Five years ago, I wrote this piece based on the wonderful movie “Higher Ground.” It still rings true for me now that I’m 60 and leaning into Easter.
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This post is part movie review and part memoir of a winter Christian.
Higher Ground stars and is directed by Vera Farmiga. It follows the faith journey of Corinne Briggs—first as a child “asking Jesus into her heart” when the pastor tells the children that Jesus is polite, waiting to be invited into their lives; then as a young mother thrust back into belief when she, her husband, and their child are delivered from near drowning; and finally as a woman who lives in the middle of a fundamentalist group of self-proclaimed “Jesus freaks.”
This film avoids the easy road of turning all the Christians into hypocrites and judgmental clowns. They are three-dimensional people of faith, seeking to live in deep community. They are held together by lives of constant Bible study and prayer. They turn to God’s word for “answers” on everything—including the hilarious scene where the men gather in a circle to listen to seven cassette tapes on sex by some well-known Christian sex expert. (Yes, such tapes exist! I was forced to listen to them when I was an engaged student in college.)
Corinne wants desperately to share the easy faith and confidence of her husband, Ethan. She would love to believe that every prayer is answered, that every verse of scripture is literally true. She even begs God for the gift of tongues as a kind of confirmation, though it’s not endorsed by most in their community.
But in trying to survive in this fundamentalism, she keeps finding parts of her life that must be shut out—her love for literature, music, and creation. When her best friend is diagnosed with brain cancer and is left dramatically altered by surgery, she finds herself unable to just jump in and be thankful for God’s answer.
Following the surgery, the pastor leads the congregation in “It Is Well With My Soul.” At that point, you see Corinne joining in lifelessly at the chorus. You realize she can’t remain in this place. Not all is well with her soul.
A fundamentalist therapist tells her that she’s in danger of going to hell where her flesh will be whipped and ripped. He tells her that she must decide whether she’ll be inside with Jesus or outside with the dogs.
Corinne returns to her church building. Inside she sees all the signs of religious confidence; then as she walks outside dogs begin to gather around her. She realizes that her place is on the outside, without hating those on the inside.
As a winter Christian, my life has been dogged by doubts and questions. I tried many times to be a good fundamentalist. Six literal days of creation? Check. Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch? Check. God’s answer to every prayer? Check. I memorized large chunks of scripture and spent (literally) an hour a day in prayer. I listened to the sermons on the eternal, conscious torments of hell (a renewed favorite theme within Christian fundamentalism).
But, alas, there were gaps in the armor of faith. Some were caused by reading outside my protected circle. Some by over-thinking. (I’m always guilty of this.) But some just by life.
During my years as a minister, I constantly felt the disappointment of some who wanted more confidence. They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery. They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it. They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus). They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith. They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.
It may sound like I think I’m really more spiritual than others. I don’t. I’m a winter Christian. I love and desperately need my fellow summer believers. I’m drawn by their answers, their confidence, their optimism.
But at age 55, I’m thankful for this faith that has survived. Doubt-filled, less-than-confident faith. I’ve given up thinking that if I just try harder I’ll have the assurance others seem to have.
I will groan, long, wait, and hope. For I’m a believer in the resurrection of Jesus.
My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay
Tho’ some may dwell where these abound
My prayer, my aim is higher ground.