book reviews, LDS

By request: Repost of my review of Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline…

Sorry… I know I said I was done reposting book reviews, but my friend Alexis asked me if I’d read this one. I had, so I am reposting the review for her, as it appeared November 28, 2014. And NOW I am really done with the reposts for today!

Here’s yet another book review about a story of a Mormon missionary.  If you read this blog often, you know I am a sucker for stories about people giving up time and money to serve the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Because my husband is an exMormon and has a rather negative opinion of Mormonism (which he has passed on to me), many of the books I tend to read about these experiences are somewhat negative.  This time, I read a book that was mostly positive about the missionary experience. 

Craig Harline, author of Way Below the Angels (2014), served as a missionary for the Mormon church back in the 1970s.  He went from his hometown of Fresno, California to Belgium, one of my favorite places in the world.  There, he made an attempt to learn Dutch, get along with his ever changing companions, and maybe attract some Belgians to the LDS church.  Harline’s time in Belgium was concentrated on Flemish speaking areas, namely Antwerp and Brussels. 

Although he wasn’t all that successful in wooing beer loving Belgians to the “clean living” of Mormonism, Harline seems to have come away from his mission experience with a deep affection for Belgian people.  Given that I went to Armenia for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer and left my service with sort of a love/hate relationship with Armenia, I could sort of relate to Craig Harline’s story somewhat, even though we went away for different reasons.  I think that’s another reason why I like missionary stories.  I am interested in other peoples’ cultural experiences because I have a number of my own.

He writes one story about trying to drive one of the mission’s cars and almost running over a small Belgian man because he neglected to check his blind spot before backing out of a parking space.  Naturally, bystanders who witnessed Harline hitting the old man were shocked and horrified.  And Harline was also horrified and pictured himself being hauled off to court.  But no… it turned out the old man was in a hurry and just wanted to get on his way.  I witnessed a similar event once in Spain, when an elderly lady fell down at the bottom of an escalator.  Many people wanted to help her and get her seen by a doctor, but she was very focused on catching her train!

Like many young men who go on Mormon missions, Harline had fantastic visions of converting people.  He was sure his superior sales training, personal charm, and newly acquired language skills, along with the very appealing Mormon values and lifestyle, would be enough to win him many conversions for the “one true church”.  Reality soon came crashing down as Harline learned that Belgians were mostly fine with Catholicism or atheism or any other belief system that allowed them to drink what they wanted and smoke cigarettes.  What was really pretty cool about Harline’s story, though, is that he was open to experiencing Belgian culture.  He visited Catholic churches.  He made Belgian friends who were kind to him and open to visiting as long as he didn’t talk religion.  He learned to be more humble and, more importantly, be himself.  Those are valuable lessons that so many people could stand to learn, especially when they’re still young.

Craig Harline has an entertaining writing style that is fun to read, though it took me some time to finish his book.  I think the main reason it took so long is because I’ve been gearing up for the holidays and don’t have as much time to read and focus as I usually do.  I tend to be tired and distracted when I go to bed and that’s when I do most of my reading.  And yet, when I was able to focus on Harline’s book, I was definitely entertained.  I write this even though Harline’s writing tends to meander a bit.  His sentences are long and wordy and it may seem like he takes awhile to get to the point.  Fortunately, reading Harline’s long sentences was well worth the effort for me. 

I enjoyed Way Below the Angels and would read it again.  In fact, it might be a good thing to re-read it at a time when I can devote more mental energy and attention to the task.  I think this is the kind of book that needs to be digested in larger portions.  Craig Harline currently teaches European History at Brigham Young University.  Though this is the first book I’ve read by him, I see that he’s written quite a few others.  If you like missionary memoirs, particularly by Mormon authors, I highly recommend Way Below the Angels.   

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book reviews, homosexuality, LDS

Repost: A review of The Gate and The Garden: The Apostate Journals of a Gay Mormon Missionary in Japan

Here’s another reposted book review. This one was written October 18, 2017, and appears as/is.

After some concerted effort last night and an early bedtime, I finally managed to finish Corbin Brodie’s 2016 book, The Gate and The Garden: The Apostate Journals of a Gay Mormon Missionary in Japan.  I downloaded this book in 2016, less than a month after it was published.  I just got around to reading it this month.  Sorry to be so slow, but I have a whole stack of books to be read and I keep finding more.

Although I have read and reviewed quite a few exmo lit books, I had kind of gotten out of the habit.  I enjoy a good story about what it’s like to be Mormon, especially when the person is an ex Mormon.  There tends to be a lot less testimony sharing in books by the exmos.  Corbin Brodie (a pseudonym, as are all the names used in this book) is no longer LDS, but he did serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was a young lad.  In those days, missions for the guys started when they were nineteen years old; since 2012, the age limit has been set at eighteen.  I am not exactly sure when Brodie served in the Sapporo, Japan mission, but it must have been before 1991, since he makes references to the Soviet Union.

Corbin Brodie grew up in Canada.  He has a younger brother named Duncan and mentions his mother was a very faithful member of the LDS church.  Brodie and his brother were raised to be as faithful as their mother was.  Although I get the sense that Brodie wasn’t exactly TBM (true believing Mormon) from the get go, he agreed to served the expected mission.  His book mostly consists of journal entries he wrote during his time abroad and while he was at the Missionary Training Center.  It also includes a few short stories.  I gather that, like me, Brodie has an impulse to write.  I’m sure writing has saved his sanity more than a few times, especially when he was living in Japan.

By his own account, Brodie got off to a good start at the training center.  He was made a leader during his weeks in Provo, learning Japanese and the missionary lifestyle.  He adjusted to life as a missionary and went to Sapporo, where over the course of two years, he went through a series of different companions.  Brodie seemed to have an affinity for Japanese and picked it up early.  In his journal, he uses a number of Japanese words for church terms.  For example, he doesn’t call his companions “Elder” lastname, as Mormon missionaries call each other, Brodie calls them “Choro”, which I gather is the Japanese term.  He refers to other church officials and the mission home by their Japanese terms, too.  I’m pretty sure that the missionaries in non English speaking areas do use the local terms instead of Elder, Sister, or President.  Anyway, I kind of liked that he used those terms because I enjoy picking up foreign words, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy learning other languages.

At 19 years old, Brodie is now living in an environment where he is surrounded by guys his age, some of whom he finds attractive.  Given that he’s a Mormon, at his sexual peak, and serving as a missionary, being gay is, to say the least, a special challenge.  Although it’s not considered a sin to have “same sex attraction” (as the Mormons put it), it is considered sinful to act on that attraction.  So, I can only imagine that as difficult as being a missionary must have been, it must have been even more difficult to be a gay missionary.  Add in the fact that Brodie didn’t seem to enjoy Japan that much (he mentions not liking the food), and probably would not have had a whole lot of time to enjoy it even if he did, and you have two challenging years.

Brodie is musical and creative, but listening to music that isn’t church approved is forbidden.  Still, he manages to play the piano sometimes.  He seems to have some good experiences with Japanese locals, many of whom don’t want to be church members, but are okay with simply being friends.  He has some good companions who are friendly and some who are “hardasses” bucking for rank or simply people with whom he has nothing in common.  Through it all, though he serves faithfully, Brodie realizes that he doesn’t really believe in Mormonism.  It’s getting harder and harder for him to pretend to have a testimony.  Finally, during his second year, just four months before he’s scheduled to leave Japan, he has a crisis of sorts.  He makes it known that he wants to leave Japan.

Brodie’s leaders do all they can to convince Brodie to stay in country and finish his mission.  They tell him if he leaves early, he’ll be on the hook for the $2000 plane ticket.  Brodie realizes he’ll have to work a long time to be able to pay off that debt.  I actually had to laugh at this, not because it’s funny, but because essentially Brodie was kind of being “trafficked”.  It doesn’t sound that different than the women who are brought into foreign countries and forced to work off the price of their plane tickets.  Also, while I’m still not sure what years Brodie was serving, $2000 must have been an astronomical amount of money at that time.  It’s a lot now.

Brodie also considers his mother, a very faithful TBM who is in school earning her social work degree.  He doesn’t want to disappoint her or his brother, who has also put in his papers to go on a mission.  Eventually, he is convinced to stay and sent to the mission home to finish out his last four months.  The mission home is less onerous, except that Brodie chafes under the rules, including the one that doesn’t allow him to cross the street to buy a candy bar without a companion with him.

Brodie’s story ends rather abruptly.  There’s no neat wrap up at the end of his journals, although he does provide an interesting afterword.  He’s now living in the United Kingdom and has a son, although he is no longer romantically involved with his son’s mother (she’s a dear friend).  He’s still gay.  After he returned home from Japan, he took about three months to break it to his mother that he didn’t want to be LDS.  And his mother, to her great credit, eventually accepted it, although it was very hard for her.

Although I don’t remember if he mentioned it, I got the idea that Brodie’s mother must have been from Scotland.  He writes of going to Edinburgh before the mission and missing Scotland.  I can relate to how much he misses Scotland, since it’s one of my favorite places.  I also got the sense that even if Brodie hadn’t been homosexual, he would have left Mormonism.  It seemed to me that his intellect was too sharp to accept what the church teaches wholesale.  He couldn’t make 2+2=5, like some people can.

My one criticism about Brodie’s book is that it’s very long.  Although his writing is very good and engaging, it was tough going getting through this book, particularly with the inclusion of the short stories.  I realize that he basically published his journals as he wrote them, but personally, I think this book would have been stronger if it had been abridged somewhat.  The short stories were of good quality, but they kind of took away the flow of Brodie’s missionary story.  I love a good short story, but I don’t like to be distracted when I’m reading.  I felt the fiction pieces were somewhat a distraction.

I do think this book would be well-received by ex Mormons, especially male homosexuals who have served missions.  I think they will be especially able to relate to Brodie’s experiences.  I was happy to read that as hard as the mission was, it didn’t seem like the whole thing was a waste of time.  He did seem to come away from the experience with friends, some of whom I hope remained friends after he left the church.

Anyway, if I were going to assign a rating, I think I’d give The Gate and The Garden: The Apostate Journals of a Gay Mormon Missionary in Japan a solid four stars out of five.  It’s well worth reading if you’re interested.

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book reviews, LDS, religion

Repost: A review of Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary by Jacob Young…

Here’s another repost of a book review I wrote for my original Blogspot blog. This one was posted October 6, 2013, and reappears here as/is.

 I just finished Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary, an interesting book written by returned Mormon missionary Jacob Young, who spent two years serving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia.  Young was a missionary at the tail end of the 1990s.  I was especially interested in reading about his experience because I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia in the mid 1990s.  Although Russia and Armenia are different places, they were both once part of the Soviet Union.  In the 1990s, there were still some things going on in both countries that made the experiences of living there somewhat similar.

Young’s job as a Mormon missionary was to convince Russians to join the LDS church.  Given the culture in Russia– especially given that during Soviet times, religion was pretty much discouraged or even outlawed– being a missionary in Russia must have been tough.  Russians are notoriously fond of tea, alcohol (especially vodka), and cigarettes.  Convincing locals to give up these things so that they could be Mormons must have been very difficult.  And Young does confess that he and his ever changing companions did have challenges in getting potential converts past the first discussions, even if they managed those.  However, I was surprised to read that Young was a reasonably effective missionary who did baptize a number of people, a few of whom stuck with the church.

Despite his successes, Young suffered through some annoying and eccentric companions.  He had one companion who sang and hummed incessantly, annoying Young to no end.  He had another who would use a mirror to spy on Young when he used the toilet, checking to make sure he didn’t masturbate during the few minutes he was alone.  The companion would aim the mirror at a small, high window in the bathroom.  Having lived in Armenia, I am very familiar with the type of window Young writes of.  My first apartment in Yerevan had one.  Since missionaries are supposed to be with their companions at all times, dealing with the very hard core ones was a real challenge for Young.

Young also suffered a crisis of faith.  He writes of missing music that wasn’t church approved, reading books that weren’t religious in nature, and not having to spend all his time knocking on doors, pestering people who weren’t interested in Mormonism.   Young wrote to his parents about his sliding faith and talked to his mission president, who seemed to be a good guy.  He also confesses to “cheating” on a few rules.

As I finished reading this book, I wondered where Young stands on Mormonism today.  I got the sense that he might have left the church or at least gone inactive.  I did not get the impression that he got a big sense that Mormonism is “true”.  He does, however, concede that while the mission was not really the best two years of his life, he did gain a lot from the experience.  Having had my own tough trials over the 27 months I spent in Armenia, I could definitely relate to that sentiment.  There were many days when I wanted to escape Armenia… and I didn’t even have to deal with the constraints that Mormon missionaries have to deal with.  I lived alone for most of my time as a Volunteer and could drink all the liquor, coffee, and tea I wanted.  If I had wanted to smoke, I was welcome to do that, too.  Masturbation was also not forbidden to me and I was allowed to dress pretty much as I saw fit.  Armenia in the 90s was just a tough place to be, though; and I think Young’s time in Russia was similarly difficult.

And yet, there’s not a day that passes that I don’t think of those days in Armenia.  They changed my life.  I came away from the experience with more than I put into it.  While Young may not have appreciated the job he was there to do, he does write about all the things he did take from his mission experience.  He apparently became quite proficient in Russian and was able to read, write, and speak it.  While I was able to speak and understand passable Armenian (smattered with a few Russian words), I could never write it and reading it was always a painfully slow exercise.  There were times when it was actually easier for me to read Russian, which is a language I have never formally studied but sort of rubbed off on me.

I admire Jacob Young’s writing, which is personal, confessional, and very fluent.  His book does have a few comic moments, but it’s mostly very introspective and revealing.  Young puts a human face on Mormon missionaries, who probably aren’t looked at as humans by the masses trying to avoid being hooked into a conversation with them.  Young concedes that he didn’t enjoy pestering people for the Mormon church, even though there were a few people who joined the LDS church and appreciated it.  Young admits that as a missionary, he pressured people who weren’t sure.  He and his companions targeted people who were lonely and vulnerable.  He baptized married women, even if their spouses didn’t want to join the church.  He sowed dissension within families when he baptized single people whose families weren’t interested in being LDS.  There were also times when he was “schooled” by Russians who had spent a couple of hours on the Internet and learned more about Joseph Smith than he knew, just by reading sites that weren’t “church approved”.  Young admits he was embarrassed when a Russian told him about Joseph Smith’s habit of bedding and marrying teenagers and women who already had husbands. 

I am impressed that Young realizes and admits to doing these things in the name of scoring more baptisms and being a more successful missionary.  I am especially impressed that he realizes that doing these things may have caused problems for the converts.

I don’t know what Elder Jacob Young is up to now, but I did really like his book, Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary.  I would certainly recommend it.  Four and a half stars from me…

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