Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the third in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades and national cinemas.
Higher Ground is based on a 2002 memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also co-wrote the screenplay; a memoir, according to the book’s subtitle, of “Faith Found and Lost.” The book was republished as Higher Ground in order to coincide with the release of the film, but it was originally titled This Dark World. Although the book details the author’s experiences within the world of fundamentalist Christianity, this is not the world referred to by the title. Rather, the author explains, the title is referring to the whole world, a world that is in need of redemption, and it is meant to evoke her own struggles and search for redemption. The phrase comes from Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world [...]” (NIV).
The new title, by contrast, is an allusion to the 1898 hymn, which plays over the end credits. The song’s second verse is perhaps the most relevant to the film’s story: “My heart has no desire to stay/Where doubts arise and fears dismay;/Though some may dwell where these abound,/My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.” The search for a spiritual “higher ground” is the film’s primary theme. In the final scene, the main character, Corinne Walker, stands before the congregation she left and delivers an impromptu sermon which begins:
He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own. What more can anyone want, right? Taking a stroll with God in the garden. Having a chat with the creator of the universe. Asking Him questions, and getting the answers. I mean, you couldn’t be any more safe or secure. There’s no higher ground.
This is the security she craves, but her most pressing questions have gone unanswered. Forced, despite herself, to stay “where doubts arise and fears dismay,” she slowly realizes that she no longer shares the faith of her fellow believers.
Higher Ground begins at a riverside baptism where Corinne, along with several other new believers, is joyously dunked under the water. As she looks up from under the water at the smiling men standing over her, the film flashes back to a very young Corinne, staring up at the camera from underwater as she takes a bath. The movie is divided into “chapters,” the titles of which appear periodically and unobtrusively on the screen as each new section begins. This first portion is called “Summons” (a reference, presumably, to Corinne’s two conversion experiences), and takes us through her childhood and teenage years. As a child, she accepts Jesus during vacation Bible school, but her parents aren’t particularly religious, and her conversion falls by the wayside.
Corinne loves to read and write, and eventually she catches the eye of Ethan Miller, the lead singer in a small-time local rock band, who asks her to write some lyrics for him. Teenage love leads to teenage pregnancy, and Corinne and Ethan get married shortly before their baby is born. Later, they join a small, insular church community of ultra-conservative Christians with an extremely patriarchal hierarchy. Corinne’s sharp mind and natural independence earn her occasional passive-aggressive reprimands from the pastor’s wife, but she accepts them gracefully. She is a believer, and she really wants to get this right. In spite of the restrictiveness of the environment, the relationships are warm and genuine.
Eventually, though all of that changes. The change is not particularly sudden or dramatic. Actually, it’s almost chilling in its gradualness. For the most part, this is not a film where sudden, dramatic events precipitate an equally sudden, dramatic change. However, there are three tragic (or near-tragic) events, that have an obvious effect on Corinne’s life.
While Corinne is still a child, her mother suffers a traumatic, late-term miscarriage. The scenes that follow imply that Corinne’s family life unravels as a result. Her parents, extremely affectionate towards each other before the miscarriage, drift far apart. At one point, a teenage Corinne sits on the stairs listening to her parents below, silently willing her half-drunk father to show her mother some sign of affection. Instead, a violent quarrel breaks out between them.
Corinne’s father has become an alcoholic, while her mother dresses up to go out every night. It is implied that she is “carrying on” with other men; she even flirts with Pastor Bud at the vacation Bible school while picking up her daughters. The sensuality is so palpable that even young Corinne picks up on it, imagining the two adults in a decidedly un-platonic position as they joke about Bud needing swimming lessons from her mother, a former lifeguard.
It’s not clear that Corinne is particularly aware, at least as a child, of how deeply the miscarriage affects her life. She is certainly conscious of the deep sadness of the event, and of the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, but perhaps not of how they are connected. As a child, this tragedy does not lead her to harbor any doubts or ask any questions, particularly as she seems to have no larger, guiding worldview to question.
Much later, after Corinne is married and has a young daughter of her own, she decides to accompany Ethan to a gig with his band. Traveling by bus late at night, with Ethan driving, Corinne is annoyed by the loud, obnoxious behavior of Ethan’s drunken bandmates as she tries to comfort baby Abigail. With no car seat or crib, Corinne lays Abby in an empty cooler and tries to soothe her to sleep.
Meanwhile, the other members of the group are exposing themselves to the cars behind, screaming with laughter. Ethan yells at them to stop before they get the bus pulled over, but they respond by throwing empty beer cans at him. He turns to yell at them some more, and misses a turn, driving the bus off of the road and down a hill into a river. The bus’s lights go out, and in the confusion, the lid of Abby’s cooler slams shut as the bus fills with water. Ethan grabs Corinne and rushes her out to the shore. Although Corinne has been repeatedly screaming the baby’s name, Ethan belatedly remembers that his daughter is still on the sinking bus, and he swims back out, but can’t locate her among the several coolers that are floating around inside.
Several tense moments pass, and it seems certain that this will not end well, but then Ethan finds the baby. The next scene shows the small family huddled together in bed, relieved to be alive, as Ethan comes to a realization: God saved them. God is real, and this was a sign from Him. Ethan randomly flips open a Bible (“to see what God wants to tell us”) and lands on a passage about dashing infants against the rocks. The couple share a horrified look, and a glance at their baby, then decide they might be better off starting at the beginning of the Bible.
Corinne and Ethan’s experience is essentially the reverse of a “suffering that leads to questioning and doubting the existence of God” scenario. Ethan and Corinne have faced the most devastating possibility, the loss of a child, and have been delivered from it, perhaps miraculously. This not only confirms God’s existence, but also affirms that God has a deep, personal interest in them and their well-being. Their very personal encounter with God forms the entire basis for their faith. The movie cuts back to a shot of the older Corinne submerged beneath the water as she is baptized, and the new chapter heading reads “Consumed.” This is the period of Corinne’s most intense religious fervor.
Much of this section revolves around Corinne’s friendship with Annika, another church member. Annika seems very different from the other women in the church. She is a devout believer, but she and Corinne also share an irreverent sense of humor. While the rest of the women gather around the refreshment table following a Bible study led by the pastor’s wife, Annika tells Corinne, “I know Deborah loves the Lord, and she means well, but her sermons are starting to make me feel suicidal.” A few seconds later, Deborah invites the women to come try the carob brownies. “You know what carob tastes like?” Corinne quietly asks Annika. “Disappointment.”
Annika is also not above a certain amount of dishonesty. When Corinne is pulled over while Annika is teaching her to drive, Annika pretends to have a very limited grasp of English, and tries to make the officer uncomfortable (or perhaps even flirt with him) by explaining that she had a very painful “wedgie,” the effects of which she describes in graphic anatomical detail. He lets them off with a warning.
Plus, Annika speaks in tongues, which the rest of the church regards with a fair amount of suspicion (Corinne’s husband opines that “it’s probably voodoo”), though Corinne is jealous: “I want it. You get everything! You do! I want it.” All-in-all, it seems that the rest of the church might look askance at much of Annika’s behavior, but this only seems to make the two women better friends. Annika is Corinne’s confidant, giving her (bizarre) advice on spicing up her sex life and, later, catering to her cravings and massaging her feet while she is pregnant.
Annika understands and connects with Corinne on a level no one else even seems conscious of, which makes it all the more devastating when Annika is diagnosed with a serious brain tumor. As Corinne hangs up the phone after learning this news from Annika’s husband Ned, we hear her husband in the other room leading their children to recite “There is nothing that our God can’t do.” Over the next few scenes, it becomes clear that this belief will be put to the test.
Corinne holds Annika in a hospital bed and prays with her, and the whole church gathers in the hospital corridor to pray and sing during Annika’s operation. When Ned emerges with the news that “they got it all, she’s gonna live,” the relief that washes across Corinne’s face is palpable, but short-lived. A few seconds later, she overhears Ned quietly telling the other men that Annika is “not going to be herself” because “part of her brain was damaged” by the operation. If there is nothing God can’t do, there are also things He won’t do.
This revelation precedes perhaps the most devastating scene in the film, during the church service following Annika’s recovery. The camera pans right across the front row of the congregation as Pastor Bill says, “Our God is the God who delivers. And He has delivered our sister from the shadow of the valley of death, and so we thank God tonight! We rejoice with Ned, and Annika, and their beautiful kids.” As the camera crosses the center aisle, we see Annika, slumped over in a wheelchair, her face slack and eyes dull as she stares blankly ahead at nothing.
The pastor calls Ned up to the front, and his daughter moves over next to Annika to wipe off the drool that is collecting at the corner of her mother’s mouth as the pastor continues speaking: “The Lord God has been your strength and your shield. Jehovah Jireh! Amen? He has provided for you. His ways are not our ways, but we trust in His infinite mercy. His, um . . . His loving kindness.” No one seems less convinced of the truth of those words in that moment than the pastor himself, as he falters to the conclusion of the sentence, then stands aside to let Ned say a few words:
Annika loves, loves the Lord, but she also loves drama and art and nature, and she has this uncanny ability to find the good in what other people might call misfortune or tragedy. And I just want you all to know that Annika and I are content to walk the path that the Lord has us on. It is not a path we would have chosen for ourselves, but His will, not ours. God has called of us to life, and life more abundant, and that’s the life that Annika has always lived!
As Ned resumes his seat, the pastor steps forward and sings the opening lines of the hymn “It Is Well,” famously written by Horatio Spafford after the tragic death of his four daughters in a shipwreck. When he reaches the refrain, the rest of the congregation joins in, echoing each line.
Throughout this scene, we see Corinne sitting in the row behind Annika and her family. Her somber mood matches the rest of the congregation, but as Ned begins talking about “life more abundant,” her face hardens and she turns away. As Pastor Bill sings, she struggles to hold back tears, and as the rest of the congregation sings along, she finds herself unable even to mouth the words. Her lips close in a tight line, and she stares off to the side, ignoring the service.
This scene is not followed by any major soul-searching that we see. We don’t hear any conversations about why God has allowed this to happen. A lesser film probably wouldn’t have been able to pass up the opportunity to take this route, but that would be inconsistent with Corinne’s character. She likes to read and write. She is intelligent, and she likes to study and discuss the Bible. But her faith isn’t primarily intellectual. It is based on personal experiences and strong relationships, and she struggles to set aside her doubts rather than talk through them. Besides, she has lost her closest confidant.
This is the beginning of the end of Corinne’s involvement in the church. The next scene begins a new chapter: “Wrestling Until Dawn;” words that evoke Jacob’s struggle with God throughout the night in Genesis 32. For the next half-hour of the movie, Corinne’s marriage and her faith slowly unravel. She leaves her husband, and the church, and begins a journey of self-discovery that she had left behind as a teenager, leading to her final “confession” to her former church.
In the final scene, Corinne visits the church to watch her husband and children sing in front of the congregation, and as they finish she steps up to take the microphone and prevails upon Pastor Bill to let her get something off of her chest. I’ve already quoted the beginning of her remarks above. She concludes:
You know, when I was a little girl, my pastor told me that Jesus was knocking on the door of my heart. And, um, so I listened real hard, and I thought I heard Him. I did. I raised my hand, and I told everyone that Jesus was standing there, and he wanted me. He wanted me. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. So I invited him in. “Welcome,” I said, and I gave my heart outright. And I’m standing here today, and I’m telling you . . . I’m telling you today, that, uh, I’m still waiting for Him to make Himself at home. You know, I call, and I call, and there have been times where I know He answered me. Times where I’m sure of it. But other times, I’ve got the porch light on, and He doesn’t come. And I feel like I live in an empty place. And I told God, I told Him, “You know what? I’m not gonna let go.” I won’t let go until He blesses me. But I’m wrestling something nameless, you know, without form and void, and I just want it to be solid so bad. I need all of this to be real, and I don’t always know how to make it real. I don’t know how to make it real. So, I am . . . Forgive me. Okay? I admire your faith. I admire your faith. I really do.
I believe this is one of the most raw, real expressions of painful doubt that I have ever heard. Corinne references the story of Jacob wrestling God, which ends with Jacob’s refusal to let go until he receives a blessing, even though his opponent has knocked his hip out of joint. That’s where Corinne is: She is struggling with God, and she is in pain, and she doesn’t want to let go, but unlike Jacob, she’s not sure if she’s actually holding onto . . . anything. This isn’t a sudden realization, it’s something that has slowly dawned on her over a long period of time. This seems true to the experience of most people who lose their faith; it does not leave as suddenly as it arrives.
One of the most striking things about the final scene is the lack of hostility from the other church members. The camera cuts, in particular, to the pastor’s face a few times as Corinne talks, and he isn’t glaring or squirming uncomfortably. He is nodding with compassion and understanding. These people still care about Corinne, and she cares about them, but there is a chasm between them.
After Corinne turns the microphone back over to Pastor Bill, he leads the congregation in the hymn “How Great Thou Art” as she walks to the back of the church and opens the door to leave. But she stops in the doorway and looks back, and then she turns and rests her forehead against the door as she holds it with her hand, and closes her eyes and sways slightly with the music. And then she turns back again to look inside, and her weight shifts ever so slightly, but before we can tell whether she is about to step outside or inside, the movie ends.
That final image encapsulates her position perfectly, hovering in the doorway between faith and doubt; unable to stay, but unwilling to leave. And where is God through all of this? Corinne doesn’t seem to blame Him for anything, including her doubts. She is not bitter or angry. She just doesn’t know how, if God is there, to feel that He is there, but she seems to expect that it is at least as much her responsibility to have faith as it is for God to make Himself real to her. She just no longer finds herself in a place where she can do that.
It would be strange, I think, to expect a movie about the loss of faith to leave us with any real answers to questions about God. Instead, Higher Ground gives us an honest, emotional portrait of one woman’s spiritual journey into belief and back out again. Perhaps Corinne will reconnect with God one day, and perhaps she won’t, but it is clear that, either way, her journey isn’t over yet. She will always continue “pressing on the upward way” in search of higher ground.