Women, Religion, and Film: Higher Ground Raises the Stakes

Watching Higher Ground, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut based on Carolyn Briggs’ memoir This Dark World, felt like catching a glimpse of a mythical creature I’d let myself imagine but never thought I’d see. But suddenly there it was, projected on a big screen: sophisticated and complex theological thinking, a female protagonist interested in ideas and books and God, a friendship between two women that has very little to do with men and everything to do with trusting your body and your mind, and the insidious nature of religiously sanctioned sexism and its devastating effects. 

Many critics have framed Higher Ground as capturing what it’s like to experience a crisis of faith, and the film does do that, brilliantly, effortlessly, but it does something else as well, something that strikes me as even bolder and more provocative. Higher Ground reveals a crisis of community, illuminating that people of faith often feel they have no place to go with their questions, especially if they are women, especially if they are part of institutions run by men, especially if they have subscribed to the notion that it is belief—not works, not acts, not love, not justice—that saves.

In Heaven, or Outside with the Dogs

Higher Ground makes clear that the logical consequence of structuring faith on belief is that there is very little room for doubt. Doubt is something to be overcome, silenced, ignored, prayed over, moved through—and if all else fails, it must be cast out.

I don’t want to give away the plot because I hope everyone will see this film, but I will describe one scene to illustrate what I mean. Corinne and her husband attend their first meeting with a Christian marriage counselor after Corinne’s husband chokes her in their station wagon during their son’s soccer game. The counselor asks Corinne’s husband to leave the room, and once they are alone, the counselor tells Corinne that God is speaking to him and that she needs to repent. The trouble in the marriage is her fault, a result of straying from the faith. She has a choice, he says. She can be in heaven with him or on the outside with the dogs. Not only are her marriage and where she will spend eternity at stake, he says, but her very survival hangs in the balance.

To illustrate his point and to make his threat more vivid, the counselor tells Corinne about seeing a politician in McDonald’s, a man the counselor knew was having an affair. The counselor duly rebuked him, he recounts, but the man’s eyes remained cold, his heart unrepentant. On his way home, that same man skidded in his car off the road and died. The counselor’s message to Corinne is clear, and is a reversal of the reality Corinne faces living with a man who tried to choke her: believe in God, obey your husband, or you will die a terrible death.

Higher Ground is one of the best representations of religiously sanctioned sexism I have ever seen in film. Corinne’s thinking, behavior, and clothing are disciplined throughout the film—by her parents, by her husband, by her minister, by the counselor, and by other women in the congregation who silence her and tell her the dress she wears is too revealing (never mind that it is a floor-length billowing maternity dress). Submission to God and submission to men are the same in Corinne’s community.

A Refusal to Submit

Though Corinne is seen by her community (and by herself) as experiencing a crisis of faith, I don’t think that is exactly right. Corinne is not rebelling against God but against institutional structures that have silenced her, marginalized her, and trained her to be afraid of her own mind. She is labeled a troublemaker—a doubter—exactly at moments in which she is engaged in explicitly religious and faith-filled acts: when she prays with other women, when she speaks up in church, when she interprets religious texts, when her friend speaks in tongues, when she talks to God. Her expressions of faith, however, are not welcome in public spaces. She is only allowed to believe in private, in small, circumscribed spaces, locked in her bathroom, alone in her car, washing dishes in the kitchen, folding laundry in the bedroom.

When faith is cast as submitting to God and to the men who claim to speak for God, then any kind of independence, any kind of questioning, any kind of female authority, must be shut down, shut up, shut out. What critics have called Corinne’s crisis of faith is really her refusal to submit.

Higher Ground displays the insidious power of the sexism that says it’s the work of the devil to question patriarchal faith. It’s precisely when Corinne attempts to find her own voice that her husband chokes her and other men call her selfish and self-serving, accusing her of “worshipping at the altar of [her]self.” This is one of sexism’s dirtiest little tricks—dismissing feminist liberation as selfish, self-centered navel gazing—and it is a devastating, life-threatening reversal.

The community’s disciplining response to Corinne in the film resonates with me in part because I have received similar feedback about my own recently published memoir, Breaking Up with God. Reviewers have called me self-centered, selfish, arrogant, depressed, and hysterical. One man went so far as to suggest my book needed more silence in it (just how one does that in a book remains a mystery to me). I have had to remind myself continuously that this is exactly what happens when women write about religion, critique Christianity, dare to think for themselves, and tell their own stories. Women are pathologized when they dare to speak about sexism’s effects.  

The Female Gaze

Some of my favorite moments in the film are scenes when Corinne is with her best friend Annika who is a study in contradictions: an extremely faithful woman who speaks in tongues, draws pictures of her husband’s penis to keep things spicy in the bedroom, flirts with a police officer to get out of a ticket, and tells Corinne to trust her body, that it will tell her what she needs. The film is unexpectedly funny, and much of the humor happens when the two women are together.

It is rare to see a film that presents friendship between women as a powerful source of laughter, resistance, knowledge, and love. So many of the films I see in theaters are written by men for men and ask the audience to assume a male gaze. Higher Ground felt like a relief to me, and it seemed to be a relief to everyone else in the theater, too. People laughed out loud. They cried. They sang. One man even talked back to the screen. After Corinne’s husband chokes her, Corinne flees from the car, and her husband is left alone praying to God to save him from the devil that was in the car.

One man sitting in my row shouted “The devil’s still in there!”—and he was talking about Corinne’s husband.     

It is no surprise that Higher Ground was first a book, because the film is a love letter to books and, more importantly, to libraries. It is a reminder about books’ liberative power and a call to make sure all people have access to them. The movie made me aware in a new way of what we stand to lose in the digitization of books. What might seem like a democraticization of information could also easily lead to its disappearance. It is in libraries that Corinne discovers what she needs to free herself from a system of belief that is violent, both as a child and later as an adult.

Corrine is an avid reader as a child, and when she returns to books as an adult, she opens one in the library and breathes in its scent as if her salvation is in those pages, and, indeed, it is.   

I loved this film. I sat in the theater until the credits were finished and the lights turned on and people came in to clean the theater, and then I plotted when I could see it again.

Part of the genius of Higher Ground is that it is never clear if Corinne loses her faith. Whether Corinne believes in God at the end of the film is not, I think, even the point. What is clear, however, is that she questions her faith—questions the institutional church as she knows it, questions God, questions belief, questions patriarchy, questions the life in which she finds herself.

The film ends with a reminder about the unpronounceable, unspeakable name of G-d, and it is the screenwriter’s subtle choice to let the status of Corinne’s faith remain a mystery—to let God remain a mystery—that empowers the film as a feminist testament to the costs of sexism in religious institutions. When there is no room in religious institutions for women’s questions and spiritual authority, there is no room for people like Corinne.