Higher Ground chronicles one woman’s lifelong struggle over faith. In her directorial debut, Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Source Code) seeks to ask tough questions of faith and life but blurs the assessment of truth and experience. Vera Farmiga also stars as the central character, Corinne Miller, who grows up in a tight knit faith community in the late 1960s, depicting her childhood, teen marriage, tumultuous family life, church life, all through the lens of faith.
In an interview for the film, Farmiga says there are films for Christians and films which parody Christianity and that Higher Ground is a story that’s just actually about faith. This is true to an extent, but the film does so almost solely by pointing out the many things which trouble people, including Christians, about Christianity:
- Controversial things the Bible says about the place of women in church, how women ought to dress (somewhat humorously), and an oblique reference to Genesis
- Church activity and Christian behaviour that seems disconnected from experience
- The relationship between a good God and suffering
At the same time, Corinne seems to desire a genuine and honest experience of Christianity. One of the key emotional arcs of the film is the question of how one deals with disappointment and doubt, particularly in the face of disaster and devastating illness. What Christians say and do in these times can come across as trite and empty, when simply weeping with those who weep (Romans 12:15) might be a better approach.
Throughout the story, characters blame the devil for their behaviour, and quote Jesus statement to Peter to “Get behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23) when they fail. Ultimately, the devil does stand behind all sin, yet this statement comes across as an excuse for not taking responsibility for one’s behaviour. On one occasion, Corinne implies she needs repair, and other moments of repentance seem genuine though rare. The reality of sin and brokenness is clear however what we need is an honest way of dealing with it.
In this way, Higher Ground spends most of its time dealing with the experiences of people who claim faith in Jesus and not the person and work of Jesus himself – that he died for the sins of the world and was raised to life again on the third day (1 Corinthians 15). The question of Higher Ground is not whether these central claims are true, but whether the experience of church is true and meaningful. This connection between truth and experience is not drawn too tightly, but rather lopsidedly.
In addition to the previous issues, most church characters consistently use Bible references in ordinary speech. Consequently, the difference between the language of the church and those outside the church is palpable. Christians are called to love others, encourage one another in word and deed while being gracious (Colossians 4:5-6) and easy to understand (1 Corinthians 14). This could simply be an effect of communicating big ideas in 100 minutes, or the writing itself, but even as a Christian I was getting tired of the church-speak.
In the making-of documentary, Vera Farmiga shares her own lifelong struggle with faith, “to make it clear, make it real, to understand it like her father understands it.” In many ways, Corinne’s story is her story too. Making it clear and real are God’s priorities too, but too often we fail at that – at which point we ought to consider Jesus, who was not like us, but became like us in order to save us:
4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:4-8)
The Apostle Paul notes that this truth ought to shape how our relationships are lived out. The good news of Jesus is both the basis for salvation and the driver of loving relationships.
Farmiga concludes her comments on Higher Ground by saying that no matter our belief system, “we’ve all struggled with disenchantment…the point of the film is to ask the questions.” And to me, that’s always a good idea, as long as we are careful to distinguish faith’s experience and faith’s object.