Harline, Craig. Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Life Mormon Missionary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014.
Craig Harline, professor of European History at BYU, wrote a missionary memoir about his time spent serving in Belgium. As its title suggests, this is not a typical memoir of perseverance and triumph. No, instead Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary chronicles his time as Elder Harline in a real, self-deprecating, and occasionally raw manner.
Bolstered by the One True Story that every Mormon kid grows up hearing, that of the heroic, spirit-filled missionary that would tell epic stories of adventure and conversions upon his return, Harline puts in his papers for a mission. When he gets his call, he’s overjoyed because he’s being called to serve in Belgium, and everyone knows the further you serve from home, the more righteous you are. He sets himself a lofty goal of 84 baptisms, dreaming of the “whole crowds of grateful people who would—I could hear it—utter my name in reverential tones to their equally grateful descendants for bringing them the truth” (12). And yet, there’s this gnawing fear that he’s not worthy, no matter how hard he works or how many goals he sets himself. And thus from the minute he enters first the Mission Home, and later the Language Training Mission, he sets himself up to be the Greatest Missionary in the World, with all the mental baggage that phrase contains. It means following the rules, memorizing the discussions in a new language, and always acting like a leader lest you be filled with shame and regret later. Unfortunately, missionary training doesn’t include learning Belgian history or social norms, or getting a primer on Catholicism, or anything else that “might have actually been useful” (34). Most importantly, it doesn’t mean learning a little bit of compassion for himself and others.
And then there they go, off to Belgium. Harline describes the shock of the finding out that Mormonism in Belgium means holding the three-hour block in a seedy building, with barely enough participants to fill a couple rows of seats, and that the heroic missionaries that had baptized a record number of converts were perhaps concerned more with their reputations than with member retention, and that there was so much he didn’t understand about Belgium and Belgians and what he was actually asking them to do when he came knocking at their door. Harline chronicles the power games between missionaries, and how getting along with your companion turns out to be surprisingly hard, especially when Belgians just really don’t want to hear the truth the missionaries are selling, and rejection after rejection follows. Contrary to popular opinion, constant rejection doesn’t feel like persecution and doesn’t make you more determined to keep at it. It just feels humiliating. His chapter on slogging through the rain and cold and all-enveloping greyness that is Belgium in the winter is enough to make you cry, even if you haven’t gone on a mission yourself.
A major theme that runs throughout Harline’s book is the clash between the shiny, happy missionary narrative (missionary works hard! Missionary faces resistance but perseveres and ultimately makes many, many converts!) and reality (missionary works hard! Missionary faces resistance and perseveres, but is cold, and wet, and hungry, and does not make many, many converts, or perhaps even any!). From his time as a self-important teenager preparing and dreaming about a mission, to the months he spent learning a new language and memorizing discussions, to the two years spent knocking on Belgian doors and (generally) being rejected, Harline manages to write in such a way about personal, spiritual meanings that you understand where he was coming from and what certain events meant to him—not a mean feat.
What makes me recommend this book is more than the humor, and the honesty, and the excellent writing Harline exhibits, though. I’m currently slogging through Mormon missionary novels and memoirs for a dissertation chapter, and Harline’s book exhibits a rare quality, in that he makes you feel that although Belgium wasn’t at all what he expected, and neither was his mission, it wasn’t Belgium that needed to change as much as it was himself. By taking the Belgians for what they were, and rejecting the shiny, happy, Americanized narratives so very common in the church, he manages to lay the center of Mormonism outside the United States for 200+ pages–something I wish more authors would be able to do.
It is not an easy thing to convey deeply personal meanings in print, nor to be vulnerable in such a way that we can experience both his brokenness and his healing. We see him struggle with pride and grandiose feelings all the way through the book, but we also see him set the first steps towards “just being himself,” which may seem like a small proposition but in fact requires the courage of a lion. I think what I appreciated most about Harline’s book is how human he and the other missionaries are. From the mission call to the last transfer, Harline showcases his young missionary self—prideful, yes, sometimes a bit delusional, but also filled with grace.