The Critical Take on 'Higher Ground'

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, 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 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.

Read the rest here.

James Martin, SJ


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7 years 5 months ago
Let's play a little game here with respect to Doubt and faith.

Man-made Global warming: true or false? Are we allowed to doubt the scientists and politicians who invariably claim only more socialism, government regulation can save us or not? Many are calling any who doubt "deniers", heretics, and calling for them to be shouted down if not forcibly removed from civic, political and policy positions of influence.

Human sexual morality from a secular view point: are we ever allowed to doubt the secular take on contraception, abortion, fornication, and ever changing "lifestyles" or must we take it on rigid faith that whatever the Church says is wrong, but secularism is invariably right AND "human rights" mean what the secular world says they mean?

Remember - when the sexual revolution hit, "science" was always invoked to "show" how religion was wrong or at least highly doubtful. Yet since when have the revolutionaries shown themselves capable of self-doubt when it comes to pushing any envelope with respect to sexual licenses?

Government by experts and bureaucratic means: are we ever allowed to doubt the wisdom of the 'experts' and regulatory agencies....or must we just believe that the solution to every local, national and global disorder is more power to fewer experts?

I'm one of those people who like goose/gander to at least be operating with the same principle. If existential doubt is to be cultivated as a bonus to grow in faith... why does it seem notably absent in most other walks of life that also involve believing something is so without conclusive proof?
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 5 months ago
I really don't know how global warming got into this but here we go again.  The scientists are supposed to do science.  They really don't do science to promote an agenda, they do it to find out what is going on physically here.  Scientists have political views or not and those views are probably all over the place.  They are mostly concerned that they don't publish something that will make them look like an ass in front of their peers, or their peers a hundred years from now.  The idea that scientists or any subgroup are trying to push some political agenda is based on a frightening lack of knowledge about science and scientists.  The question, is man made global warming happening or not?  All the evidence presently shows it is. I will again provide a link to the American Institute of Physics website on the history of the atmospheric carbon dioxide question, its ups and downs.

These guys were looking at this question to figure out why ice ages began and ended.  They weren't even thinking in the least about politics.  It has no more to do with politics than 5+3=8.  If a Republican told you 5+3=9, would you believe him?  If a Democrat told you 5+3=8, would you not?

Of course, now, what do you do based on this knowledge? What's important to you?  If the American public wants to have a big carbon party until the climate goes to hell, fine.  But don't tell me that A doesn't lead to B,  that everything will be all right, that there's no hangover the morning after.  I cannot keep my head in the tar sands and I won't let anybody else, either.

And what is conclusive proof?  There's a weight and body of evidence and a coherent explanation of the data.  That's all you're ever going to get in this type of science.  I guess the conclusive proof will be when there's a big die off of people at the end of the century.

I'm sorry.  I cannot take any person or group of people seriously who doesn't take science seriously. I think there's more to existence than can be covered by science, but science has its territory and the question of man made global warming is definitely in it.
Bill Collier
7 years 5 months ago
I haven't seen the film, but as I was reading the review I was also thinking of Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling," not only his phrase "leap of faith" but also his "absurdity of faith," which most people unfamiliar with this insightful philosopher misconstrue as a pejorative branding of Christianity, when in fact Kierkegaard meant anything but. If faith is a struggle and a paradox, which Kierkegaard strongly believed was true on multiple levels, then doubt and faith are not polar extremes. Capturing the richness of Kierkegaard's thoughts about faith in a movie might be an impossible task, but perhaps it is enough in our secular age that there is a film not afraid to address the issue of belief in a respectful manner. I look forward to seeing the film.
7 years 5 months ago
With respect to "climate" science, we know that in the past 1 million years there have been 3 ice ages and 3 inter-glacial periods.

We don't know - but have a lot of theories - as to why these cycles of cold and warmth have occurred repeatedly.

One theory floated only since the 1980s was that the current minor uptick in temperatures is caused by mankind's industrial output. But that doesn't explain the other inter-glacial periods!

Science ought to be about evidence, not fancy computer models based on data that researchers REFUSE to share. U of East Anglia anyone?

But back to my point.... we are told that Christians who have doubt about their faith are more sincere, more genuine, and more mature than those Christians who have no doubts....and yet when it comes to A THEORY that mankind is alone the cause of modern day warming (yet to be conclusively proven and yet to be proven that we're the primary engine), we're told that we shall not have any doubt but believe!

So which is is? Ought we be mature enough to handle doubt and doubters when it comes to faith and science or are we to doubt Christianity but become dogmatic about 'science'?

Finally, would you turn off your brain when it comes to religion and let the 'experts' worry about it like you suggest we 'mere' mortals do with respect to "scientists"?
7 years 5 months ago
OK fair enough.

So let's explore the role of doubt in the life of religious who are liberal/progressive.

Not doubt in terms of their doubting traditional Catholicism but their experience of doubting their novel interpretations and initiatives. That's what we've been told is utterly normal. A sign of adulthood and maturity.

But the movie raises a very important question about doubt and faith per se, which if we keep to the stereotype of this only and always being a one-way street from tradition to whatever is 'new' we'll miss.

It would be much more interesting and useful to explore the unconventional area of where we see evidence that liberal/progressive Catholics second-guess themselves and their actions, habits, initiatives..... as they would have conservative/traditional Catholics second-guess virtually every aspect of "pre-Vatican II" Catholic praxis and doxis?

Does it happen?

I have read editorials where people muse outloud about whether they've been radical enough.... but almost never a peep about self-doubt as to whether being radical at all is warranted!

Did the first or second generation Lutherans or Anglicans have misgivings about abandoning Catholicism or not? What about first or second generation Masons, Marxists, or materialists? Ever a doubt or never a doubt?

Conservative Catholics have to be counter-cultural almost all the time - so it's a conscious, constant fact of life to deal with opposition. They don't swim in a sea of affirmation, so doubt and faith are daily occurances. But what about those who are liberal, in a liberal city, who only read liberal sources, whose entire world view is supported by pop culture, movies, music, powerful politicians, and their local social milieu? Do they regularly deal with doubt about their dogmas?

If so, then the movie would help us all meet at a common frontier of human experience. If not, and liberals never doubt liberalism and reject conservatives out of hand "just because" as completely "other" and foreign.... might they not have a blind spot that needs illumination?

Vince Killoran
7 years 5 months ago
"What about those who are liberal, in a liberal city, who only read liberal sources, whose entire world view is supported by pop culture, movies, music, powerful politicians, and their local social milieu? Do they regularly deal with doubt about their dogmas?"

I'm not certain this is an accurate characterization of a "liberal Catholic" or  their milieu.  I've never taken even a dip in a "sea of affirmation" and certainly not in my current parish or diocese. Ditto for our society in which the death penalty, environmental degradation, and economic injustice reign.

We're a church of doubters, whether it be Thomas Merton or Mother Theresa or the people sitting next to us in the pews.  The issue of how people encounter their doubt and address it is an important one in telling us more about our faith but I wouldn't place it in a conservative-liberal binary opposite.

Thanks Bill for your discussion of Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling."
7 years 5 months ago
I wouldn't say that liberals dealing with far off states' capital punishments, environmental 'degradation' and poverty to be liberals struggling with doubt. Those are their hot button issues, not challenges to their faith or beliefs.

By challenges to doubt one's belief system I mean subtle or overt calls on them to question their premises. Just as in the movie the protagonist is shown questioning the very fundamental premises of Christianity in favor of secularism.

For example, how many "progressive" Catholics ever question their own economic theory or what constitutes "progress" in the first place? Just as Conservatives are challenged on their belief in the goodness of certain moral doctrines, are liberals routinely socially and personally challenged to question their presumption that the secular world is right about sex?

I used man-made global warming only as an example but others abound that are taken for granted as true - and backed up by our American pop culture as a given - despite lots of evidence to the contrary. Take racism and who does most of it for example. It's a bed rock liberal dogma that conservatives are racist.

But if you define racism as treating people differently based on their race.... the evidence overwhelmingly points to liberals being racists, not conservatives. So do liberals ever doubt themselves on this point or not?

If I am called on to entertain doubt about my faith - and told that such doubts are natural and OK and help strengthen me....I'm genuinely curious to know if others also accept and grapple with similar doubts about THEIR CORE beliefs being correct.

Your examples of liberals faced with capital punishment, pollution and poverty (which they can explain away as the fault of conservatives...) don't fit the bill. But if they doubted that man is at fault for global warming, or whether poverty is caused by capitalism or socialism, or whether the sexual revolution was good for women and children... then I'd be impressed.
Vince Killoran
7 years 5 months ago
Sure, my sense is that Catholics of all types grapple with their faith and deeply held beliefs. 

Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
It sounds like an interesting movie. I seldom go go movies, but might seek out this one, and also The Way (about the Camino) which is opening soon.

John Lyons wrote: ''What about those who are liberal, in a liberal city, who only read liberal sources, whose entire world view is supported by pop culture, movies, music, powerful politicians, and their local social milieu? Do they regularly deal with doubt about their dogmas''. First of all, you make some rather sweeping assumptions about ''liberals'' here. Few swim in a ''sea of affirmation'', whatever that is, and few are strictly ''liberal'' or ''conservative'' across the board.

 I assume you are referring here to non-religious dogmas. To answer, as a ''liberal'' Catholic. Certainly - I question most of my beliefs, religious and non-religious - all the time in fact. Some current issues cause me great angst (such as immigration policy) and I spend a lot of time studying, reading widely from different points of view, reflecting and then making decisions if need be (for voting etc).

So, how does my ''mileu'' impact my views and beliefs?

Let's start with popular culture. I can literally count on one hand the number of movies I have gone to see in the last 15 years (The handful of movies I have seen in a movie theatre include Jurassic Park, and the Taming of the Shrew. Don't ask). Does that make me captive to liberal Hollywood and its movies?  Occasionally we watch a DVD at home, often old favorites - PBS's Pride and Prejudice, a movie I loved called Enchanted AprilApollo 13 for my husband, etc. We just enjoyed Fiddler on the Roof again also.  Recently we actually bought a couple of DVDs - the stage version of Les Miserables, and Mamma Mia.  Does my choice of movies make me a liberal or a conservative? Les Mis tells one of the most powerful stories ever written about God's love and how it is the source of all the love we have in our lives. It describes God's mercy, forgiveness, and highlights the tragedy of those who simply cannot accept God's love and mercy. I still cry when I see it.  Mamma Mia's plot involves making light of the fact that the main character does not know who among three men fathered her daughter. But, I challenge anyone to watch that movie and not walk away feeling good. But, I suppose some would be so horrified at the premise and some of the mildly risque humor that the sheer fun of the movie would not get through.  Do only conservatives like Les Mis? And only liberals like Mamma Mia?  Does my taste in movies make me a liberal or a conservative?

People are very complex, and they often hold a range of views that might vary from ''conservative'' to ''liberal'' depending on the subject.  Very often they question and doubt and reassess those views. Those who have read my prior posts know that I am a ''liberal'' Catholic who is thinking about joining the Episcopal church formally. I was once a very ''conservative'' Catholic. My entire family was raised as very conservative Catholics and very conservative Republicans. Of the five of my generation, there is one conservative Catholic, one liberal Catholic and three no-longer-Catholics. I may bcome the fourth no-longer-Catholic - in my 60s (my sibs left in their 20s). I am the only one who is no longer Republican (and conservative Republican at that. They all held to that particular creed).  My religious views have evolved over my lifetime, as have others of my views. I was also once a stalwart conservative Republican.  After a while, though, I re-registered as an Independent. The strongest influence on my changing political views was the post Vatican II church. Now, I strongly disagree with the Republican party on many issues and I also strongly disagree with the Democratic party on many issues.  Does that make me a liberal or a conservative?  I live in the suburbs, not a city. Am I a liberal or a conservative?  I read the Washington Post regularly, and I also sometimes read the Washington Times. Does that make me a liberal or a conservative?  I listen to classical music, 60s folk music, the Beatles and others of that era, Gregorian chant, contemporary artists such as Enya, some Native American music (I love the Native American pipes and flutes), the scores from Andrew Lloyd Webber, Les Mis, and Mamma Mia. Does my taste in music make me a conservative or a liberal?

Currently (and since I do regularly question my views, I strugle with many doubts), I am fairly conservative politically when it comes to fiscal policy, but I am progressive on social justice. This combination of beliefs sometimes presents difficulties when choosing how to vote. Unfortunately, compromise and the middle way seem to have disappeared from American politics for the moment. I am totally against the death penalty, and although I hate war, I also believe that a strong national defense is important, given the realities of our sad world.  Am I a liberal or a conservative?  I do not think the evidence related to climate change is strong enough currently to support devoting billions of dollars to ''solving'' a problem that may not actually present a real threat.  If someday that evidence is available, perhaps I would support diverting very scarce resources (money) to the problem. Right now there are far more compelling needs that should be addressed and the economic realities are such that I think the money can currently be better spent elsewhere to alleviate  immediate human suffering. We have to make choices in allocating scarce resources.  Am I a liberal or a conservative?

I do not think that Catholics have a ''right'' to impose their views on the rest of the country. I certainly would not like Islamic politicians, or Christian Scientists or any other religous politicians at any level to attempt to impose Sharia law or their beliefs about medicine etc on the country, and we owe others the same respect. I think that some bishops' almost sacrilegious attempts to use the eucharist as a weapon to try to control politicians and their attempts  to control how Catholics vote are wrong. I also think that the rights of Catholics in regard to requiring mandatory insurance coverage for birth control should not be trampled on even though I personally look at modern birth control methods as a gift from God. But, I do not agree with forcing the Catholic church to provide birth control coverage. There are limits to religious rights however - Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witneses have both had to respect various laws that go against some of their religious beliefs.

John, am I a liberal or a conservative?

Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
P.S. to John. I want to clarify what I said about the post-Vat II church being the primary influence on my changing views. This influence was felt especially on what we might call political views. Political issues often have a moral content, as I'm sure you agree.  I grew up in the pre-Vatican II church where serious ''sins'' included such nonsense as eating meat on Friday. We girls pinned kleenexes on our hair if we forgot a mantilla  because girls were forbidden in church without a head covering.  Ludicrous, but we never questioned it as ''good'' pious Catholic children. 

Vatican II opened me up to understanding that as an adult Christian I had a moral responsibility to inform and follow my conscience.  Primacy of conscience was not much mentioned before Vatican II.  I also never heard a word about social justice issues, until after Vatican II, as a young adult. I learned to re-examine political issues in terms of what Jesus taught. This presents enormous challenges as you know.  And so we all must doubt, must question, and we must follow our consciences as best we can.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
"are liberals routinely socially and personally challenged to question their presumption that the secular world is right about sex?"

Absolutely.  Just yesterday this is what I wrote in my journal:

Yesterday (or last night) I was thinking of abortion again.  How the abortion is not just a violence toward the baby, but, and even more so, it is a violence against the person choosing to have the abortion.  Because the person choosing the abortion is put outside the flow of grace.

“put yourself where grace can flow to you” -lax

the mystery and gift of life is contorted when abortion is chosen.  It interrupts the free flowing gift of life/grace.  because of the choice.

i can see where contraception would interrupt as well.  it presumes a power that one does not have.  it puts a barrier down.
and the sacredness of the act of sex becomes not an act of cooperation with grace and life, but outside of that realm.

And I am a VERY LIBERAL CATHOLIC!  I'm not saying that I've come to any absolute conclusions with my journaling, but to question whether or not I'm challenged is way off the mark.

Methinks, Mr. Lyons, that you have presumptions about people who identify themselves as liberal/progressive that are not true. 
Bill Collier
7 years 5 months ago
I think Norman's Law needs amending. The time period in its present codification needs to be cut in half.

I don't know if anyone else is getting tired of the easy bandying about of "liberal," "conservative," "progressive," "traditionalists," etc. These pigeonhole terms serve little useful purpose IMO. Brand one on somebody and you can then easily dismiss all of his or her views. People are much more complicated than the bumper sticker someone else slaps on us, as Anne Chapman demonstrated in her philosophical/political/religious autobiography above. (Just kidding, Anne :)).     
Anne Chapman
7 years 5 months ago
Bill, at least you got the real point of my "autobiography".  ;)


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