative, but also convincing."

For his part, during his lifetime, Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon "the most correct of any book" ever written, and predicted that it would eventually "fill the whole Earth."

Walker said were he alive to see it, Joseph Smith's reaction to being included on the list might include "a little 'I told you so,' maybe a little smugness and a 'you should have taken me a little more seriously.' I doubt that he would be surprised.

"I think he would say that this is the playing out of an original blueprint, an original religious vision."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com