The Roots of Confidence in Craig Harline’s Way Below The Angels Compared

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Craig Harline, author and professor, courtesy Craig Harline

“Up there pounding in shingles on the bishop’s roof, I started having visions of missionary victory too, even more than of persecution. I saw myself converting whole crowds of grateful people who would – I could hear it – utter my name in reverential tones…” – Craig Harline, Way Below The Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary , pages 11 &12 on early thoughts prior to leaving for Belgium.

While looking at BYU football stats online for Jonny Harline known not only for the last minute play beating University of Utah in his senior year but also for his rock guitar prowess, I decided to check out and see if there was a Fresno, California connection. The Harline family was as synonymous as The Cleveland family through the many years I spent growing up with my Aunt Quevene, Uncle Clyde and baby sister after my parent’s mid-air collision death in 1966 in Livermore, California.

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With a little online research, I found that his father was the same Craig Harline I remembered from Fresno, California who was a few years older than me. Craig and his sister Vickie were well-liked and this was well-deserved as they were inclusive and always seemed to have a positive attitude. I found out that he was an author and had recently published Way Below The Angels (Eerdmans Publishing, 2014) which talked about his own missionary life experience. After seeing a few YouTube interviews about the book, I decided I needed to check it out for myself.

Growing up in the same Fifth Ward [local church unit] in Fresno that Craig Harline grew up in was always a challenge for a gangly, not that coordinated individual, like myself, who was so worried about damaging his hands and not being able to play guitar that I always was a little protective of my digits and held back in the youth Basketball pick-up games before the youth meeting.

The emphasis on sports was a little overwhelming because I could handle myself in gym class at school but playing with Craig or David Harline as well as Larry or Craig Cleveland [older brother, Steve Cleveland went on to coach Fresno City College, BYU and Fresno State]was like meeting up with some NBA players in a summer practice session. I knew they were running plays but I had no idea of the language since my afternoons were spent practicing guitar or going through my record collection for riffs or song ideas. I started working near full time at Senor Taco near Blackstone & Shaw in Tenth Grade in order to pay for gas and Levi’s jeans and that ended my participation.

There was no shortage of things to do growing up in my local church in Fresno, California. Although we had a great full size wood slat basketball court as well as a great softball field out back, we also were exposed to the arts and a lot of speaking engagements.

We had a first rate Boy Scout program spearheaded by Brother [adult reference in Mormon culture] Busby, who came off as kind of a post-military type and later, Brother Morgan who placed great emphasis on achieving merit badges. I even got my Music merit badge from Val Hicks, who was the one time vocal coach for The Osmonds and was now a Music Professor at Fresno State.

I got together one time a few years ago with Brian Hayes, Jeff Hayes and Brian Nolan who had all grown up at one time or another in the Fresno Fifth Ward and we got into a lot of Fresnan speak, very loud, connecting words and all fighting to get into the conversation. One of the wives spoke up and said, “Can you guys quiet it down? Do you have to talk so loud?” Jeff Hayes’ response was, “It’s Sister Bowen’s fault that we all learned to “PROJECT”!” We all laughed at that one because it was true. Sister Bowen was the Musical and Drama Director for the local church and she took it seriously. We put on some spectacular 24th of July productions where I even got to play electric guitar early on.

 I would rate knowing the Bowens right up there with other Fresnans Dennis Morrison [guitar player extraordinaire, whose mother, Voni Morrison co-wrote “Act Naturally”] and Gary Lomprey who was the first serious guitarist I ever knew personally.

My first attempt at a garage band was in Jason Bowen’s bedroom with Jason on drums, Todd Bowen on bass, Brian Nolan on guitar and me trying to fake lead guitar. It wasn’t at all great in any way other than the fact that one has to start somewhere and Sister Bowen must have somewhat approved at our attempt to make some noise or she would have shut it down.

Fresno was a serious music town. People from the outside might kind of chuckle, but I lived through it. I wanted so bad to be a serious musician but found that so many people I met were so far ahead of me that I couldn’t figure out where to fit in until I left Fresno when my Uncle Clyde got transferred right before my senior year in High School.

I remember the great Jazz drummer Louie Bellson playing with the Hoover High [Craig Harline’s alma mater as well as my Fresno experience] Jazz Band at a music store opening when I was in Ninth Grade. Music was so serious in the schools that getting into the music program at Fresno State seemed to be like playing in The Tonight Show Band at that time.

Craig Harline in Belgium

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I kind of wished I was a few years older because Craig Harline and his peers at church managed to pull off a pretty decent band. One of them was Tom Davis, who was playing drums ever since Elementary School. I knew Tom since I was in First Grade. My Uncle got along with his Dad and I wanted to be a drummer when I was a Cub Scout.

One time, Tom Davis talked me into ditching with him from a Cub Scout trip that was supposed to go to a museum or something. I was probably eight years old. We headed to his house because his parents were gone. I was hoping to play on his drum kit but we ended up racing around on his Go-Kart. Unluckily for me, my Uncle Clyde saw us walking along the road and when I got home, he tanned my rear and I was grounded for a while.

Anyway, at this church dance, Craig Harline was wailing away on the family’s Wurlitzer or Hammond organ, while Tom Davis played drums, Don Freeman played guitar and Steve Standing played bass through one of those tall Fender Cabinets. They jammed on Santana, Deep Purple and some other stuff. They sounded really good to this Ninth or Tenth Grader.  Craig was playing through a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet. That was the first time I had ever seen one of those. What a mind blowing experience for a kid like me who had been seeing bands jam since I was six years old in San Jose, California watching Count Five go through “Psychotic Reaction” in a neighborhood garage.

Craig makes mention of his “Scripture Chase” skills that came from showing up at 6 AM in the morning at the church and studying scriptures and Gospel concepts from 9th through 12th grade. It was one of those rights of passage I think even more so growing up in Mormon culture in the Seventies.  We actually had a lot of fun, especially prepping for “Scripture Chase” [finding a scripture with a clue in a hardbound copy as fast as you can, based on 40 or so scriptures given out to concentrate on for that school year] while listening to the church propaganda concept album Like Unto Us which was a vinyl-side long piece that was something in-between Pink Floyd’s “Us And Them” and The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin.” It was some kind of a trip-hypnotic piece with the church’s okay that was distributed throughout the church to keep us quiet during study time.

Elvis Presley was impressed with this set up after barging into Ed Parker’s kids’ class in the early hours in the L.A. basin when Ed Parker [Body Guard, Father of American Karate] dropped off his kids. Elvis couldn’t believe that High School age kids were actually studying scriptures for fun before school. Elvis commented later to Ed Parker that he wanted to raise his daughter, Lisa Marie in the Mormon Church. That happened in 1977 and Ed Parker wrote his comments in a book  about his friendship with Elvis shortly after his death. The book was approved by his father Vernon before it was published.

If this was not enough of a balanced upbringing, we church going LDS Fresnans had our own Welfare Farm where we would prune in the dead of winter and later harvest with steak knives taken out of the kitchen drawer the precious Thompson Seedless grapes that would turn into raisins and sent worldwide through the church welfare program like a communal upstart version of Sun-maid Raisins.

Craig would come with his father, Brother Harline, once a month to my house for many years when I was a wee lad doing what they call home teaching. This visit was also used to back up what principles and doctrines my Uncle Clyde was trying to teach me while I was growing up.

It was a difficult situation because I was extremely mad about my parents passing away and having to grow up with my Aunt and Uncle, who never smiled at me, never hugged me or never told me I was a good looking kid. My Aunt Quevene continually stressed how mad she was that she had to raise my Dad who was her youngest brother while her sister got to go out and now she was stuck raising me.

I always felt uneasy at home and somehow I was supposed to understand the benefit of church rules without the joy. It was like, this is the rules of society and you are a second tier member of this Church and Society. I hated the vibe I got from the whole situation and spent many hours brooding and trying to figure out if my Aunt and Uncle were going to kick me out when I was sixteen or after I got out of high school.

My younger sister, who was only 2 ½ when our parents died was always looking for acceptance from my Aunt and Uncle and many times joined in on letting me know what a misfit I was.  My baby sister and I are now really close and look back on those times for what it’s worth

I wanted out as much as possible: Outdoors, maybe run away to L.A., travel to Berkeley for real on weekends, skateboarding in Capitola, anywhere besides “Home”.

One of the lines church members would use when they found out my parents died when I was young was “God must have had a special plan for them and needed both of them” which was somehow supposed to make me cheer up but it ended up making me upset. God decided we didn’t need parents that knew what we needed or who we were, he needed them instead, well fine; I think I’ll just do whatever the flip I feel like then. It took me many years to develop my own relationship with God.

Craig Harline, according to my young naive view, came from one of the perfect Mormon nuclear families where the parents are involved, encouraging and help to develop self-worth. I really wanted that but felt more empathy for the kids that ended up in a lot of trouble and often were roaming around on their own.

It was against this background that Craig and I had different starting points leaving on our missions. This is what led me to read and review a missionary memoir that was published almost two years ago. Knowing that Craig had that strong background of success in the home and at school, I wanted to know about his mission experience.

The great thing about Way Below The Angels is that it is not just a time line travel text but Craig opens up his thoughts, thirty years on, reflecting how he felt, both positive and negative about possibly the biggest paradigm shift he made in two years.

The first few chapters show how awkward learning the language and culture was in pre-online web search days. This was the Seventies and the most that could be learned about Belgium before actually breathing the air was a few pages in an Encyclopedia Britannica, playing a fake “Dutch” game and learning Flemish from returned church missionaries that were attending Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho looking for a wife.

Craig realized that he was going to stick out like a sore thumb with a strange (by Seventies standards) CIA-like haircut in a day and age when the Alpha Male was Joe Namath with his shoulder length hair and “Broadway” style. Not only that, but the plain white shirt worn every day “branding” would lead to such a recognizable sub-culture that the South Park creators would make a mint on Broadway lampooning missionaries in Book Of Mormon The Musical.

Craig Harline writes in such a way that you could see his own confusion in the differences between the perfect culture of the Fresno, California Fifth Ward with a bonus high scoring sports super star additive and the mainly Catholic, centuries old ways of the Belgian people. Craig throws in enough Flemish translated directly back to English, as well as handfuls of “Flip” and “Fetch” [Mormon missionary swear word replacements] to realize this is not going to be an easy ride. The early descriptive of travelling by bicycle through different shades of cold, damp and gray villages make the beginning of this pilgrim’s journey more like Chinese Water torture than the film The Best Two Years.

Craig’s beginning purposes were a balance of wanting to return the conquering hero, get taken serious by a Mormon girl to be marriageable material and thinking that there would be multitudes of Dutch people that would remember him somewhere between John the Baptist and Captain Moroni.

Expectations, whether real or imagined, were intense. It was enough to cause health issues.

As Craig goes back and forth between Seventies era Belgium and modern era reflection, he reserves the right to speak with plainness just the way he thought about things when he was a teenager. This makes for a truthful recollection rather than a filtered after thought and I found myself saying, “I totally get it, I was there myself.”

The developmental arc flows from the pre-mission “cool one” life to the bewilderment of becoming self-aware in Belgium to the summarization of a grown man with tons of life experience realizing that he was one of many that not only had a similar experience but also had the same consequential “nightmare” where he is called to go back and serve again on a recurring basis. This is similar to the dreams of finding one’s self back in high school because there were still courses to complete. It was this incompleteness that led to going over the past and sorting it all out. Craig felt it may be possible to get rid of the “ground hog day” recurring dream by finally putting it all to rest.

In the last act, Craig finally has several epiphanies that help him sort out himself and what he should do while he was there and what he should work on, which was really nothing at all. It was really about self-discovery and trusting one’s own gut feeling even to the point of admitting when he was wrong that finally brings peace and a connection to the Divine.

Craig finally realizes the beauty of this foreign place both in the scenery and the people.

He recognizes the goodness in people no matter where they are in life and seems to really get the benefit of growth and maturation in the second year before returning home.

The real question of commitment is answered not by how Craig views himself, but what he actually does after he returns home.

Craig Harline, after leaving the mission field in Belgium, goes onto earn a Ph.D. in European History from Rutgers University and becomes a Professor of History at Brigham Young University, teaching courses that reflect his own wanting to look at the big picture about The Reformation, The History of Civilization, History on Film as well as The History of Christianity.

Craig’s academic world has allowed him to travel back to Belgium several times and deepen the ties that began as a big question mark with many of the people he met from all walks of life.

In looking back at my own time as a missionary in Venezuela, I would not have left in the first place at age 22 if I didn’t realize it was all about losing myself in service to others. Between my own religious self study and the prodding of a really good Bishop, I thought I might find my own self-worth by getting out of my own messed up world.

While Craig had several expectations and aspirations going in, I had none. I had no idea about the how, what, when or why. I had sold everything I had of any worth post-college age including several valuable guitars and pieces of gear and a Chevy Van to offset the cost.

Whereas the benchmarks of success: Leadership and Baptisms seemed like they should have been quickly attainable, or so,  Craig thought, in truth it created a painful soul searching situation. On the other hand, I was rather shocked by my success and leadership abilities that manifested during my own two years away from “home”.

Craig had discovered a path in his education when he got back home that has led to some great continued experiences that really show the depth of his commitment to the part of himself that he left in Belgium.

I still had to face an unknown future with better family ties. Somehow, the mission commitment I made greatly improved the relationship I had with my Uncle Clyde. He had gained a respect for me by what I did rather than what I said.

When I got back home, I tried College for a while but finally just left on my own for Southern California and started building my own self-awareness outside of missionary life which took several years.

I even found myself going back to playing guitar and dealing with Uncle Clyde on that issue again. Only, this time I had an answer pop into my head when he gave me a scowl and said he couldn’t believe I was out playing guitar again-letting me know what a waste of time it was. I just said, “Go talk to my friends. If they tell you I don’t know what I’m doing or I am no good, I’ll quit playing guitar.”  Somehow, that ended the discussion once and for all.

I wish I could go back to Venezuela. I did to try to connect with the people I met there with very little results because of a very bad postal system. Just like Craig remembers the Orange Roofs as he flew into Belgium the first time, I remember how beautiful Barquisimeto was and getting my first Cuatro.

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The details that Craig Harline puts into Way Below The Angels will put you in a place and a mindset that is not only the 1970’s but is timeless in Mormon culture and is not that much different than what others go through on their journey to realize their own personal gifts and abilities that help to leave their own mark on the world.  It is a great read and very honest soul searching on the meaning of life that anybody can relate to who is very self-aware.

This memoir has won several awards including: The Juvenile Instructor – 2014 Best Personal History/Memoir, 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award GOLD Winner for Religion Mormon History Association – Best Memoir 2014, Association for Mormon Letters 2014 Finalist: Best Work of Creative Non-Fiction

Craig Harline is a well-known author in religious history circles having written several books including, Conversions: Two Families Stories From the Reformation and Modern America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), Sunday: A History Of The First Day From Babylonia To The Super Bowl (New York: Doubleday, 2007) and Miracles At The Jesus Oak (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

  • Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN