The actress Vera Farmiga, whom you may know from Up in the Air or, possibly, the great guilty-pleasure of 2009, The Orphan, directed a movie called Higher Ground, which came out last year. It may or may not have pinged your radar; there was a decent press push, because actress-turned-director is a nice hook for journalists. But I don’t know anyone but I who saw the thing. You can join my tiny sister-and-brotherhood by renting it on iTunes or the like. You won’t be sorry.
Higher Ground is an adaptation of a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, entitled, rather less sunnily, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. The memoir recounts how Briggs, as a young mother, became a member of a radical Christian sect known as Fountains of Joy. In the movie, as in the book, the members of Fountains of Joy read more hippie than anything else. They are not the kind of brightly-dressed, McMansion-authoritarian proselytizers you see depicted on Big Love or in Saved! and Citizen Ruth. Most of the members of Corinne Walker’s (Farmiga) immediate congregation are there because they yearn to be a part of something larger. That longing is written all over the face of her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), even as he allows his newfound faith to interfere with his relationship with his wife. Their conflict, in large part, is about the strict gender hierarchy the sect maintains. But that’s not as simple a dramatization as you might think. In one scene the men of the sect find themselves in a room alone, listening to a tape that instructs on the use of the clitoris. The disembodied voice affirms the centrality of female pleasure to proper Christian sex.
“Not as simple as you might think” might well be this movie’s tagline. What I found remarkable about it was the willingness to engage seriously with the subject of evangelical Christianity. Perhaps I’m alone in this but I often feel there’s a void, right now, in writing and art, when it comes to the subject of religion. Too many of us are atheists, I suppose.
Which is fine, except that from the perspective of most of humanity, or at least the bits of it I keep encountering, faith is a profound and important experience. I worry I miss out on something when I don’t try to understand it. I don’t need to be converted by anyone and given my contrarian nature might actually be proselytization-proof. And neither am I sentimental — I know there are as many small and petty souls inside a service as outside it.
That said, I always thought we were in this writing game to understand other people. Like David Foster Wallace once told an interviewer: “I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.”
I found this interview with Farmiga at Christianity Today, admittedly not a publication I often leaf through. “I’m asking audience members that are not fundamental Christians to have a certain measure of tolerance, of openness and receptivity. And I’m saying, ‘Come and witness a story about a search for authentic faith.’” she said. “That search requires that we make a big leap into a world of uncertainty, and these are expressions of courage and strength rather than fear and weakness. That might not be easy to grasp.” The interviewer immediately follows up by saying that in fact many Christians are familiar with the concept of struggle, because for most of them, that is their experience of faith. I don’t know if Farmiga’s argument is so hard to grasp; what I think it might be is inaccessible unless we start telling better stories about religion. Like, you know, this one.