Vera Farmiga, in her directorial debut “Higher Ground” about a woman who has fallen in with a group of Christian fundamentalists, gets all of it right: the language, the baptismal rites, the Christian “marriage counselor,” the attractive patriarchal pastor. I should know – I grew up Southern Baptist in North Louisiana, and so I’ve experienced this movie. In fact, I found the film creepy in its authenticity. It took me back to a place I didn’t want to go.
Farmiga plays the lead role of Corinne, who becomes pregnant as an 18-year-old, marries, and after nearly losing her child in an accident, gives herself to Jesus and a group of Protestant evangelicals. The strength of this film is that we really like most of these individuals – they are warm and caring, and within the structures they have chosen, absolutely morally consistent. We never feel that the film takes an easy swipe at any of the characters – with the possible exception of the marriage counselor – and we see people, like ourselves, who are struggling to find their way through personal conflicts and the moral thickets of contemporary life. Because they are fully rounded human beings, they are believable, not caricatures, as one might expect in a film of this kind. Farmiga plays her role with no hint of irony, and with great feminine beauty and sensitivity.
Corinne’s problem is that she is highly intelligent, a reader of literature, and a woman who is deeply intuitive. She wants to be a believer, and she calls on God to speak to her and lead her, but her God is not a God of easy answers. When she prays, silence is the only response. And she can make no theological sense at all of the tragedy which visits her best friend. When the grieving congregation sings “All is well with my soul,” she tries to join them, but the words stick in her throat. All is not well with her soul. She is sensual and sexual in a social context of repression. She is a woman of subtle intellect thrown in with people who know all the answers all the time. She is with a husband who fails to be her equal spiritually, intellectually, and sexually.
As we watch Corinne struggle, we wonder whether or not she will escape. After all, these are her chosen people, and she is loyal to the core. She would rather deny herself than to deny them. We understand this impulse, for all of us want community, want home. But she finds she must try to save her own soul.
I left the theater very troubled. I remembered the priest who told me I was going to hell when I left the Catholic Church at the tender age of twelve. I thought of the gay pastor I knew who died of AIDS, but was never able to reveal his plight, or his sexual orientation, to his congregation. I thought of the evangelical seminary professor who assured me that Jesus was the only way to salvation, and that Gandhi is in hell. I recalled a conversation with my fundamentalist brother, who told me that women should not lead at church.
There was no intentional ill will or meanness of spirit in these people: the priest cared about me and the family; the congregation was devoted to their minister; the professor was warm and friendly; my brother loves me dearly. So what is the problem?
The problem has to do with the human consequences of fundamentalist values: these groups value rigid belief over human good. But any religious group that would deny others the opportunity to grow and contribute because of their gender or sexual orientation, which are God-given, is not a life-giving religion. Fundamentalists seem to be oblivious of the harm they do, and lay it all to the individuals who are “disobeying God,” thereby bringing the harm upon themselves.
Contrary to a liberal relativism, I do not believe that all religious beliefs are equal and worthy of respect. Faith healers in Oregon are now on trial for the death of a child, one of several children who have succumbed to the beliefs of a sect ironically called the Followers of Christ. Faith healing, of course, is an extreme religious position, but I would suggest that every belief system should be judged by its effect on the individual and on society. Does it help the individual break barriers and flourish, or does it create barriers to growth, spiritual and otherwise?
There are still children having nightmares because they have been told they are going to hell. There are adolescents becoming suicidal after being rejected by their fundamentalist families because of their sexual orientation. There are far too many Corrines out there, still struggling to make sense of a faith that denies both body and spirit.
Every religious group and every religious leader must ask one simple question of our faith and practice: does it harm or does it heal? With subtlety and excellence, the film “Higher Ground” asks us to think on these things.