When Craig Harline set off on his two-year Mormon mission to Belgium in the 1970s, he had big dreams of doing miracles, converting the masses, and coming home a hero. What he found instead was a lot of rain and cold, one-sentence conversations with irritated people, and silly squabbles with fellow missionaries. From being kicked—literally—out of someone’s home to getting into arguments about what God really wanted from Donny Osmond, Harline faced a range of experiences that nothing, including his own missionary training, had prepared him for. He also found a wealth of friendships with fellow Mormons as well as unconverted locals and, along the way, discovered insights that would shape the rest of his life. Harline’s witty and thought-provoking spiritual memoir tells the story of his coming-of-age on his mission, taking readers beyond the stereotypical white shirts and nametags to reveal just how unpredictable, funny, and poignant the missionary life can be.
I’ve wanted to write this book for almost 30 years, ever since I started having the wake-up-in-a-sweat dream that I had to go on another mission. I couldn’t understand why I’d have a dream like that, because I’d gotten a lot of benefits from a mission. And I felt guilty about having it too, because how could any good missionary ever have a disturbing dream about what was supposed to have been his best two years? And wouldn’t a really good missionary obviously want to go on another? Maybe writing about my experience might help me figure out what was going on.
Over the years, while devoutly putting off that writing, I noticed plenty of other books about missions, which for a long time seemed divisible into two: the real-inside-story exposé usually written by former insiders for outsiders, and the triumph-story apology written by insiders for other insiders. I didn’t doubt that either sort of experience could be real for some people, but I did doubt that those were the only experiences, or even the majority experiences, or that missionaries were as sinister or robotic or angelic or moronic as they were often made out to be.
In the last few years, missionaries have become more conspicuous than ever, thanks to the Broadway musical and Mitt Romney, which in turn has meant new books about missions too, including some frank and well-informed treatments that aren’t out either to promote or condemn but instead to understand, and that are accessible to both insiders and outsiders. My book is like that too, I hope: not an exposé, and not a work of piety, but an attempt to convey—for readers of whatever persuasion—what it was like to be a missionary in a particular time and place and body, haloes and warts and all.
No two stories of anything are ever exactly alike, but many parts of my particular experience will be familiar to any former missionary; even the dream turns out to be more common than I’d supposed. Yet the book is just as much for people who aren’t Mormon, especially those who grew up in faith-traditions with some seriously high ideals, or who went on other sorts of missions, or who maybe, like me, are just interested in the faith-experiences of other-believers. In fact, to me a better way of increasing interfaith understanding than talking long about theology is honestly sharing intrafaith experience. That’s what I’m trying to do here anyway. And why the book ended up with Eerdmans, a well-known publisher of all things Christian.
Foreword Reviews INDIEFAB Book of the Year, in Religion, for 2014
Best Memoir, Mormon History Association, for 2014
Finalist, Best Work of Creative Non-Fiction, Association for Mormon Letters, for 2014
“Delightful…. Readers will laugh out loud at Harline’s misadventures. But this tale is, at heart, a reflection on how life doesn’t always follow the rules set out by statisticians and spiritual advisers, and how growing up away from home can be profoundly unsettling. A thoughtful, wonderful read.”
– Publishers Weekly—starred review
“Displays a fine mix of pathos and hilarity…. A touchingly human memoir.”
“A disarmingly candid memoir…. By turns amusing and tender, an unvarnished and introspective reflection, humanizing a little-understood religion.”
“You know this has to be a good book for the editors of one of the most storied and prestigious religious publishers in America to offer it as one of their biggest titles of the season. No, this guy doesn’t convert to Protestantism, and there is no grand conclusion, but, wow, does he write well – colorfully and creatively….as he ponders the role of religion in his life, and in our culture. And did I mention he’s a good writer?”
– Hearts and Minds
“An incandescent and searingly honest memoir…. Earthy and spiritual all at once, Harline’s eloquent account of his travails brims over with good humor and transcends confessional boundaries. Taking the reader from door to door, step by redeeming step, this pilgrim’s journal ultimately reveals as much about the human condition as it does about the inner workings of Mormon foreign missions.”
– Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana
“Harline is particularly gifted at capturing the universal humanity in what was an average experience as far as Mormon missions go…and that is gloriously enough…. Harline’s faith crisis and its resolution, his time in Belgium, and the great insight of this memoir are not merely an affirmation of the truth of Mormonism. They are a gradual, growing affirmation of one of those truths: that we all need simply to love and to be loved.”
– The Christian Century
“How could a memoir that primarily deals with religion and rejection be so flippin’ hilarious? Craig Harline’s experiences as a Mormon missionary in Belgium in the mid-1970s are ingeniously funny, but they also point to important issues: how religious people deal with apparent failure and navigate grown-up faith after childish certainties have proven inadequate.”
– Jana Riess, author of Flunking Sainthood
“Witty, poignant, and tender. The characters are unforgettable, and Harline’s rendering of his interactions with them is luminous…. Utterly riveting and delightful.”
– Randall Balmer, author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
“Way Below The Angels is perhaps the most authentic and honest account ever written by a practicing Mormon of the unvarnished Mormon experience. In one moment hilariously funny and in the next heartbreakingly revealing, Craig Harline’s story of his own journey of self-discovery is a powerful and universal one filled with insight, humor, wit and erudition…. All readers will learn something, most importantly about themselves.”
– Sam Cardon, Emmy-award-winning composer
“It offers solid proof that at least some historians have a wicked sense of humor and can employ it in writing…offers a funny, thoughtful, and eloquent window into a key part of Mormon practice and culture. Reading it, despite Harline’s sometimes painful experiences, was pure pleasure.”
– Patheos: The Anxious Bench
“Harline tells his tale with such candor and warmth that the words spill beyond the boundaries of his own tradition. His story’s Mormon particulars will fascinate readers of various stripes but religious readers across traditions will see themselves in this sweet and often comical human soul’s reach to comprehend God’s work in a broken world.”
– J. Spencer Fluhman, author of A Peculiar People
“A beautiful, hilarious, and haunting book… The best, most thoughtful, funniest and truest recreation of missionary life—especially the internal life of a missionary—that I’ve ever read…. This is a great book.”
– By Common Consent
“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…. Harline provides an unusual kind of balm in the form of an epically raw and genuine account of his mission.”
– Times and Seasons
“I recommend reading this book. It is both more funny, and more thoughtful than I know how to describe, and the themes it considers are important for anyone, missionary or not. If you have served a mission, memories will flood back, in beautiful, and perhaps painful ways. If you are preparing to serve a mission, it more accurately describes what makes a mission hard than anything I have previously read.”
– The Exponent
“Way Below the Angels stands way above most missionary memoirs…. [It’s] worth reading–twice. The first read is charming, humorous, and, at times, laserlike in its ability to dissect the foibles of evangelical Mormonism. Certainly, Harline’s witticism defies our expectation of serious, contemplative literature, but this is not a memoir constructed on the fly by an amateur writer.”
– BYU Studies
“A hilarious, heart-of-gold account… equal parts “erudite history professor”…and “clueless California teen” mixed with dashes of down-to-earth folksiness, droll humor, and spiritual reflection… Harline hits upon several strokes of narrative genius that manage to convey the strangeness of missionary life in a foreign country without compromising the clarity of the storytelling, all while keeping things fresh and funny… a gift for sensing the most universal of missionary experiences and capturing them with humor and insight… razor sharp on the folly of status obsession and the eagerness with which one’s fantasies scale the mission hierarchy…feels like an episode of The Office. But he is equally sensitive to the occasional moments of prophetic vision that settle on a missionary’s gaze, allowing her to see the land and people around her as they really are: that is, glowing with an internal grace and sovereignty.”
– Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought