Higher Ground (not exactly a film review)

So, Ellen, Aram, Ted and Phyllis went to see the indy film Higher Ground last night.

It is one of those films that leaves you wide eyed and blinking. I doubt it will have this effect on everyone but if you were part of a conservative evangelical movement or church during the 70’s you may feel as though the filmmakers had planted a camera in your head.

I think each of us felt as if we were watching our former lives on display. We were quickly submerged in the muted colors, fussy wallpapers, and the kind of furniture and dishes that looked like the innards of every house church we had ever been in. We were engulfed by 70’s hair, modest bib dresses on women, strumming guitars and reverent shutter-eyed singing. There were kumbayas and murmured praises, corrective scripture verses always at the ready, memories of good feelings that came from real concern as well as the tightly measured pressure of towing the line. And as was so often true, pain is passed over in an almost zombie like fashion. I felt gripped, as if I were watching a train wreck happening in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. I had to remind myself to breathe. I think Phyllis needed some EMDR.

The film follows the life of Corinne, a woman who “finds the Lord” and becomes part of a small church community. She faithfully learns their ways, learns the scriptures and learns how not to make a brother stumble by dressing immodestly. She is instructed to stifle her voice when accused of “almost preaching” when sharing her take on scripture in a meeting because that’s not a woman’s place. She learns to accept and obey what she is told in order to receive the blessings of God. Corinne is truly sincere in her belief, doing her very best to comply.

Her haunted eyes belied the smile on her lips. I could feel her loneliness. She had no context to understand what was happening inside of her. She loved literature and beauty, things seemingly disconnected and far flung from her faith life. She was married to a man who was faithful but who could not perceive the depth of her mind and heart (nor his own, as one angry scene reveals). Of course, Corinne doesn’t fully understand them herself. She struggles with her rapidly fleeting romantic feelings towards her husband and turns her face away when he tries to kiss her. He responds, “Try not to.” Everything is a matter of will. We watch the unraveling of the faith of a woman who truly believes, yet cannot find a faith that goes deep enough to encompass her whole soul.

The breaking point for Corinne seemed to come with the loss of her friend Annika, who changed drastically after brain surgery. Annika was the one person in her life who brought passion and humor. She was overtly sexual in a way that would probably be uncomfortable for most of those churchgoers, yet she was never crass or violating. She was always far more likely to value a person over the rules. She was funny and also strangely at peace with her life in this group. The community prayed fervently as she underwent surgery for a malignant brain tumor. They hailed her survival as a miracle from God.

Afterwards, Annika’s husband dutifully brings her gnarled and vacant body to church, praising the Lord and never hinting that he might miss the true and vibrant person she once was. In contrast, Corinne’s grief for her friend was achingly palpable. I had to wonder if she was also seeing a reflection of her own soul– faithful and dutiful on the outside, locked up and shriveled on the inside. I have often felt as though I was an Annika in church at times. I was grateful for the care of church community, yet there was something in me screaming to get out and stretch and I had no way to make them hear.

The film is kind to this little band. They are portrayed and genuinely sweet and sincere people who believe they have the presence and blessing of God and that they are living according to his will. I appreciated the lack of derision and cynicism towards them. I know Christians like them, heck, I was a Christian like them and I know we could be as annoying as hell. But the filmmakers see that they truly seek to bless and not do harm. Even so, looking at them all these years later I have to wonder what was the point of it all. At the end of the film, we see the exterior shot of the same church that Corinne attended in her childhood. It gives the sense that their little band is stuck, frozen in time. Their faith keeps their lives tidy, painting over pain and loss, holding out hope for heaven. Even as Corinne shares her painful confusion and leaves her husband and the church, they turn away. They are not unkind, they simply cannot process what is happening. They go back to what they know. It’s as though they are trying to avoid being fully human.

I have to wonder if the struggles faced by churches today has to do with this very thing. Church provides truths, doctrines, rules and yes, community. Even those who have come from churches that have damaged them can remember some stories of extraordinary kindnesses and love. But “church” has forgotten the deeper human journey. We have forgotten that our purpose is not to answer the questions or avoid the pain of the unanswerable ones. Our call is to live the questions, making space for our souls to expand and take in deeper breaths of life. The “church” is not meant to make enclaves for pleasant living but to walk with each other across thresholds of doubt and pain, trusting that even as our questions take us away from what is comfortable and sure that there is Something More to be found even (or perhaps especially) beyond our borders. We are meant to see the gift in all of the Corinnes and the Annikas, sent to keep us awake and alive, and to create hearts big enough for real faith to be born. We need to be courageous enough to let people grow past our visions of what they should be. And may we all be changed by them too.

Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. And try to love the questions themselves.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke

 Quote borrowed from the Director’s statement found here.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Marta Layton

    If nothing else, this review proves to me that you need to blog more often. Your posts are always thought-provoking, but they also provide me with a model as often as not – a view of a God-daughter that I want to be more like, though of course in my own way.

    Regarding the specifics of this review, I have not seen the movie but now intend to. Though I wasn’t even born in the 70s, so much of this reminds me of my own experience with Protestantism in the ’90s. It’s sad how so little has changed, but your thoughts on the movie make it seem like a reflection of that subculture well worth the time to watch it.

    • ellenharoutunian

      Thanks for your kind words, Marta. Please share what you think of the film when you see it!

  • Carie

    ah, Ellen, thanks for sharing this potent story. You know not many indy films make it into our neck of the woods but this I will try to find. As you describe, it is too, TOO familiar. In a very sad way. My (our) hope is that we can have a tiny part in helping others discover the ” faith that goes deep enough to encompass her whole soul..” because, otherwise, we may be trapped with a very small God. Aren’t we all seeking a God who is big enough to handle a whole, ALIVE soul… and that’s the God we long to share with a hurting world.

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