Higher ground

There’s a new film coming out that looks very interesting — Ebert describes Higher Ground as “the life story of a woman who grows into, and out of, Christianity.”  Here’s the trailer:

The movie is based on the memoir This Dark World by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also wrote the screenplay.  I found this 2002 review of the book, and the last two paragraphs ring especially true:

But then, you get the sense that she’s describing her slow, gradual reverse transformation — from a bridelike soldier of Christ to a freethinking, questioning woman — as clearly as anyone could. Briggs harbors few illusions about her old self. She’s fully aware of what a pain in the ass she was in the days when she was beaming with love all the time, handing out Bibles and quoting Scripture to anyone who’d sit still long enough.

But the thing that makes “This Dark World” so affecting, aside from Briggs’ clear, resonant prose, is that she makes us understand that leaving her faith behind was the single hardest thing she’s ever had to do. Her religious friends bemoaned the fact that she had turned away from the Lord. But no matter how her spiritual beliefs have changed, has He really lost her? The person she became because of Him is still vital and thriving, and probably more alive than ever.


If Emma wasn’t asleep right now, I’d be heading on over to McNally or Indigo to see if the book was in stock. [note: I actually just stopped writing this post long enough to call and order the book from McNally]

If the trailer and book review are any indication, I think I’ll really like the film — maybe a little too much. In fact, watching the trailer made my heart hurt a little bit — because I know what it’s like to be lost – then found – then “lost” again.  About a month ago I talked quite a bit about my transition out of faith on the Unbelievable podcast, but even in the days since recording the show, I have thought about (and felt) more of the effects of my apostasy.

Fact is, when I decided to be honest with myself and others about my nonbelief, my choice to vocalize my atheism forever changed several relationships in my life — and NOT necessarily for the better.

The demise of some of these family and friend relationships still make me sad even now, years after my “outing.”   There have been some moments when I thought I could be heading into a serious period of depression — so much so, I even made a point of seeing a therapist and frankly asking if I needed to be on medication (if only to numb some of my heartache).

Thankfully my therapist not only is good at what she does, but is also wise.  One lesson I learned from my sessions with her is that my sadness isn’t rooted in depression, but is more of a type of mourning I’m experiencing.  I’m mourning the death of what I had hoped for in a relationship, and now I’m left to adjust to the stark reality of a broken connection.

But why are these relationships broken? In large part because of religion, and the hold it places on its adherents.  Sure it may sound great from the pulpit for a preacher to say “put Jesus first in all your relationships”, but the reality of Luke 14:26 (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.) really hurts when its applied.


A couple weeks ago I went to see Wicked with Jerry and some good friends. I love musicals, plus I had read the book, years ago, so I thought I was prepared for the performance. What I wasn’t ready for was how much I related to the play’s main character, Elphaba.  For the first half of the show, I found myself empathizing SO much with what this character went through (though, thankfully, I have no idea what it’s like to have green skin).

Elphaba was someone who didn’t quite fit in, and who was passionately motivated by social justice causes.  There are points in the play where she stands up for what is right, even at great cost to herself. She’s idealistic, hoping to have the Wizard (someone she admires) help her rectify the wrongs she sees in the world. She’s passionate, and willing to take a stand, even by herself.

But then — she finds hypocrisy in her hero the Wizard, and is faced with a decision: does she apologize, back down, and look the other way, or does she defy?

She sings:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by
The rules of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes
And leap…

It’s time to try
defying gravity
I think I’ll try
defying gravity
And you can’t pull me down

So what do you do when you realize that “something has changed” within you?

In my case, should I have kept on my church-smile each Sunday, swallowed my doubts, and played the game?  No.

I took my leap of faith doubt.

Elphaba then sings:

I’m through accepting limits
‘Cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But till I try I’ll never know
Too long I’ve been afraid of
Losing love I guess I’ve lost
Well if that’s love
It comes at much too high a cost

and that kind of love — the kind that only embraces you in a particular way — it really is a love at “much too high a cost.”  I guess that’s a lesson I’m slowly learning to accept.

Anyway, by the time this song (“Defying Gravity”) closed the first half of Wicked, I was bawling — and I’m not talking about little tears, but big, ugly, end-of-Steel-Magnolias kind of sobs.  This video just doesn’t do the cathartic experience justice:

And if you’re reading this, hoping that I’m happy — rest assured, I am.

But I’m also sad too.

3 thoughts on “Higher ground”

  1. I didn’t make the connection while reading the book but watching the musical I totally did. It’s a powerful story and the words to that song really strike the heart of how many who have left the faith feel.

  2. Even though I wasn’t raised in the same environment as you, I know what it’s like to have a relationship with close friends or family altered forever by non-belief. Our family went to the United Church of Canada, which by most standards is a pretty mild and benign denomination. Over time, I became atheist while one of my sisters become more fundamentalist.

    We still get along famously (she sang at my wedding to my same-sex husband!), but I know we dare not talk about our beliefs/non-beliefs. I’m afraid that if we did, we’d both come away with the feeling that in spite of loving each other, we would feel the other viewed us as inferior for believing (or not believing) in the existence of a supernatural deity. As such, there’s an unspoken truce between us and we both know not to raise the subject. We’ll always be close but there is one gulf between us that will probably never be narrowed.

    My favourite Canadian band, Rush, has a number of songs that touch on religious themes. You should check out the lyrics to these songs when you can:
    Armor and Sword
    Far Cry
    Ghost of a Chance
    Roll the Bones
    The Way the Wind Blows
    Witch Hunt

  3. I like reading your journey stories Rebekah; and can very much relate to Daryl’s feelings re: the way him and his sister are careful about their topics of conversation.

    The common ground beneath your relationships has shifted; unfortunately, religion creates a chasm that is difficult to breach.

    Thanks for the great read(s).

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