When evangelicals hear that there's a new movie about their brand of Christianity, they get nervous. All too often they are presented as idiots or villains. Stereotypes about narrow-mindedness, intolerance, cultish mind-control, and harsh subjugation of women abound.
Carolyn Briggs' 2002 memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, hit a number of those notes. When their church leaders counsel her not to get a college degree; when they counsel her husband to forgo a plum job opportunity because they instead need the headship of the church leaders; when she refused medication during a complicated pregnancy and scoffed at taking shelter during a tornado—well, it sounds to many evangelicals like a pretty kooky church, if not a cult. But don't expect the general public to make that distinction. CT's review of the book said it was "likely to win plaudits for its savaging of evangelical Christianity as the source of one woman's oppression, and her abandonment of that faith as a fount of liberation."
News that This Dark World, retitled Higher Ground, was coming to movie screens did not cause Christians to throw out the red carpet. And yet—what a surprise. This movie presents a church that is really endearing. It's a small community, and we meet them first in the 1970s as a gang of Jesus Freak hippies, gathered for a joyous, noisy river baptism. The guys are long-haired and bearded and have amiable, sweet expressions. The women wear prairie dresses and have personalities.
Corinne—the lead character played by Vera Farmiga, who also directed the film—is extra-bright but subdued, an observer. When, in an early scene, her boyfriend makes love to her in a meadow, he has an ecstatic experience while she waits it out, occasionally furrowing her brow.
The character in the film who lights up the sky is Annika. She is funny, creative, shapely, sensuous, and mischievous. Her husband describes her as loving "drama, art, and nature." She counsels Corinne not to let the sexual fires in marriage die, and imparts that she likes to draw pictures of her husband's penis. (We see Annika's bedroom later on and yes, she certainly does.) When a cop pulls the two over and tells Corinne she was exceeding the speed limit, Annika puts on a foreign accent and explains to the cop that she was having an underwear emergency and that Corinne was trying to help her.
When the two are relaxing in a boat on a river, Annika begins to pray aloud in tongues. Whatever your opinion of that gift may be, it certainly sounds beautiful here. This is a Hollywood movie, and a woman is praying in tongues, and it is beautiful, and she is beautiful. Wonders never cease.
In fact, prayer and worship are consistently shown as inviting, peaceful, and joyous. A small group sits in a living room singing "The Sweetest Name I Know," and they're practically floating away. Any viewer would get the impression that those who don't love Jesus and pray with others are missing one of life's great joys.