Carolyn Briggs: Pressing on to Higher Ground
by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
One of the panels at Roger Ebert’s 2012 Ebertfest Film Festival was devoted to a variety of “Underrepresented Voices in Film.” The moderator asked the creators of such films if they felt brave in presenting portrayals of people whose experiences were unfamiliar —even alien—to most audiences.
Carolyn Briggs, the screenwriter for a film based on her own life story, spoke up first. “My film, Higher Ground, is a look at evangelical Christianity,” she said. “And I wouldn’t say it’s underrepresented in film, but it’s misrepresented.”
Briggs said that she and Vera Farmiga (the Oscar-nominated actress who played Briggs in the film) felt that evangelical or fundamentalist Christians were not portrayed as three-dimensional people in most films but were instead portrayed “as morons or hypocrites or something else not very respectful.”
She said it wasn’t easy to tell the story with a nuanced eye, “and a lot of people find the film too secular for religious people and too religious for a secular audience. I’m happy we did it, and I do think it took some bravery on our part.”
Briggs went on to say that many people who watch the film experience cognitive dissonance because they have regarded evangelical Christians in negative terms and as stereotypes —not as flesh and blood people who are in many ways just like themselves. They may then be surprised to find themselves caring about these individuals and families and identifying with their very human experiences.
A different type of film
Vera Farmiga, who directed the film in addition to playing the leading role, says that films that deal with the Christian faith generally fall into one of two categories: films for Christians and films that parody Christianity. But Higher Ground fits neither category.
She and Briggs emphasize that it’s simply the story of one woman’s personal faith journey—a woman who dared to ask questions within a system that considered itself to have all the answers and where she later realized she no longer belonged.
My personal response to the film
After seeing the film at an art theater last fall, I was deeply touched. I got up to leave and instead stood transfixed as the end credits rolled against a soundtrack playing the old gospel hymn, “Higher Ground.”
“I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day.”
I was transported back to the little country church where I, as a pigtailed, freckle-faced 11-year-old, responded to an invitation to “ask Jesus to come into my heart,” as did young Carolyn (“Corinne” in the film) during an altar call at Vacation Bible School.
As I walked out of the theater, I overheard a gray-haired man ask his wife what she thought would happen next. Would Corinne reject her faith entirely? Or would she return to what had been the center of her life? The man’s wife shrugged. After all, it was just a movie.
But I knew it was not “just a movie.” It was based on a true story, even though names and certain details had been changed.
I determined to learn more about the author, Carolyn Briggs. I looked up her website, read reviews and interviews, and ordered her 2002 book, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, on which the film was based.
I also knew I wanted to contact her directly because I knew her story would resonate with so many EEWC members whose stories are in some ways similar.
This Dark World
Carolyn Briggs is now an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa. She and I arranged a time for a phone interview in early May , and one of my first questions was about her book’s original title. Was she saying fundamentalism was a “dark world” that she was glad to leave?
“No,” she explained. “That comes from the scripture that says our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities of this dark world [Eph. 6:12]. So I guess in my mind the allusion here to this dark world is not so much about fundamentalist Christianity as it is that this world is in need of redemption. My story is one of looking for redemption in several ways.”
Bloomsbury, her book’s original publisher, chose that title after considering several others. “The editor obviously wanted it to be referenced in readers’ minds that this was a dark, terrible place that this woman came out of. But that’s not the sense that I meant it,” she said.
On her website, she says, “I regret the book was edited in such a way that I appear to have wholly rejected my faith—which I have not ever been able to do.”
Gaining New Heights
By the time she wrote the screenplay, ten years had passed since writing the book, “and I was so happy to give it a better title,” she said. “To me, Higher Ground is a much more accurate title because that’s what the focus should be on—a woman’s personal growth, her journey. She was continually looking for higher ground.”
(The book, republished in 2011 by Rowman and Littlefield, now uses the same title as the screenplay and film.)
That the book’s original title was intended to emphasize struggle seems apt. During her twenty years within conservative evangelical groups, life as a series of struggles shows up repeatedly. Struggles between good and evil in “this dark world.” Struggles with a personified devil. Struggles between opposing factions warring within her very self.
“There was always that arguing back and forth,” she told me, referring to those inner conflicts of her fundamentalist years “But at least I entertain that voice now. Before I would just say to it, ‘Be quiet! We’re not going to talk about it. Go in your corner and stay there.’”
Looking back on that time when doubts and questions were taboo, she says, “I understand that I put a lot of the limits on myself. It wasn’t God doing it. It wasn’t probably even the group that much—even though it was a real patriarchy and very much elder ruled. But I think I added tenfold— a hundredfold— with the restrictions I put on myself. The way I would not let myself do this or think that, but repress, repress, repress. Shut everything down. Don’t consider, ‘Oh is this a question? Is this something that’s troubling?’ Don’t think about it. I did that for so many years.”
The Liberating Power of Books
She said that books provided a way out, and she’s glad the movie emphasized the library’s importance in her life. “Books were my mentors. As I grew up, I let books teach me what I needed to know about life,” she says. “My parents were very much blue-collar workingclass people, and so books were what raised the questions and proposed answers.”
During her early years, one strict librarian had assumed the role of censor, refusing to let her check out certain books; but later, during her years in fundamentalism, she became her own censor.
Most of the reading she and her husband did focused on the Bible and biblical studies, systematic theology, and guides for Christian living and preparing for “the rapture” at Christ’s return. She even bought an interlinear Greek New Testament to supplement the Bible dictionaries, concordances, and other Bible reference tools that filled their home.
In a 2001 article for Salon.com, she talks about the single identity that described her, a woman so totally consumed with serving God that she allowed no other interests in her life.
She told me that her really serious questioning began about ten years before she actually left fundamentalism. “I always tell my students that we reinvent ourselves every decade,” she says.
As she neared age thirty, she entered a new stage of development. “I was doing a little bit of reflection in a deeper way, reading more. I started reading more classics—Augustine, Thomas à Kempis— stuff like that.” Gradually she allowed herself to start checking out one book that she knew was “fine” and one that was “questionable.”
She says, “I think [all of this reading] was a kind of historical grounding—that I was going back and looking at the early years of the church. Maybe it was just the beginning; I would start college within five years of that point. It was just curiosity, maybe?”
She paused, then added, “In a deeper way, I was more willing to be curious.”
Dreams for Her Children
I told Carolyn that in view of how much books were expanding her world, I was surprised to learn how strict she had been about what she permitted her oldest daughter (a teenager at the time) to read.
“I know.” Carolyn said. “Isn’t that ironic?”
Her memoir tells of being upset upon finding a copy of Catcher in the Rye in her daughter’s bookbag and telling her “it wasn’t something a Christian young lady should be reading.” Even the Campus Crusade for Christ teenage magazine was closely monitored, and sections of dating advice columns were snipped out if Carolyn felt the subject matter was “too mature” for 14-year-old Allison. (Not her real name. Pseudonyms were used for everyone in the book and film except for Carolyn’s father, who died suddenly shortly after her book was published and had been so proud to see it in print.)
“But books were your way out,” I protested. Why would she shield her daughter? (By now it seemed as though Carolyn and I were engaging in a conversation as old friends rather than carrying out an interview.)
She said she wanted Allison’s life to be different from her own life—one in which she felt that she and God and her husband were such a threesome that it was hard to extricate herself from such total enmeshment and find her authentic self.
“I was afraid that she would go on a path in which she would limit herself and marry at a really young age and not have choices— because I didn’t have choices.”
(When Carolyn was seventeen and just out of high school, she had learned she was pregnant after having a routine physical exam required by the community college she planned to enter that fall. With her college and career plans dashed and a baby on the way, she married her boyfriend [called “Eric” in the book and “Ethan” in the movie], and prepared to be a mother by age eighteen.)
“From the time my children were small, even though it wasn’t my experience, I wanted them all to go to college,” she said. I could hear a mother’s pride in her voice as she continued, “It’s just one of my greatest joys that all three of my children have graduate degrees.”
Her oldest daughter is now a history professor at a university in Texas, her son is a geographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, and her youngest daughter graduated with a master’s degree in social work just this year.
Three Churches, Three Periods of Life
Before the present stage of her life, Carolyn’s life could be divided into three parts according to the churches she attended—the first being the Baptist church of her childhood in Iowa, where her non-churchgoing parents dropped her off for Sunday school and went on their way.
(Her mother later became a strict fundamentalist. “She mourns and regrets my eventual departure from that very much,” Carolyn told me. “It’s a source of contention. And when I try to suggest we just talk about what we have in common, she replies that we have nothing in common.”)
The second church was a newly formed church in Des Moines, composed of what were known as the “Jesus People” during the 1970s. It is that period that is highlighted in the movie, Higher Ground.
The third church experience was after a move to Arkansas where her family joined a group that became a megachurch. There, Carolyn became the church’s very successful drama director; but even so, her restlessness, questioning, yearnings, and doubts began to multiply. It was during those years that Carolyn decided to attend college and then to leave both the church and her marriage.
In her book, she describes her feelings during that period: “More and more I caught myself looking in the mirror at a woman in her early thirties who was dying of boredom and couldn’t tell a soul.”
The time periods are collapsed together in the movie, giving the impression that her decision to leave fundamentalism took place with the same group with which she had begun.
The Fountain of Joy Chapel
Carolyn and her husband were still teenagers and new parents at the time they became part of the newly formed group (called Fountain of Joy in the book), after a conversion experience that is far less dramatic than the fictional, frightening, and much more cinematic depiction in the movie.
In actuality, their conversion came through Bible reading at the urging of Carolyn’s best friend, Katherine, who had undergone a conversion experience at college and wanted to share her joy. So Carolyn and Eric bought a modern paraphrase of the Bible and began reading it in bed each night. One night, it hit them simultaneously that what they were reading in the Gospel of John was true. “In a split second, we crossed over to the other side,” Carolyn says in her book. She excitedly wrote to Katherine, “We have met Christ. We’re born again.”
The couple and other families helped form what they termed a New Testament church. The Fountain of Joy Chapel met in rented spaces such as schools, the YMCA, other churches, and at times in members’ homes, following the “house church” pattern of the Book of Acts.
All authority was held by the elders who shepherded the congregation. Only men could be elders, but women could lead women’s Bible studies or discussions of books, such as You Can Be the Wife of a Happy Husband.
“Let the Women Keep Silent”
Early in her new life as a Christian, Carolyn was introduced to the idea that “the Scriptures taught the superiority of the male and his ability to discern truth in ways women could not.”
But that became increasingly hard to accept. Although she had only a high school education at the time, she was a scholar at heart with a sharp mind and a grasp of different theological views.
She knew the five points of Calvinism as summed up in the TULIP acronym ( total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) and mentally took issue with some of them. And she quickly and accurately described dispensational theology one day when her pastor surprised her by calling on her—a woman!— to explain it during a Bible study.
She answered correctly, but the pastor then teased her, playing devil’s advocate and pretending to argue with her answer. Before she could reply, he told her she actually had been right and not to back down. Then he added, “You’d get eaten up in seminary.”
In her book, she wrote about this exchange and what went on in her mind:
“It was subtle enough. I had been put in my place, but lovingly. I knew God had made man to be my head—there was no way to argue with those teachings found in the Scriptures. I had heard teachings on a woman’s submission dozens of times, and I believed that to be God’s will for me, but I registered a voiceless protest coming from within me from time to time. I repressed that rebellion. I hushed it, I spoke on top of it, I mocked it, but I never quelled it entirely.” (p. 268)
I asked her what it was like to live all those years under such patriarchal attitudes. “It’s frustrating to feel like you have faith and you have strength, and because of your gender you can’t speak,” she said. “And it’s the men and the women. Sometimes women are the worst because they want to keep other women in line.”
At the same time, she says it was her close women friends who helped her get through her difficult years, and both the book and the movie showcase the strength and value of women’s friendships.
Social Issues, Politics, and Culture wars
Ironically, she found an outlet for her public speaking gifts as an anti-abortion lecturer and fundraiser after her family’s move to Arkansas and a new church. In her book, she says that she had not liked picketing abortion clinics but that she felt “alive and powerful” at the podium. Now she had a platform where she could address audiences made up of both men and women, and no one objected because this was considered a “legitimate topic” for a woman in a way that teaching the Bible and theology was not. This was not considered preaching.
The conservative evangelicalism practiced by the “Jesus People” of the 1970s (what Carolyn first experienced in the Iowa years portrayed in the movie) had emphasized the believer’s personal relationship with God, witnessing for Christ, and the warm bonding among members of the group. The focus was on personal salvation, walking with God, being accountable to each other, and converting individuals one by one, not trying to change society through political action as occurred later. “I hated how that happened,” Carolyn said.
But as historian Randall Balmer points out in his book Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament, by the late 1970s, “a loose confederation of organizations we know today as the Religious Right began to coalesce,” determined to influence politics, culture, and legislation.
The conservative evangelicals in Arkansas with whom Carolyn was associated in the 1980s embraced the Religious Right’s political agenda and activism. In her book, Carolyn writes:
“Believers were intolerant of anything but our version of the truth. How many times I saw believers tighten their faces and close their minds to any variance of the norm. Not only did we hate abortion, we hated homosexuality, we hated Hollywood, we hated the politics of the Left. We hated. We hated. And then we had the nerve to claim that God was love and in Him was no darkness at all.” (pp. 263-264)
The Process of Leaving
I asked Carolyn if her church’s alignment with right-wing social and political stances was a factor in her decision to leave fundamentalism, and she said it was. But there were, of course, many other factors that influenced her decision as well.
She had earlier begun to question the authoritarianism that the group insisted upon, including the hierarchy in the ruling of the elders, the accountability required of members, and the subordination of women. Even before she and Eric could make a decision about an exciting job offer and move to Arkansas, it had to be brought before the elders. The church expected control over every area of life. Carolyn told me that even though she had “felt compelled to stay under that, she was “getting just a little bit tired of it— maybe?” She began feeling frustrated “and wanting to be more practical and living in the real world.”
There was also the theological and doctrinal questioning she had been doing all along, including theodicy questions about why God permitted suffering. She could no longer accept the group’s glib clichés, simplistic explanations, and pat answers, which permitted neither doubts nor questions.
And always a deep intellectual hunger kept gnawing at her—the longing to study, gain more knowledge, and apply the reasoning skills and critical thinking so necessary to face the complexities of life.
Going to college during the Arkansas years was a continuation of the process that had been gradually unfolding for many years. While in college, and later graduate school, she tried to share her passion for learning with others in the church, but her enthusiasm would be quickly squelched by put-down remarks such as “true wisdom is from above” or “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”
The passion in her marriage was gone, too. Sexually, emotionally, intellectually, she and her husband were no longer connecting. She was approaching a time of endings on many levels.
As we talked, I mentioned that so many women who have left fundamentalism are extremely bitter because they have been so hurt, and their anger comes across almost as a “fundamentalism” of its own—as though they want to “de-convert” people away from faith.
“Exactly,” she responded. “And I have received many emails from people who want me to join them in that bitterness. I’m just not going to. I’m not going to go there. I don’t feel it, and I’d have to manufacture it.” She sees her twenty years in conservative evangelicalism as part of her history—experiences that contributed to who she is today, and she is grateful.
What She Does and Doesn’t Miss
Both she and her former husband have remarried and moved on in their lives. Yet, she misses the people who were “family” to her for so many years. In an essay titled “A Valentine for the World. . .and for the Church I Left,” written this past February  for Religion Dispatches, she expresses both a longing for contact and a stinging rebuke for the smugness and judgmentalism that characterized the group—including herself. She knows their attitude toward “apostates” because she once felt the same. What profit is there in gaining the world but losing one’s soul? The question is unspoken but there.
“I haven’t gained the world,” she wrote in that essay. “It was here all along, a wonderfully complicated and messy world that I was afraid to be part of. And how could I lose my soul? God has given me this life, this heart, this desire for all things good and lovely and of excellent repute.”
Yet a wistfulness comes through in that article—a longing to be loved and contacted by her former brothers and sisters, even though she knows such contact is unlikely.
But sometimes life brings surprises. Just a few weeks before I talked with Carolyn, she and her first husband had seen each other for the first time in fourteen years. They had rushed to Texas from two different states to be with their oldest daughter who had become seriously ill and was hospitalized. (Allison has since recovered.)
“As we sat there at the foot of her bed,” Carolyn said, “he started showing me pictures on his iPad from our past. We shared memories, and it was such a healing, wonderful time. I started crying and said, ‘You know, I don’t have anyone to share my past with in this way, and it’s really strange. Nobody in my [present] life was an adult with me in those times.’ He said, ‘I understand.’”
When I asked Carolyn what she misses most about her fundamentalism days, she named several things: the close family-like bonding, the energy and euphoria the group experienced when they were together, the sense of knowing everything was settled and there was nothing to worry about anymore—even death, the sense of being understood and accepted and loved.
“And it’s really nice to have somebody who shares your world view —although I guess one of the things I’m learning is that ‘living the questions,’ as Rilke wrote, is probably the braver thing to do; and there’s some exhilaration in that.”
When I asked what she did not miss from her years in fundamentalism, she said it was that ever-present feeling of being limited, restricted, held back. “Now I feel such liberty, such freedom that I did not feel in those years,” she said. “Leaving that was just so great. All of a sudden things were no longer off limits. I don’t mean that in a corrupting sense, but I could think about anything I wanted to. Explore anything I wanted to. That was awesome! I’m so happy about that.”
Why the Book and Movie?
Both she and Vera Farmiga hope that the movie will open a dialogue and get people talking about their personal spiritual journeys. Carolyn referred to a book titled I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl that her students were reading to learn about memoir writing. Hampl observed that “we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.”
“It’s so true,” Carolyn says, adding that she feels this was why she was given this experience—to share it with others in whom it might echo. “I think for so many people it does. But it meant I had to be vulnerable. Theodore Roethke says, ‘Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.’ So that’s what we as writers do.” I replied that in many ways, God is a mystery. And she agreed.
She told me about a monastery she hoped to visit in Italy. As monks left on missions, the last thing they read was a Latin inscription on the gate that said “Leave, but not entirely.”
“I feel like that is my story more than anything else,” Carolyn said. “It’s not like being totally inside, but it’s not like being totally outside either. That’s why [in the film] the last scene at the threshold was so good. Maybe that’s what some people are called to do —to be in a position to understand people on either side, maybe shedding some light.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar and writer, editor of Christian Feminism Today and content manager for the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website. Among the nine books she has authored or coauthored are What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (with David G. Myers), All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today (with Nancy Hardesty), and Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response (with Virginia Ramey Mollenkott).
Copyright 2012 by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
First published in Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Christian Feminism Today, Vol. 36, Nos.1-2 (Spring-Summer, 2012).