Doubting the Impossible in Sound of My Voice

by NiNi Banh

The 2011 indie psychological thriller Sound of My Voice challenges viewers to dwell on what is hardest for most — if not all — to do: believe in the impossible. In a suburban Los Angeles basement, a nameless cult meets weekly, led by a charismatic and mysterious leader, Maggie (played by The OA’s Brit Marling), who claims to be from the future. The cult is seemingly harmless and revolves around Maggie telling her acolytes vague, cryptic warnings of an apocalyptic future that she has returned to prevent. What her followers have to do is nothing short of bizarre — completely decontaminate themselves before meetings because Maggie’s present-day body is severely ill, learn an incredibly complex identifying handshake and perform it at every meeting, dig into themselves to find their deepest traumas to air out, and, overall, release every attachment they have of their comfortable modern-day livings because those won’t last for long.

While these activities aren’t harmful to anyone and the acolytes consent to all of it, two investigative journalists, Peter and Lorna (played by Argo’s Christopher Denham and indie-actress Nicole Vicius), doubt Maggie’s authenticity and innocence and have infiltrated her cult. The couple plans to make a documentary about cults, how they work, and their influence. But the journalists find themselves too involved when they realize that Maggie’s influence is more powerful than it should be. Peter, who initially scoffs at the idea of a time traveler and points at Maggie being a typical con artist, finds his firm skepticism wavering after Maggie easily guesses his past trauma that even Lorna wasn’t privy to. Lorna, on the other hand, wants to back out when Maggie asks Peter to prove his loyalty to the cult by bringing her a little girl whom Maggie claims is her mother — both because she recognizes the escalation of dangerous activity and because she sees Maggie’s favoritism of Peter.

Throughout the film, Maggie neither proves nor disproves her time-traveling claim and simply asks that her followers (and the viewers) trust in what she reveals to them slowly over time. Her story creates a trilemma that Peter and Lorna never solve by the end of the film — either Maggie is lying, crazy, or telling the truth. If that brings to mind the famous trilemma of Christ’s divinity popularized by C.S. Lewis, then that is no coincidence. Maggie’s story, while she may possibly be a dangerous cult leader and not a saintly divine being, parallels many aspects of Jesus’ life, journey, and teachings throughout the Gospels. She praises her followers — her chosen disciples — for making it through weeks of trials that occurred before the film’s beginning since they are the ones who weren’t weeded out; she shows extreme trust in them because of their supposedly chosen status and claims that they will have to use her teachings to prepare for the future she came from. Whenever the film displays Maggie’s teachings, the scenes are moderately uncomfortable to sit through for viewers because of their abnormal nature, including having her acolytes eat live worms or bite an apple then regurgitate it as a metaphor for purging the sins of society. Her lessons are stern and sometimes harsh, but also caring, much like how Jesus’ parables dug deep to the problems of society and revealed to the disciples and the public what they needed to fix about themselves. Keeping her words vague enough to neither prove nor disprove her time-traveling claims, Maggie talks about the near future when she will no longer be with her followers, and they’re disheartened to hear that. It’s not clear if she is referring to her death or returning to her own time (if she is really a time traveler), but she does end up predicting her departure from the cult by the end of the film.

The significant difference between Maggie and Jesus Christ is, with the film’s purposefully ambiguous ending in reference to Maggie’s actual identity, there is truth in the identity of Christ in the Bible. However, even Christ’s identity comes under scrutiny by his own followers — both by the apostles during their time with him and also by Christians in the present. It’s easy to doubt the claims of a time traveler because that’s just science fiction, but, for a religion of 2.4 billion people, Christians find themselves doubting God daily. Many Christians, myself included, doubt God. That doubt is less of skepticism over his divinity, existence, or person, but more of his capabilities to overcome. It can be something that seems small to us like expecting the worst for our grades or believing that the state of our lives is irreparable, even in God’s hands.

The many ways in which I doubt God have varied from year to year. Sometimes, I pray that He’ll help me make it through the semester yet simultaneously prepare for the worst possible outcome, regardless. Ideally, I wouldn’t feel the need to brace myself for the worst because I know that I can trust in God and that He will carry me through all difficult times. Sometimes, I pray yet think that my prayers won’t be answered because my problems won’t matter to God. The irrationality of my brain is what leads me to doubt God, even when the truth is right in front of me. In Jeremiah 29:11-12, God declares, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.” Despite knowing this truth, I still wrestle with firmly believing that God has plans to prosper me when, through my own mistakes and failings, I end up in situations that I think God can’t bring me out of. However, the truth is that He does bring me out every valley, no matter if I’m in that valley because I angrily lashed out at a friend or didn’t put in the effort I should have in my classes.

God treasures all of His creation and wants to help us prevail and flourish, yet we can’t trust Him fully. Why do we of little faith doubt so much when our faith is meant to be built on the firm foundation of God’s truth in the Bible?

During one of the cult’s weekly meetings, a follower named Lam asks Maggie for proof that she is really from an apocalyptic future. He requests that she tell them about an event that will happen later in the current year, 2010, so that the cult can have evidence that her time-traveling claims aren’t a sham. Maggie refuses to, which to Peter and Lorna (and skeptical viewers) comes off as evasion, and rebukes Lam for his disbelief. She explains that proving herself is pointless. Even if she tells them of an event that they can prove now, it will simply spiral into a chain of proof after proof because the doubt of narrow minds is never-ending. Jesus performs numerous miracles in the Gospels, with the Resurrection being the greatest one of all, yet even His closest disciples didn’t fully believe Him until they touched His resurrected body. For Christians, there is already plenty of evidence right in front of us through the Bible, yet we have such a hard time trusting without doubt. For Peter and Lorna, their skepticism of Maggie is understandable in the context of the film since her lack of evidence does nothing to help build her claim, but at the same time, her reasons for not providing her followers with specific knowledge of the future are equally justifiable. Having knowledge of one’s own future is a dangerous power to hold because there’s too much someone could do with it.

What if we could know what God has planned for us — the good and the bad? Would it help us doubt Him less and trust more? I’m inclined to think that possessing that knowledge would be counterproductive. I know that I would get lazy because I would try to avoid the struggles that have been planned out for me and sit around waiting for the blessings that I know will come. That kind of knowledge belongs in Heaven alone and isn’t for us to have. As in Genesis, God had given Adam and Eve everything they should have and instructed them to stay away from fruit of the tree of good and evil. However, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, which gave them knowledge they weren’t meant to have and that changed the entire story of humanity. Adam and Eve were supposed to rest in Eden with God forever, but their disobedience and forbidden knowledge caused them to be banished.

In the same way, we shouldn’t be able to know our own futures because we could destroy our own lives by assuming that God doesn’t already know what’s best for us. If we found out that He had one career path planned for us and decided to choose something else that we wanted more, who is to say we wouldn’t make things worse for ourselves? When Maggie rebukes Lam for his disbelief, Lam is escorted out of the basement and told to never return. Maggie seems to have already known that Lam wasn’t present in the future she grew up in but that his girlfriend, Christie, was. Despite this knowledge, Maggie allowed both Lam and Christie to join the cult earlier in the movie because, if she had denied Lam entrance, then she could have changed the future in a more detrimental way. As omnipresent and omniscient as He is, God must have known that Adam and Eve would be tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, yet He didn’t intervene because He already knew the plan of things to come.

Doubt is an inherent part of our lives, a remnant of the original sin and Adam and Eve’s doubt that God didn’t know what was best for them, and there is nothing we can do to get rid of it completely as long as we are still in an imperfect state. The only thing left for us to do is trust.

At the end of the film, for Peter and Lorna, practicing trust means two different things. Lorna finds out through contact with government agents that Maggie isn’t actually a time traveler but rather a wanted criminal, and Lorna plans to give her up to the authorities. Meanwhile, Peter gets an assignment from Maggie to bring her a little girl from the school he works at. Maggie claims that the girl is her mother as child and just wants to meet her. Peter trusts Maggie enough to set up a meeting while Lorna trusts that Maggie is lying and sends the authorities after her. In the last few minutes of the film, a cliffhanger leaves Peter and the audience befuddled: the girl perfectly replicates the cult’s incredibly complicated handshake with Maggie.

“How do you know my secret handshake?” the girl asks.

“You taught it to me,” Maggie answers.

The moment is strikingly similar to the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when the authorities are onto her before Peter can process anything else, and the truth is left up to the viewers to interpret. Has Maggie been lying the entire time and concocted an extremely complex con? Or was she telling the truth? The proof for and against her is set up purposefully to give no clear answer. But, the proof for Christ is readily available. We just have to accept it and trust it.

And with God, all things are possible.

NiNi Banh is a Creative Writing major and Latin minor at HBU. She has had a love for writing since she was six. Her biggest dream in life is colorfully expressing her faith through her art.

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