Bad Influences: Higher Ground

“Bad Influences” is a segment in which the author pays tribute to the people and texts that contributed in specific and memorable ways to the decline of her Christian faith--or, depending on how one looks at it, the burgeoning of her authentic self. As you’ve probably figured out, the title is somewhat ironic.

    Vera Farmiga, one of my favorite actresses, had her directorial debut in 2011 with the film Higher Ground. The movie, based on the memoir This Dark World by Carolyn S. Briggs (which was later re-titled "Higher Ground", as well) legitimately changed my life.

    I would not have even watched it, perhaps ever, were it not for the coincidence of a friend of my then-boyfriend lending my then-boyfriend a screener of the film. I had seen trailers for the movie here and there, and was interested in it in so far as it starred Ms. Farmiga and appeared to be the kind of contemplative indie flick I’d be into. Little did I know, though, that over the course of the hour and forty-five minutes that it took to watch this seemingly ordinary, small-scale film, I would experience a inconspicuous but significant awakening.

    The journey of the movie’s main character (played by Farmiga and inspired by Ms. Briggs’ actual experiences) is very different than mine, but similar in the ways that ended up counting. She survives a tumultuous and unhealthy family life as a child, only to get pregnant and married quite young (in that order.) A near-death experience brings her and her husband to a small rural church of the charismatic variety, and they soon find themselves deeply, happily enmeshed in the fold.

    Time passes, as it does, and the young couple grow up. Their modest, insular congregation constitutes all of their primary relationships, with the most primary relationship of all being their relationship to God. Unfortunately, despite their strict adherence to doctrine and their great faith in God’s favor being upon them, the main characters’ lives are not immune from misfortune. Slowly but surely, Farmiga’s character begins to question the veracity of her church’s teachings. And ultimately, (spoiler alert) though it costs her a family and causes her to be shamed, she walks away.

    The first thing that proved to be a revelation to me from this movie was the idea that one could actually choose to walk away--that despite having been sincerely involved in a particular religion and dedicated to the cause for years and years, one could cut one’s losses while also maintaining dignity, and find fulfillment and satisfaction outside of the church.

    In addition, and perhaps even more helpful to me, was the idea that one could do so without anger or bitterness. Of course I had known people--many people--who were raised in a religious environment as children and who, at some point, for one reason or another, severed their connection to Christianity rather acrimoniously. I did not feel that way. Sure, there are things that I was taught in church that I now think did me more harm than good. But I also had a lot of fun in youth group, and learned how to be introspective, and ethically-minded, and to seek intimacy in all kinds of relationships. These are things that a person can certainly learn outside of a religious environment; personally, I got them at church. Christianity was such a part of who I was--voluntarily and earnestly--that I did not feel comfortable resenting it. In a way, it would be like holding a grudge against myself. Yet I did not have any examples of a graceful, grateful departure. Thankfully, Briggs (and Farmiga) provided such a story.

    I would recommend Higher Ground to just about anyone based simply on the fact that it is a well-made movie. But beyond that, I am confident that it also plays a very important role as a source of hope for those who have no hatred in their heart for the place they came from, but who feel ready to move on to bigger ideas and a more holistic worldview. I know it was for me.