Discourse Parlor: The spiritual questing of Corinne- the dangerous thinking daughter of Higher Ground

Annie note:  I apologize to anyone who may have noticed for the amount of time it has taken to post this Discourse Parlor on faith.  Too many days have passed since my promise of it in the last Salon. This is unacceptable, even from the most permissive, indulgent perspective.  You can be sure that the angry taskmaster inside my own head has been merciless!

 All I can offer in defense is that I was sidetracked by another bit of writing.  I’ve been trying to flesh out this idea of an emergent Narrative Otherways.  It’s a mystery why that bit pushed itself to the front of the writing queue except that it began to feel necessary to be understood, as much as possible, on a concept that’s been so central to this Salon&Parlor project.  And, I suppose, because narrative is entangled with faith in my conception of things.  The upside of this cart before the horse process is that next Parlor, intended to be the last and final post from these parts, should be coming your way in a much more timely fashion.

And now to the topic at hand –

Corinne, the dangerous thinking daughter of Higher Ground.

At the end of her movie Corinne Walker exits her church, never to return.  She is casting herself out.  For those who remain sitting in the pews, Corinne is making a choice of the street, the wilderness realm of dogs, over safety and righteousness.  Literally, from the way of perceiving constructed inside that church, Corinne is turning her back on an afterlife of heaven for the eternal burn of hell.  But we know, from watching her story of questing for answers to the why of her being, Corinne is choosing to live in this life, in the here and now.

On the surface Higher Ground is a fable-like tale of down to earth people with everyday concerns.  It would seem very ordinary if Jesus and Satan didn’t keep popping into every conversation.  But deities of all sorts are active participants in Corinne’s community of believers.  At the drop of a hat a bible’s thrown open, sending conversational language into the stilted text of millennium old desert tales of good and evil: angry fathers sacrifice their sons; a woman picks fruit from a tree (of knowledge) casting mankind out of paradise.  How hard this contemporary community works to synthesize such a stretch.  It’s a testament to the adaptable human psyche, acting out our desire to convince ourselves things happen for a reason and all powered by our need to make order from the chaos.

Which is why Corinne’s eyes-wide-open questing around in this mundane wanting to be extraordinary world is the perfect foil for the explorations of a spirited woman caught in a rigid, top down system of who’s-allowed-to-speak. Women’s place is fixed in this ordering (surprise surprise) in the mute, lower regions.  And the whole towering structure is sustained by a flock refusing to apply empirical knowledge to their constructed perception of the world.  To question equals danger to these systems of belief.  To think is to threaten.

The closing of Corinne’s story with her walk out opens the question –  if this woman can no longer believe what is practiced as faith inside that church, then what else might faith be?  Corinne, in her refusal to accept voiceless-ness represents those of us out here, we thinking daughters who have chosen the street, with the dogs; we who are unable to submit to the roles assigned us; we who dare to mull reasons for being based on our experience of this life in the here and now.

First I must tell you that in matters of faith, mine is emphatically secular. My desires are in and of this world because it is here, from this earth and its vast generosity of life, including our species and its oft irresponsible complexity, that I find solace in my times of need and meaning in my expansionary moods.

I am attracted to Corinne’s story in spite of its dissimilar circumstances to mine.  Like me, Corinne is a quester, a woman in search of understanding her being, for a way to translate her experience into the languages of interpretation she finds spoken around her.  But Corinne is raised by people without the resources for, and mostly unsympathetic to, this practice.  And any sort of exploratory mission is a high burn, resource consuming endeavor.  But Corrine quests on in her seek of meaning by tracking the life force, that energetic heat in and between us most often and obviously perceived as sexual.  And sexual is how the energy is mostly portrayed in Corinne’s tale.  Because that’s the form of it most of us recognize.

In the opening baptismal scene of Higher Ground we glimpse the promise of meaning given by the version of fundamental religious belief Corinne has chosen, albeit one wrapped in a contemporary, homey-hip disguise.  The sun shines, the water sparkles as Corinne gives herself over to be “raised with faith in our lord Jesus Christ.”  There is singing on rocks by the river as the community embraces her.  This is the dream of belonging Corinne wants it to be.

Just like those occasional colored illustrations in a bible,
such a welcoming entrance
into all that black and white vellum of dense and scolding text yet to come.

In the initial backstory scenes titled, “Summons,” the child Corinne watches her parents’ genuine, kitchen floor love, taking note of the energy sparking between them.  In vacation bible school she stays behind to be saved, responding to the pastor’s impassioned insistence, “the Lord is knocking.…Won’t you open that door?”  Then, outside the church and on the heels of Corinne’s commitment, her flirtatious mother stirs up the pastor.  He appreciatively declares her mother to be a “Bathsheba.”

Corinne’s tracking of energetic heat does lead her to another sort of house of worship, the stored energy in a public library.  Here she is denied the checkout of Lord of the Flies in a demonstration of both the tantalizing offerings of knowledge and a community’s ability to limit access to them.  In a matching scene set forward in time, the librarian allows the adolescent Corinne the book.  But by this time her parents’ heated love has turned to an equally heated arguing and her sister’s trying out her look with a false butt.  All the while Corinne exercises her nature as an observer and a thinker.

When Ethan, the high school “rock star” approaches, Corinne may be writing of  “her disappointments” but she is brought into the rushing flow of life by his choice of her as a mate.  She watches Ethan sing and receives, via the great Bacchanal conduit of rock and roll, a direct current of eros.  And sure enough, she’s pregnant when they marry.

Now comes the phase of Corinne’s quest titled, “Consumed,” but it’s more a “refusal of the call,” as her hunt for the heat of life goes subterranean.  After a near fatal bus accident the couple flips through a bible to conclude, “God saved us.”  Here the story catches up with the opening baptismal scene as Corinne goes about digesting and trying to live by the religious system of meaning she has chosen.

We plunge into a world mainly concerned with keeping (need I say heterosexual?) couples together – perhaps an indication of the precarious nature of those bonds in a closed community.  A men’s meeting discusses the problematic breakup of a marriage, listens to audio tapes of  “Christ-like sex.”  Corinne’s best friend Annika tells her, “Honey, you cannot let sexual energy burn out,” illustrating the point with her copious drawings of her husband’s penis.  There’s talking in tongues and driving lessons and shouting at Satan, “get Thee behind me!”  Through it all Corinne manages to repress her questing nature until she makes the mistake of speaking what she’s been thinking at a religious meeting.

“Hot hand clap for Jesus,” the pastor says as he opens “the floor to the body of believers.”  Corinne takes him at his word and stands to quote the bible, awkwardly at first, but then gets going.  “Isn’t that what makes us different from the world?..” she asks. “That we believe what we don’t see?  Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Everyone, including her husband, is made uncomfortable by this act of a woman offering her interpretation of the bible.  While she speaks the pastor distracts, tries to interrupt and at end seals off  Corinne’s words with, “Sister thank you.  I see you women have been hitting your bible studies….I don’t know (which woman) you were praying with.  But if that woman wants to come to me directly, or one of the other elders…”  A man as guide, not another woman, is the message here.

One thing the  pastor certainly does not do is give the respect of response to Corinne’s thoughts on the possibility of a less concrete, more metaphysical faith.  He gives no indication of even hearing her meaning.  He’s focused on what for him is of a more alarming importance: only men are to  interpret God’s doctrine; a woman expressing her thoughts on faith is a challenge to the authority of men.  Just in case Corinne doesn’t get the message the pastor’s wife tells her, “Sister, you came very close to preaching right now.  And we have to be so careful not to appear we are teaching the men.  …..I know you want to submit to God always.”

Part of this submission is accepting “God’s will.”  When Corinne’s best friend Annika is diagnosed with brain cancer there’s a lot of fervent praying in the halls of the hospital.  While the congregation frames their prayers as “answered” when Annika is left alive but mentally ravaged, Corinne can only see her once vital friend transformed to shadow “for a reason” she can’t fathom.

Our human need of a reason for being and the soothing notion people tell one another that things “happen for a reason” are not the same thing.  A reason for being comes, often arduously and mostly fleeting, from emotional work done within the self crisscrossed with living in this world and the personal growth forced and brought to consciousness by that engaged crossing.  Come what may.

The source of “happens for a reason” stems from an exterior authority (His mysterious ways) and functions to bestow importance on the Chosen (another obscure process.)  This imposes an  explanation for life’s inevitable blows and travails that capitalizes upon our fear of death by dangling an afterlife as reward for enduring “God’s will” (always subject to interpretation) (by men.)

The haywire logic of it all unspools for Corinne as she increasingly falls afoul of her fundamentalist community.  Her husband Ethan is unhappy, needs attention.  He channels their marital problems into lecturing her on God.  They fight.  He chokes her.  She flees.  “Satan get out of this car.”

They go to a Christian councilor who singles out Corinne to tell her, “…we are waging a battle here for your soul… We want you in heaven, with your children, and not outside with the dogs.” (Those hounds again!)  Corinne is the problem.  Not her husband.  “You are crucifying Christ all over again….You are worshiping at the altar of yourself.”

And here it is, that shaming, that old blackmail.  Eternal damnation if you don’t show us you  believe what we believe by taking the place we designate for you as a woman.  The councilor insists Corinne submit to the idea that happiness for a woman is to follow, that her nature is to be guided.  But what if a woman finds she’s left unconvinced by those given the  authority to speak?  What if the logic of their beliefs conflicts with her experience, with her perception of the world?  Corinne’s inability to submit has entirely to do with her ability to listen to her own questing spirit – the very “worshiping at the altar” of herself so condemned by the councilor.

Daring to conceive masterless-ness as a way of being can be dangerous for anyone.  It is  especially dangerous for a woman.  Who speaks to and for God is a touchy business.  And although there’s none of this in Corinne’s story…

humans beyond count have been fried,
pulled limb from limb,
and mercifully simply murdered over the debate on how God(s) command(s) we live.

What those who adhere to religious doctrine fear most is inquiry and discussion.  For those choosing to give their lives to a rigid social order, questioning reads as a challenge to how they have invested their being.  We all make this decision, day by day, how to spend our lives.  And the longer it goes on, the deeper the investment, the more difficult to accept other ways.  And then a different choice becomes perceived as implying someone’s made a wrong choice.  Especially if there’s doubt, no matter how buried – a particular tripping place in belief systems dependent on opposition for definition.

The vital distinction that gives meaning to belonging is in its being set against all others who do not belong.  This is a process of definition though opposition, a short cut around the more arduous process of defining the self through the work of emotional growth.  Oppositional definition begets an ambivalent co-dependence and in social practice it trends to the parasitic.  This way of defining is dependent upon the containment of the life force of Others in a (less fortunate) role and place in order to give a meaning to belonging.  How else to find the outline of the select, if not by contrast with the damned?  The desire to be one of those who belong becomes the primary, most important definition to which all else is sacrificed.  Others become not as human, are not the elite, are not saved.  Definition through opposition is an ancient human tactic used as justification for all manner of dehumanizing and appropriation of resources.

And running beneath all Others, supporting and legitimizing this mechanism of definition through opposition is the containment, both by diminishment and by mythologizing, of the female life force.  We who give birth.  Life passes through our bodies setting this world a spin with its energy flowing one into another, perpetually and unbroken.  And truth be told all of it uncontainable.  Lightening in a bottle.  But in the master illusion of the oppositional framework it has been imperative, up till and still this time now, to enforce the definition of life-giving female energy as “controlled,” our conduit rerouted.  Not male.  But for the uses of.  The human trail traces off into the future through the body female.  Another sort of afterlife.  No wonder lives beyond count have been sacrificed in the fight over who says what our bodies mean.

Corinne contemplates a last grasp at a mailman as an alternate guide to follow.  He recommends a book through the library stacks, Morrison’s Beloved.  She could give herself over to him.  But Corinne pulls up, knowing the only guidance now comes from her own tumultuous and questing heart.  Heat, she has a nose for it.  And in the librarians’ house of worship, Corinne sniffs out another warm current, the alchemical process that transforms thought by birthing it into the world through words.  And here she’s found a faith she might be able to believe in – our hard won commons of knowledge,  evolving, brought to conscious surface day by day, eon by eon.  Now there’s an exploration to give some energy of life to.

Rather than living out her life bound within a system of belief that perceives her thinking as a threat, Corinne’s spirit, in truth a treasure, encourages her to accept responsibility for her struggle for meaning, a lifelong process of definition.  The coupling within her of a questing heart and an inability to submit offers a source of energy, a binary star of fission that forces her search to form the words for this question: if we can no longer believe what is practiced as faith inside our inherited religious beliefs, then what might faith be?

As Corinne would say, “the evidence of things not seen” impels her out that church door and into a canine tinged wilderness.  Out here where a practice of faith might just grow from an acceptance of our part in the pulsing energetic web of life radiating on and from this earth.  And within each human, too.

    • Margaret Elwood
    • May 19th, 2012

    Annie, I am moved and uplifted by this discourse, more than any other of yours that I have read. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

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