In an uncomfortably real cinematic experience, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, “Higher Ground,” confronts us with a classic religious tension: Having faith makes it difficult to understand doubt—and vice versa.
The film follows the bookish and free-spirited Corinne (played by the director and, in childhood scenes, her sister, Taissa Farmiga), who searches and struggles to find a confident faith. This religious quest begins as she and her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard and Boyd Holbrook, as the older and younger versions) narrowly escape bitter tragedy. Interpreting the good fortune as an instance of divine salvation, both feel drawn to a relationship with God as well as membership in a particularly strict community of American evangelicals. Corinne’s zeal for her church is neither full nor permanent, however, for her intellectual curiosity and candor lead her into continual questioning.
At first, this takes the shape of a desire for reasoned answers to tough religious questions. But after a close friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), suffers a brain tumor, rendering her incapacitated, Corinne’s friendly inquiry becomes desperate skepticism. Her husband and fellow church members do what they can to steer her back, but the gulf of understanding between them is difficult to bridge. Before long, she finds herself grappling with a desire to leave the church—and her family—for the more like-minded community she hopes exists.
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 doubt 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, such as the predilection for making observations or answering questions by quoting biblical passages. It also successfully dramatizes such in-house debates as 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.
Roughly speaking, this perspective is the reverse of Corrine’s own mindset, which mirrors a predicament presented in Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard’s narrator, John of the Silence, says he is rendered speechless by his desire to believe but inability to make such a “leap” of faith. In reaching out to her fellow congregants, Corinne likewise explains, “I need all of this to be real and I don’t know how to make it real.” She then looks at her pastor and says “I admire your faith; I really do.” The problem is that she does not know how to believe as they do. Their faith is opaque to her.
In an interview with Mathewes-Green, Farmiga explained that she sought to respect Corinne’s plight as a valid and understandable variety of religious experience: “I’m just showing a legitimate struggle—the struggle to find intimacy in our relationships with God. It takes an enormous amount of courage to say ‘I’m struggling’ and to find your voice. That honesty, the terror, the fear—it’s brutal, the admitting of that. But God is big enough to accommodate it.”
In a similar fashion, the filmmakers wanted to respect the faith of Corinne’s fellow church members, who represent a type not normally given the benefit of the doubt. As Carolyn Briggs, the screenwriter and author of the memoir on which the film was based, said to Jen Chaney of the Washington Post, “[Vera Farmiga and I] had the same goal of, ‘Let’s make Christians, let’s make believers three-dimensional….Let’s flesh them out. Because we both know and love Christians. So let’s do something that people [in Hollywood] don’t do very often.’”
The filmmakers remain faithful to Corrine’s doubt on the one hand and her church’s belief on the other. As a result, they avoid depicting Corrine as merely obstinate and the members of the church as merely childish or stupid. Instead, the film shows all parties genuinely struggling to grasp the other’s point of view on God and Christianity.
The problem with such a mutual misunderstanding—both in the movie and in real life—is that while believers and doubters both place a high value on being good to other people, of loving the neighbor, it is hard to love a neighbor who is hard to understand. The important contribution of “Higher Ground” is the way in which it responds to this dilemma: by showing that believers and doubters have something in common because they misunderstand each other in the same way.
Perhaps if they grasped this similarity, they would understand each other better and love each other more.