Book Review: Way Below the Angels

August 13, 2014 | 17 comments
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Way Below

Craig Harline, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary

This may be the most painful book I have ever read.

 

 

Which kind of painful, you ask? Well, it’s a little hard to describe, but let’s call it a tender, commiserative sort of a pain, stemming from Harline’s ability to do something that we almost never see done: to illustrate the immense internal burdens that not-all-that-apocalyptic-when-you-really-think-about-it external circumstances can create.

Seriously: this is not a book about genocide, child abuse, starvation, or POW camps. It’s a book about a middle-class American kid who went on a mission to Belgium in the 1970s with too-high expectations and had to figure out how to trudge through days filled with difficult companions, rain, and no baptisms. But I think it is the very banality of the external experience weighed against the crisis of the internal one that I found so compelling. After all, you can read an (excellent) book like Unbroken and think: that was amazing, and it has nothing to do with my life. But you read Way Below the Angels and think: this is me–a kicked-over anthill on the inside, even when things are really not all that bad on the outside. I haven’t served a mission, but the internal struggles that Harline describes are an all-too-real reflection of the extreme angst that most people (most people, right? It isn’t just me, right?) wrestle with internally. And until Mormons develop a mental casserole, mental priesthood blessing, and mental visiting teaching visit, the problem is that you are all alone in there when you face this kind of struggle.

Harline provides an unusual kind of balm in the form of an epically raw and genuine account of his mission. This isn’t a tell-all expose (pretty much the worst sin a missionary commits in this book is writing a letter on a not-P day). This isn’t, obviously, a missionary hagiography, either. Instead, it is real life, lived in the mundane middle. We get very few missionary narratives like this. Which is precisely why the young Elder Harline was able to begin his mission with such an absurdly optimistic expectation for what his mission would be like. (At the risk of thread-jacking my own post: this is the problem we have with a lot of rhetoric in Mormon culture. We only hear the glory stories from happy RMs, happy mothers, happy marriages, etc. We don’t usually hear the hard stories, and so if it is hard for us, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that we think we are alone and must be doing something wrong.) Throughout the book, he describes immense (internal) struggles along with a scant, precious few rays of light that end up revealing an awful lot about God and, I think, ultimately make this a faith-promoting book. (Faith-promoting in the real world of real life. Not faith-promoting in the sense of perpetuating a faith-promoting-but-ultimately-unsustainable view of life.)

And he’s funny, so that helps. When you can’t get past the front matter without laughing, you suspect that he (and you) will be OK in the end. The book can be a little over-written, a little trying-too-hard-to-write-cleverly and be funny. But sometimes it is brilliant, like when he compares the examination of his motives to the public dissections in old Dutch paintings. And when he recounts personal inspiration that, fittingly, comes in the most mundane of ways. And the fact that, nearly forty years later, he still felt somewhat traumatized by his mission made me feel . . . less lame about the minor problems that I fret about today. The real battles in life (for some of us anyway) are huge, if small, and Harline’s book is a welcome exploration of them.

 

waybelowtheangelsinfographicReview copy provided by publisher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 Responses to Book Review: Way Below the Angels

  1. Russell Arben Fox on August 13, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    Excellently said, Julie. I think I liked the book a little more than you did, but I don’t disagree with any of your judgments. I hope it finds a wide readership among the church and beyond.

  2. Ardis on August 13, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    I ordered this book between reading your review and writing my comment.

    We don’t usually hear the hard stories, and so if it is hard for us, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that we think we are alone and must be doing something wrong

    This was a struggle when I came home and had to report to the stake high council and to my ward, and again a few years later when nieces and nephews started going, and again in the past four or five years when I broached it on my blog. How much do you tell? To whom? Will they believe you? Will they think you must have been a lousy missionary? Will it confirm all the worst accusations made by the disaffected?

    Nobody wants to be first.

    There was one day, near Lyons, in late summer 1982, when Soeur Lord and I were hunting up an old referral, way beyond the end of any bus route, and our road (a six-foot-wide unpaved track, actually) took us way, way out into the country. We walked along in companionable silence, with vineyards on both sides, separated from the track by ancient unmortared stone walls. We walked farther and farther, guessing that our address was really in that tiny village on the hillside in the distance, with golden sun shining off the tile roofs of the old, old houses. We were in France! We were trekking in the middle of nowhere, in a romantic landscape, carrying the gospel to one seeking soul! This was the day we had both dreamed of as we planned to serve missions!

    It was the only day on my mission that ever came close to matching expectations.

    Until we reached our destination. Nobody answered the door. We turned around and walked back.

  3. Craig H. on August 13, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Thanks Julie, for the review, and I’m sorry if the pain outweighed the funnies. Ardis, the scene you describe is eerily similar to one I describe in the book as well, down to no one answering the door, except mine was in winter, but it was exactly the thing that converted me to Belgium, just like yours maybe converted you to France. Maybe that was as good as it often got. Which was pretty good still…. But it was hard to explain that to people when you got home, who wanted the more traditional sort of missionary story, the ones that I’d grown up on too. And then you didn’t know what to say, or how to dress it up. That had a lot to do with why I finally decided to write a book that didn’t dress it up but just told what it was like for me. And maybe plenty of others too. We’ll see. Thanks for your observations.

  4. Kevin Barney on August 13, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    Great review; I just now ordered the book. I’ve always felt that missions are an untapped topic for memoirs, if only they could be more real and less like an elder gunning for AP, and this sounds like exactly what I’ve been waiting for.

  5. Kevin Barney on August 13, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    If anyone is interested, here is a little commentary on the scripture adapted as the title for this book.

  6. Alison Moore Smith on August 13, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Thank you, Julie. I can’t wait to read the book. We need more reality. :) Plus love the infographic.

  7. Anonymous on August 14, 2014 at 6:15 am

    Still traumatized by his mission 40 years later….sounds like a good description of me.

  8. Marie on August 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

    My dad was always honest about having hated his mission experience–and has zero desire to serve a senior mission for that reason, even though he’s still a devout member. And while his unusual honesty did make me reluctant to jump on the missionary bandwagon even as my single years dragged on (and on), I think my having a realistic view of missions was for the best, as I was hovering on the edge of faith crisis from my teens to mid-twenties and if that had blown up while I was on a mission, with an untroubled companion strapped to me 24/7, I fear I would have come out bitter rather than restored. I will get this book for my dad and read it myself when he’s done. As Julie notes, there is plenty of idealism in LDS life that makes people crazy with guilt. We need more faithful but realistic narratives for missions and everything else.

  9. Craig H. on August 14, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Kevin, your link didn’t work. I’d love to read your commentary on that verse, since my rendition of it came from the RLC translation (Really Loose and Colloquial), and I’d be happy to read a more authoritative view. And what mission account would be complete without someone gunning for AP (in this case, me)? Don’t worry, it’s in there.

    Marie, I think you’re right that unrealistic expectations play a big role in the parts (or whole) people end up not liking about a mission. The hardest parts for me, as Julie suggests, were precisely those for which my expectations were maybe ten miles off. I’m not sure you can ever be perfectly prepared for ANY experience, going in, because some things you just have to learn yourself through the experience; and of course ultimately you have to take responsibility for the expectations you allow yourself to have in advance; but I also think she’s right that we can do a better job in talking more fully about all sorts of subjects, and thus helping to shape more durable and reliable expectations, instead of just hammering constantly on the good bits with a mild and usually vague nod to “sure it’s hard” and not really bothering to explore what that might mean. I never in the world would have become a professor of European religious history had I not gone to Belgium/Europe on a mission, and for a long time I assumed that such an obvious benefit should just cancel out any difficult bits there were, just render them null and void. But it didn’t. Only when I began to accept that the difficult bits were as real as the good bits did I have a little more peace about everything.

  10. Kevin Barney on August 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm
  11. Craig H. on August 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Kevin, that is awesome. So a better title would be, Way Way Below the Gods?

  12. EFF on August 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Mormon culture and the boot camp called the Missionary Training Center are the primary source of the “absurdly unrealistic expectations” most missionaries have at the beginning of their missions. Until we come to grips with the source of the problem, RMs will continue to come home with a lot more baggage than when they left. (Though, if you’re a professional psycho-therapist, you are probably thankful for the additional business.)

  13. Terry H. on August 14, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Great job Julie. I’ve been working on this one myself for something else and you’ve captured its spirit effectively.

  14. Terry H on August 14, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Julie. PS the other thing I sent you ran today. Thanks.

  15. kenngo1969 on August 17, 2014 at 10:30 am

    For whatever vanishingly small sum they may be worth, here are some reflections on my own mission:

    http://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/gods-army-and-my-own-mission/

  16. lylestamps on August 17, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    I don’t know about others, but I didn’t grow up only hearing about the “miracles” and never about how hard a mission could be. I’m fairly certain it was the opposite. Its funny that folks like to think that every ward is basically the same…but then talk about experiences, stories, etc. (the chewing gum analogy for example) that I’ve never experienced.

  17. Kevin Barney on August 20, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Craig, my copy arrived in the mail today. It is presently no. 3 in my queue. It looks intriguing; I can hardly wait to read it!

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