Craig Harline, a BYU professor of European history and fairly prolific author (by my standards, anyway) as well as the presenter of a speech on how religions and cultures change that every informed person ought to listen to, has written a beautiful, hilarious, and haunting book. Titled Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, you may have caught a couple of glimpses of it a while ago on Times and Seasons. It is a mission memoir, one that Harline states he’d wanted to write for many years, but didn’t really feel like he could until nearly 40 years had passed since his mid-70s sojourn in the short-lived Belgium Antwerp Mission (opened in 1975, closed in 1982, later re-opened as part of the Belgium/Netherlands Mission). The reflective wisdom and writing skill which he’s developed over those decades is very much on display in this book; it’s the best, most thoughtful, funniest and truest recreation of missionary life–especially the internal life of a missionary–that I’ve ever read.
The most important selling point of this book is that Harline has no dramatic story to tell–which means his story is like that of the huge majority of the young men and women who actually serve missions. He didn’t get sent home, he stayed faithful, he struggled with the culture and with mission rules and with growing up but those struggles (and their consequent defeats, mostly) never truly beat him down; he kept on trying until his very last day. On the other hand, he never had any kind of real success (or “Success!,” as he always puts it), or any kind of lasting peace of mind about his constant re-definitions (mission goal: 84 baptisms!…okay, actually, maybe just 30….or how about, at least one?) of what “success” in the mission field actually meant. His experiences of grace were never connected to spiritual insights or needed revelations, his great moment of ascending the missionary hierarchy turned out to be a joke, and he never once stopped dreaming of the day that he’d be able to get on that jet airplane and head for home. In short, he was a young man asked to do a hard thing, and he endured it, and while he got much good out of it (he never would have become the historian of Europe that he is without it), he was never really suited for it, and eventually came to accept that he wasn’t suited for it, and the prospect of ever having to do anything like it again haunted his dreams for years. Thus, neither an unrepentant trouble-making missionary, nor a brilliant and high-achieving one, but an average, stumbling, good-hearted one.
The book which relates that “average” story is, however, anything but average: it is both deep and delightful in its investigation and even celebration of those many less-than-ideal-but-still-in-his-memory-still-vital experiences. (Among many others: suffering resentfully from an act of punishment in the old Language Training Mission in Rexburg, ID; learning to take genuine delight in the uninterested-in-religion-but-oh-so-kind little old ladies of Belgium; fighting down exasperated laughter at companions who not only don’t know how to drive, but don’t know how to ride bikes.) As he puts it an endnote, he didn’t want to write “the relentlessly heroic sort of mission book on the one hand, or the astonishingly scandalous sort on the other,” but rather the sort of book which consists of the sort of stories that “Still-Believing Former Mormon Missionaries” tell each other. At this Harline has succeeded, to a much greater degree than I would have thought possible. It’s that good.
This isn’t a story that looks to critique how the church organized missionary work in the 1970s, or does so today (though more than a few trenchant criticisms come out all the same), and it doesn’t set out to provide any sociological or psychological insight into how young people who serve missions ought to prepare themselves for the experience (though the smart reader can find more than a few observations along the way which might well serve the spiritual condition of next YM or YW in your ward who is looking forward to their upcoming 18 or 24 months). If anything, like the best memoirs, it gives you a picture of a mind trying to makes sense of everything it believed about the world and itself as real life crashes in upon it, and forces it to change. The way Harline captures his sense of suddenly feeling at home in Belgium while trudging through a snow-covered field in near Zichem during his first Christmas in the country; or the care with which he reconstructs his struggle to successfully plead with God for a transfer away from a companion whom he thought he admired but quickly learned he basically couldn’t stand; or the honesty with which he details the deep falseness that struggled with self-interested desperation in his heart as he approached his one and only baptism as a missionary–all of it feels real. In reading this book, you get to know Harline, and through him, if you were missionary (or if you’re close to one), you get to know yourself (or him or her) a little bit better as well. I thought I’d said all that I have to say about my own mission…but Harline’s book actually made me get out my tiny box of mission mementos, and wonder again at all my sometimes joyful, usually miserable, and mostly incapable-of-seeing-myself-without-them experiences from a quarter-century ago. My bet is, it’ll do the same for you.
We’ve been blessed in recent years with a lot of fine and increasingly honest scholarship in the church; it’s wonderful to see that same maturity on display in the arena of the personal memoir. This is a great book. You won’t see it sold anytime soon in the MTC, I suspect, which is unfortunate–but that just means you can give it to the future missionaries in your life yourself.