Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Dangerously Close to Preaching": Reflections on Higher Ground

Correct me if I’m wrong, but good films about women’s religious experiences are pretty rare. (No,
Eat Pray Love does not count.) So I was pretty delighted to see the trailer for Higher Ground, a film directed by and starring Vera Farmiga. The film, currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, is based on Carolyn S. Brigg’s memoir This Dark World and tells the story of Corinne Walker’s spiritual journey into, and eventually out of, fundamentalist Christianity.

I went with high expectations, and the film did not disappoint.
Higher Ground opens with Corinne Walker’s adult baptism, but immediately plunges into her childhood. We get to know Corinne’s family, her complicated relationship with religion, and we see the averted tragedy which leads her toward a more intensely religious life. By the time we return to Corinne’s baptism, we understand fundamentalism’s appeal for her: we can see the ways it helps her make sense of her life, the ways it meets her spiritual and emotional needs.

Because the truth is, no one wakes up in the morning and thinks to herself, “Today I’d like to join an oppressive, patriarchal religious community.” And the truth is, there is a lot more to the religious lives of fundamentalist women than oppression and patriarchy. One of the lovely things about
Higher Ground is that it shows Corinne receiving strength and comfort and joy from her church as authentically and honestly as it shows her struggle with its flaws.

Corinne’s relationships with three women struck me as particularly telling in her spiritual journey. Corinne’s sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) is a rebel, a counterpoint to Corinne’s life of piety. When Wendy moves in with Corinne and her family in order to “get back on her feet,” the two share a surface-level sisterly camaraderie until their different worldviews lead to a major clash, ultimately revealing their scorn for each other’s choices. Theirs is a relationship marred by mistrust and judgment, scarred from old wounds, and the brokenness around Corinne’s familial relationships pushes her toward the closeness of her fundamentalist church.

What is lacking in Corinne’s relationship with Wendy, she finds instead in her friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). Annika approaches life with joy, gratitude, and sensuality, and she is, for Corinne, as much role model as companion. They pray together as freely as they laugh, and the easy spiritual sisterhood between them makes the appeal of Corinne’s fundamentalist community clear. At the same time, there is an element of jealousy in Corinne’s admiration. She longs for the joie-de-vivre and deep sense of God’s presence that seem to come so easily to Annika. When Corinne sees Annika speaking in tongues, she declares, “You get all the good stuff! I want it!” and shortly later she is alone in her bathroom, trying to coax herself toward glossolalia with all the rigor and effort of an algebra lesson.

Most enraging, and unfortunately most true to my own experiences of fundamentalist Christianity, was the pastor’s wife Deborah (Barbara Tuttle), whose de facto role is to enforce the community’s patriarchal standards on the women of the church. In the trailer, we see a glimpse of Corinne standing up to speak in church and finding herself silenced by the pastor and tugged toward her seat by her husband. Later, Deborah admonishes her, “Sister, I know you just want to testify to what God has done for you, but you came dangerously close to preaching.”

Although Corinne’s eventual decision to leave the church comes after many more injuries, large and small, this moment goes to the heart of the matter. There is not room for Corinne’s voice in her community – at least not if she comes dangerously close to preaching. Nor if she comes dangerously close to grieving, or doubting, or questioning. There is room for Corinne’s authentic voice, it seems to her at first, but the boundaries become clear as Corinne is hemmed in, over and over again, until she rebels.

And yet, not all of Corinne’s struggle with her church is unique to fundamentalism. In any Christian community (and probably any faith community), there are unspoken boundaries and norms that become all-too-apparent when we tread on them; there are dearly held orthodoxies; there are people who seek to build themselves up by putting others down. But we do church anyway, because, as
Higher Ground so honestly and tenderly shows, we find God through relationship, in community, despite all its messiness. And although (spoiler?) Corinne is unchurched and lonely as the credits roll, we sense that her search for higher ground is not over, and will lead her, once again, into messy, grace-filled community.

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