On the surface, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary is just another missionary memoir, but with an exceptionally long title. We’ve read it before; many of us have lived it, this archetypal Mormon hero’s journey. Harline’s version of what he terms the “One True Missionary Story” goes like this: a young Californian intercepts his mission call somewhere between the mail truck and the mailbox, rips open the envelope and then looks up Belgium on a world map. He shows up at the MTC in the traditional superhero suit of iron, ready to save souls. After a few weeks of language lessons, off he flies to Belgium— land of waffles and Brussels sprouts—where both bicycles and converts fail and where Mother Nature weeps. A lot. But in spite of all that typical missionary stuff, Way Below the Angels stands way above most missionary memoirs. Its plot may be typical, and it does trade a little in some romantic didacticism, but under Harline’s care the typical missionary tale turns platitudes into perspective and demonstrates with humor that the most vital soul God wants us to save is our own.
Harline’s memoir succeeds because it helps its reader encounter painful realities with a smile. As expected, we go with Elder Harline through the streets of Belgium. Doors slam, dogs bite, and old men garner the strength to throw young male missionaries across their thresholds. We see Elder Harline study, fast, and pray as he devotes himself to the destruction of what he calls “the great and abominable church.” But we also see him discover that the desire to love and the desire to spoil are like oil and water; they cannot mix.