This week Beyond Belief talks with writer Carolyn S. Briggs. Her 2002 memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost was reissued in 2011 as Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. She wrote the screenplay adaptation of her book for the film, Higher Ground, released that same year. Carolyn is an associate professor of English at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa.
What interested you in contributing to Beyond Belief? It’s impossible to truly understand the experience of being immersed in a religious community unless you have experienced it yourself. However, language is the great facilitator of empathy. In telling our stories, we invite readers to come alongside of us, to imagine themselves in our shoes (sensible, low heeled flats or Birkenstocks, as the case may be). The stories in Beyond Belief will serve as a bridge for those on the outside to enter in and gain insight. For those of us who have experienced an insular existence, we have the opportunity to enter into others’ stories with compassion and understanding and extend that mercy to ourselves, if we still need that kind of tending. And sometimes I do.
What was it like to revisit your experience of living within extreme religion? Writing a memoir right after I left the church was probably a mistake. I should have allowed myself more time to process that loss. Writing the screenplay for my memoir gave me the great gift of perspective. It was like going home as I immersed myself in that world again. In production, we chose hymns and worship songs for the soundtrack, and I would find myself singing them word-for-word, verse after verse. It was all there. I was smiling, laughing and crying listening to those beautiful songs. I was still fluent in Born-Again and that was a lovely discovery. In fact, I was more comfortable speaking to Fuller Theological Seminary students in California than I was addressing a film festival audience in Nantucket. I am bi-lingual, I suppose, but neither language expresses me any longer.
What was the hardest part of leaving for you? I lost the approval of many I cared deeply about. I was an Elder’s wife. I was the director of the drama ministry. I taught Bible study. And then I just walked away from all my overachieving holiness. One of my counselors told me that God would kill me for doing this. My mother was humiliated. My father was disappointed. My children were confused and depressed. My then husband, one of the finest human beings on this planet, was stunned with my betrayal. I didn’t have any way of understanding the world or interpreting it. My lens for viewing the world was shattered and I couldn’t see a future without God.
Why do you think modern day women are attracted to extreme religion? We are fundamentally wired to want answers. Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures, and we are, to varying degrees, uncomfortable living in a random universe. Faith is the only possible way to reconcile the events in our lives and in our world. Science doesn’t do it. Education is helpful, but not transcendent. Rilke advises learning to love the questions themselves, but for most of us, that is uncomfortable. “I’m not sure if my significant other loves me, but I’m going to find pleasure in just wondering if he does.” Does that really work for anyone?
We’re also social creatures, and we seek a community of believers. These groups usually reflect what we already fundamentally believe about the world. When I was eighteen, the Jesus people were pious hippies—it was a perfect match for a pregnant eighteen-year-old whose boyfriend was a rock musician.
What do you still carry with you from your religious life? I love European cathedrals. I’m rarely in an American church of any sort, but in Europe, I can hardly keep myself out of every church I encounter. I light candles though I don’t know why. I stand before the altar. I walk from one stained glass window to the next to the next. My heart is always pounding. Once in Istria, Croatia, I entered the vestibule of a church already observing mass. A woman saw me standing in the doorway, and she walked toward me. She’s going to invite me in, I thought. Instead, she closed the door in my face. I suppose she saw me as an outsider, a curious tourist making the holy somehow profane. And maybe I was.
What advice do you have for women who are struggling with their faith now? Many women have written to me and told me that they are the woman in my film, the woman who has lost her faith and lost herself and only has a glimmer of hope that she can make a life apart from God. I tell those women that God is big enough to contain their doubt. Don’t let other people and their neuroses dictate to you how to live your life. Religious people are threatened by people who leave their faith. I’ve lost many friends who don’t know what to do with me, where to categorize me, what column to place me in. Am I a sheep or am I a goat? Am I chaff or wheat? What the hell am I, anyway? This is the kind of uncertainty that many people of faith just can’t deal with, so they close the door in our faces. They wash their hands of us.
It’s okay if you are judged by others. Just don’t judge yourself. You’re loved. Keep taking a step and another one. Remember when your parents told you there was nothing to be afraid of? There’s really not.
What are your current writing projects? Most writers I know are also teaching writers, and this is a double-edged sword. We are privileged to read about writing and talk about writing, and sometimes we read interesting student writing—all good. Yet all of that work is time-consuming and keeps us from our own art. I teach Composition class year round, but every spring, I teach a class dedicated to creative writing. My students write poetry that inspires me to write poetry again. What a pleasure! I wrote a screenplay this winter, Geshe, which is in early stages of production. This summer, I’m retreating to the Catskills to complete my second memoir. And in the meantime, I am writing essays exposing and exploring the oppressive elements of faith, family, and relationships.