by “The Fool”
Sony Pictures Classics, Duration: 1 hr. 49 min.; Released August 26, 2011; Rating: R for some sexual and language content; Drama; Directed By Vera Farmiga; Written By Tim Metcalfe; Due Out on DVD: January 10, 2012.
The first person to tell me about Higher Ground asked if I would watch the movie with them, so they could see my response. I had not yet heard of the film so asked what it was about (impressed that not very often does someone volunteer to watch a movie a second time, within a week, just to see how I will respond to it.) This film, the person replied, catches the essence of their personal experience growing up within Adventism.
Though my interest was piqued, I was skeptical. While I believe our culture has legitimate issues with organized religion, I’m still leery of any depiction of Christianity on the silver screen. Either these films are full of Hollywood’s patronizing cynicism or have been sanitized by some well-meaning, out-of-reality “Puritan.”
Once I sat down to watch the adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir, Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, I was quickly ushered into the “baptismal waters” of my own early Adventist experiences. From the vacation Bible school call to confession, to the condescending attitudes of believers over minutiae, I was reliving my own story. Granted I was never a Jesus Freak nor has the Adventist Church ever been close to a congregational-style fellowship in my lifetime, but the comparisons between Corinne (Vera Farmiga) and Ethan’s (Joshua Leonard) life in the church are eerily similar, right down to the authoritarian leadership model—especially the marriage counselor with the gift of prophecy.
Higher Ground is an excellent paradoxical portrayal of the tension between one’s search for spiritual authenticity and organized religion’s narrow-minded desire for control. Corinne’s journey of faith could be repeated times over in the lives of many of us who grew up in the church over the latter half of the 20th century. The film commendably shows Christians as real people with real passions, hang-ups, and trials.
The sect that Corinne and Ethan belong to in the film thrives on narrow, neatly defined platitudes that fast become stifling, legalistic, and inconsistent with the “real” world just outside the walls of their “commune.” Therein lies the film’s primary conflict. Corinne’s problem is never with God, but between herself, her husband, and the church.
As in a great parable, Corinne represents those Christians who, like the Bereans, don’t mind questioning things—even things said by the apostle Paul (so glad that Paul praised them for it!). She is able to venture outside the safety of the “commune” to read “Grapes of Wrath” and ask why God does not work a miracle for her friend. Husband Ethan, on the other hand, represents those Christians who don’t (or can’t) think for themselves and accept the platitudes, while nurturing a growing and dogmatic desire for control.
Corinne is discovering that God cannot be put in a box—pinned down into neat doctrinal formulas and structure. Her journey of faith truly begins within—and then wanders outside—the church, while her church family turns its back on her. Ultimately Corinne’s “higher ground” is the discovery that true spirituality is not only found within the church, but also beyond its confines—outside with the “dogs.”
When Corinne finally speaks up, refusing recrimination (or as a woman to “remain silent in submission” any longer), she pleads with the church, "I need all this to be real, but I don't know how to make it real." She seems to be finally discovering relief, in finally admitting her struggles.
Corinne’s experience shows that the more cultish a church, the more difficult it makes it on those who express honest inquiry and verbalize their doubts. As I watched this film, it occurred to me how ironic that my own church demonizes a particular church that once “outed” people who, in the Dark Ages, questioned whether the world was the center of the universe. Yet now my church behaves the same way toward those who question its cherished beliefs. Can truth afford to be fair or are we protecting something else besides truth?
Finally, I wondered why, like Doubting Thomas’ Savior, we can’t help and nurture those who struggle through life’s valleys and dark places. Don’t we all ultimately share that journey at some point? Can’t we all ask, “My God, My God, where are you?” and still be accepted in God’s family? Even the pastor in Corinne’s church nodded his approval when she admitted to her struggle of faith. Why can’t we place our feet on higher ground and give that permission as well?
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith on heaven's table land,
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord plant my feet on higher ground.