Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, the film "Higher Ground," has been winning praise from...some quarters. Bryan McCarthy, a candidate for a D.Phil in theology at Oxford, looks at how difficult it is for various kinds of reviewers to "get" this story of a free-spirited evangelical woman's struggle to find a "confident" faith. First, though, a confession from the reviewer:
A confession is in order: Growing up with a Southern Baptist mother and a Roman Catholic father, I had fairly heavy exposure to American evangelical culture. Later, as an adult, I spent about five years exclusively identifying with the evangelical tradition and then another five years as a kind of non-devotional, theistic skeptic before returning to Catholicism. I therefore came to “Higher Ground” having much in common with its protagonist as well as a host of questions: Would the film present evangelicals fairly and authentically? Would it only show the worst aspects of their faith, or would it show the best as well? Would Corrine’s struggles receive a sufficiently rich portrayal, or would the reasons for her conviction be cartoonish?
Judging from the reviews in evangelical publications, the community’s response to the film has been mixed. One area of consensus, though, is that it accurately depicts a good—if extreme—fellowship of American evangelical devotees. In particular, the film captures some finer points of the tradition’s culture: the predilection for making observations or answering questions by quoting biblical passages; the in-house debates over the validity of speaking in tongues; the possibility of demons possessing the faithful; and whether women should teach in church. And the jargon is perfect every time.
The evangelical reviewers differ, however, in their evaluation of Corinne and the filmmakers who present her. Some reviewers, like Frederica Mathewes-Green at Christianity Today, are sympathetic. For them, Corinne provides a portrait of what it is like to doubt amid so much faith; the film gives churchgoers the breathing room to admit it is not always easy to believe. In such a light, Farmiga and company deserve praise for telling an authentic story about the human condition as it relates to faith.
Other reviewers, though, are more critical. The reviewing team at Movieguide.com, for example, titled their commentary “Wrestling with Faith in a Silly and Annoying Way.” In their estimation, the film’s positive depictions of Christianity are nevertheless “undercut by the female protagonist’s confused, antinomian, antagonistic, sometimes sarcastic, and overly emotional attitude toward Christian faith and other believers.” They conclude it’s almost “as if the filmmakers are afraid of allowing their movie to make any completely positive statement about Christianity or the Bible.”
These comments are revealing. They show how difficult it is to understand doubt from the perspective of belief. In faith, certain things are simple: It is this way and not that; why would it be otherwise? Consequently, when faith comes easily, doubt does not; it is difficult for the believer to relate to the struggles of those who lack such confidence. In “Higher Ground,” this tension plays out in the responses to Corinne’s journey through the “wilderness”: her friends and family react with worry, criticism or, more basically, confusion. They simply do not understand why she is having trouble. Similarly, the Movieguide.com reviewers attribute Corinne’s doubt to having “only a little knowledge of or reliance on Scripture, despite being in a church for more than a decade.” While these comments are more acerbic than the response of the churchgoers in the film, the underlying point is the same: Corinne’s doubt is opaque to these believers.
James Martin, SJ