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

By Bowman, Matthew | The Christian Century, October 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Bowman, Matthew, The Christian Century


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

By Craig Harline Eerdmans, 281 pp., $22.00

One cold afternoon in 1975 in a small rented bedroom in Antwerp, the young Mormon missionary Craig Harline (Elder Harline in Mormon parlance) had a faith crisis--though it is not quite right to call it that. He was frustrated with his mission, dismayed at his failure to convert even a single soul after months of work in Belgium. His hope and even his faith in God were waning. Maybe he was fooling himself; maybe God didn't care. Maybe there was no God.

To use the phrase "faith crisis" places young Elder Harline into a well-trodden narrative with guides familiar to most students of religion--Augustine, John of the Cross, even Malcolm X. There are the common wayposts--doubt, shattered confidence, surrender, catharsis. All of Christian history led to this moment: Elder Harline kneeling beside his hard bed, gazing toward heaven through his little window and the gray winter sky.

Yet Harline knew none of this, which is what makes this book so touching. He was no Augustine or Paul, no Billy Graham or Joseph Smith, not even, as he worried while in his initial weeks of training, a match for Elder Downing, the hero of his cadre of 19-year-old Mormons preparing to go out into the world and preach their gospel from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and seven memorized lessons. He experienced the trials of faith as though he was the first and only, and the Harline of today--a historian of early modern Europe at Brigham Young University--is particularly gifted at capturing the universal humanity in what was an average experience as far as Mormon missions go.

As the title indicates, Harline's mission was neither particularly heroic nor particularly tragic, Harline himself neither a prodigy nor a failure. He was only a young man not well versed in scripture--like most Mormons (and most Christians), largely ignorant of Christian history and theology and possessed of no preternatural faith or spiritual gifts. As he says, "I'd never had the classic crisis of faith over whether God existed, or even the classic Mormon crisis over whether the church was the True Church or not, because there hadn't been any thought of such thoughts growing up." Harline, this is to say, is a perfectly average Christian.

And that is gloriously enough. Many of the foibles Harline sees in his younger self will make many Mormons, ex-missionaries and not, nod in recognition, for mission culture is a highly potent distillation of Mormonism in total. Yet Harline is far less concerned with providing commentary on either Mormonism or its mission program than with capturing what it is like to be one of those young men in a white shirt and a tie who depart the safety of Utah's Wasatch Front for such exotic locales as Belgium.

He struggled with perfectionism, "the highly popular missionary view that if you didn't obey 100 percent of the rules 100 percent of the time, then you couldn't be worthy of God reaching down and blessing you with converts." He struggled with Roman Catholicism, convinced that all conversions derive from the influence of the Holy Ghost and therefore all rejections derive from the influence of Satan. Thus as Belgian after Belgian explained, "I am Catholic," "I am Roman," "I am Christian," the young missionary began to shake his fist at every Catholic church he passed, cursing the priests for consorting with the Adversary. In jest. Sort of. He struggled with mission bureaucracy, hoping to climb the ladder from junior companion to senior companion to various arcane positions of accomplishment--district leader, zone leader, assistant to the president--through dutiful filling out of reports and wrestling with the printer in the mission president's office. …

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