Reader beware: here be spoilers
Doing my undergrad at what is perhaps the Mecca of conservative Christian education, some of the most formative years of my early adulthood were spent swimming in the deep end of American Evangelicalism. To be fair, my upbringing had been a bit more moderate compared to some of my peers, but much more often than not I’d find myself drinking from the same cup as the rest of the Evangelical world. Now inundated in this bizarre bubble culture within higher education, it wouldn’t be outrageous to assume I’d find myself submerged. As it happens, I instead learned how to tread water.
Most of my professors weren’t out to indoctrinate me and simply turn their students into their lackies. Instead, I was taught how to approach theology and think for myself (with some guidance, of course) and ultimately recognise how flabbergastingly immense the whole enterprise is. But as I studied and learned to incorporate my faith with art, philosophy, and science while travelling to new places and new cultures, I began to question that cup that I and so many of my peers throughout my life had been returning to again and again. Things became less black and white, and by the time I finished college my understanding of what it meant to implement my otherwise pretty conservative theological values into the way I approach the world started becoming more and more drastically different from where I’d been when I began. American Evangelicalism was no longer to me a force for good, rather something potentially globally destructive.
I know this all sounds incredibly hyperbolic and is likely immediately alienating to half of the people I know, but give me a chance to explain. This is where First Reformed comes in.
I can’t say I’m an expert on the work of writer-director Paul Schrader, as First Reformed was the first film of his directorial oeuvre that I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. I’ve seen his three most prominent screenwriting collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ), have listened to several interviews with him in the wake of First Reformed‘s release, and I recently picked up a copy of his seminal text Transcendental Style in Film (though I’ve yet to read it). And still with such limited knowledge of his work, First Reformed is a clear and strikingly personal piece, revealing of the journey Schrader has taken with his faith and where he’s ultimately found himself.
Listening to Schrader’s interview with the podcast Filmspotting, I learned about his deeply conservative religious upbringing, growing up in the Christian Reformed church in Michigan and not even seeing a film until he was seventeen years old. While he was always transfixed by transcendental, spiritual cinema, his own work often became an act of rebellion as he grappled with the new world he found in his adulthood. Expert though he may be, he wouldn’t even consider creating a piece of his own in the transcendental form, citing his directorial obsessions with sex and violence, which conflict with the simple, quiet, and pensive nature of the style. Yet forty-two years down the road from Taxi Driver, he’s finally found the time is right to approach transcendental cinema on his own terms, using the occasion to re-engage with his Christian Reformed roots.
From this point more of what I’ll have to say about Mr. Schrader will be based on my interpretation of his film rather than his own words, but it’s clear to me that this is a man who, though he’s turned against his roots in many ways, still has a love for and a bond to his faith that he cannot shake, no matter how aggressive a pain it may cause.
First Reformed follows a Christian Reformed priest, Rev. Ernst Toller, as he runs one of the oldest churches in America (and whose congregation you could enumerate on almost one hand), a church paid for and operated by a much larger and louder megachurch of the same theological denomination and traditional origins. As Rev. Toller goes about his usual operations of the church, he’s approached by an attendee, Mary, who asks him to counsel her husband, Michael, a radical environmentalist just released from Canadian prison who’s exhibiting some worrying behaviour. As Toller dialogues with the couple and begins doing his own research, his faith and reason take him on a theological (and forcibly political) roller coaster ride while he seeks to surmise the righteous course of action, how to reconcile the conflict he begins to see between the church and the desperate reality he’s recognising.
Indeed, despair is the prime directive of Toller’s character – not always consciously on his part, but its his journey through despair via faith that makes him so compelling and what makes me identify with him so closely. You get that sense from him from the start of the film, and it’s as though the events that follow slowly give corporeal form to what he’s known all along but couldn’t quite articulate. And that’s part of what I love about this film, that general sense in which it unfolds and unravels at a deliberate pace, becoming something wildly different and yet wholly cohesive by the end. Schrader employs his transcendental toolkit to full effect, delivering us a plethora of dialogue scenes and simple interactions through a stationary camera only to descend into some form of chaos, tossing in gunshot wounds, levitation, and barbed wire in ways that are a thousand times more shocking and potent via their sharp contrast to what has preceded. It’s a testament to the type of emotional resonance a filmmaker can pry from their viewers through precise, almost surgical craft.
Toller’s despair is largely focused toward himself right out of the gate, something that I again can identify with, but it’s the larger forces at play that he begins to discover over time. As he converses with Michael, Toller is initially more dismissive of Michael’s dismay regarding the impending climatological crisis and shocked by its extremity, but the seeds are planted. Michael’s grief, divorced from faith, takes its toll on him and leads him to take his own life, while Toller begins revolving around his own whirlpool of research. This is where I believe Schrader’s criticisms of the Christian Reformed church (and American Evangelicals as a whole) begin to take place.
There were a plethora of subjects Schrader could have approached and made the centrepiece of the doom and gloom in the film, but I believe there’s a lot of wisdom in his decision to focus on environmentalism. Pollution of air and water and unsustainable forestry are long-known issues, and climate change and the resulting melting of the polar ice caps and sea level rise are almost universally accepted facts across the planet with a mountain of research and data to back it up, the United States being the only real holdout amongst major economic players globally. Beyond that, the theological instruction for humanity to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation is pretty straightforward biblically. So when Toller delves into the facts on his own, his response of sympathy for Michael and sense of duty to do his part (and for the church herself to take leadership on it) only makes sense.
The pushback he receives from his peers, however, is infuriating, to say the least. First Reformed Church’s sponsoring megachurch, Abundant Life, and therefore First Reformed Church by extension, is sponsored and funded heavily through donations by Balq Industries, a major energy firm, and, when Toller runs afoul with CEO Ed Balq by performing Michael’s funeral at a heavily-publicised waste dumping site with a rendition of Neil Young protest song “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” by the Abundant Life youth choir, he couldn’t be more shocked. At that stage, Toller hasn’t bought in to Michael’s stance on environmentalism yet, but he gets his first taste of the politicisation pulling the strings. A later conversation with Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life reveals that this politicisation has seeped into the church leadership as well, as Balq Industries major role in supporting the church prevents Jeffers from even considering taking a stance that would jeopardise the relationship. Throughout all of this, Toller has a few brief debates, but as he drives them toward the spiritual and theological rather than simply the scientific or political, he’s met consistently with the same response: “Who can know the mind of God?” A frustrating cop out that shoehorns the ambiguity needed for others to feel guiltless.
Toller above all wants the church to take a radical stance against the political norms of America to protect those endangered by climate change and be good stewards of the earth, just like First Reformed Church’s history as a part of the underground railroad, sheltering fugitive slaves from injustice on their road to freedom. But Toller’s sort of theology and Toller’s sort of church is an afterthought in today’s culture, not much more than a museum or a memory, “the gift shop” as the kids call it, as most congregants prefer to consume something bigger, louder, and flashier but possibly lacking in substance. Toller sees everything working against him, the hopelessness of it all, and he is filled with wrath against what the church has become and against himself for his inability to change it.
This is that reflection of what I believe is a piece of Schrader’s journey and my own with the church in America. When we moved into the world outside of where we grew up, we began to see more than what we were initially taught to believe and understand about the way things were. As we began to change our understanding of the way things were, we ran into a church that was stiff and stubborn, refusing to acknowledge our experience and what we knew to be true. And this not for any theological reasons – no, merely political. The church that championed conservative theology had been swallowed up in a political culture that whether through money or simply sly words over time had unified nearly all of Evangelical America under one political party and one political umbrella. Problems that seem like verifiable facts at this stage and on the surface seem like they should easily pair themselves with our theology – climate change, income inequality and poverty, starvation, human trafficking, overcrowding and privatisation of prisons, looking after refugees and aliens – are swept under the rug or scoffed at and declared to be hoaxes by the wider church. It’s the frustration of dealing with an impending crisis with a limited amount of time to act while your brothers and sisters in Christ seem not to hear reason. It’s a church caught up in politics over theology where acts of Christlikeness could have their greatest impact if we could all come together and even acknowledge that these problems exist, instead consistently swindled by powerful people using their conservativeness to remain in power.
That’s a whole lot of my own personal beliefs that I’ve just spilled onto the page, and with the concern of it having come off as too incendiary or demeaning, I want to make two acknowledgements as well.
First, I don’t believe there’s a villain in First Reformed. Certainly each character is flawed, and, while I’m of the opinion that our protagonist is the one with his facts in order, I don’t believe that any of the others are “bad people.” Indeed, everyone is acting in genuine faith and earnestly believes they’re doing the right thing, even energy executive Ed Balq. It’s simply that they’ve been misled and are left sitting on their bums while there’s a major global catastrophe on the way and, like Toller said, the church could play an essential role in mitigating the damage.
Second, the primary purpose of neither the making of this film nor my writing this post is to vocalise criticism and throw darts at the church. I strongly believe that Schrader’s goal with this film was instead to illustrate in some way his own personal conflict with the church and the internal conflict therein, and this is the way in which it parallel’s my own experiences. I never gave up on my faith nor drifted anywhere near as far as Schrader seems to have over his life, but the core elements are still there. It’s what made me sit silently in awe at the end of this film and what made me weep after I walked out of the cinema. It’s not a verbalisation of criticism but a presentation of one’s struggle with their relationship with the church and their self. It’s simple honesty and expression of experience.
Don’t take that to mean as well that I actually contemplated bombing a church – that’s far too literal an understanding of what’s going on here. The beauty of transcendental cinema is its ability to blend reality and unreality together. You see, cinema isn’t just about physical truth but emotional truth as well, and its ability to make manifest things that are otherwise left unsaid and uncommunicated is one of many reasons that I will forever be in love with and emotionally welded to this art form. No, I did not ever intend to take lives, but I have held anger and wrath over these things (righteous and and admittedly unrighteous), and this film gives it visceral voice through a rightly absurd situation.
But that’s not the only relationship and avenue the film explores. There’s an essential other half to this in Toller’s growing closeness to Mary, Michael’s pregnant widow. There’s no accident with Mary’s name, as she comes to represent hope and God’s grace. She’s also managed this marriage of Michael’s environmental extremist views with Toller’s unwavering (if dreary) faith, and, as their relationship flourishes, Mary imparts on Toller something bright and beautiful, something worth preserving and living for.
Ultimately, Toller’s wrath is the stronger of the two things in his mind, as he attempts to ignore the presence of God in the church by demanding that Mary not appear at the church’s 250th celebration, where he plans to take out everyone he believes is to be at fault through a suicide bombing using Michael’s home-manufactured vest. Of course, she doesn’t listen, and Toller is forced to confront the fact that humanity is not the only thing present in the church – hope is there, grace is there. God is there. No longer able to take action in the only way he knows how, Toller’s despair is compounded by his apparent impotency in his ability to do anything about it, and he turns it toward himself. He binds the barbed wire to his body as a form of self-flagellation and self-destruction, and readies himself to elect suicide, just like Michael.
Yet before he can take a sip of that drain cleaner, Mary, concerned about Toller’s absence at the ceremony, shows up in the parsonage, and they embrace. Even in the midst of immense anger and self-hatred, this hope, this grace of God, seeks him out and rescues him. The film’s abrupt ending leaves us in a state of uneasiness – there’s no resolution of that pain that Toller feels – but we have the knowledge of God’s love and presence in it, a sense of hope in a relationship fulfilled.
Even in my anger at the church or my disgust with the state of the world, I recognise the immensity of the problems I see and the near-hopelessness of my ability to do anything about it. That hopelessness drives me into my own self-despair and self-loathing – and, faced with that hopelessness in terms of practicality (amongst many other factors), I have indeed found myself in the past in the place of self-destruction. But just like Toller, God has sought me out and rescued me, giving me hope, peace, grace, and motivation to continue forward with what I think is the pathway to a better world and a better representation of Christ to the people around me. I thank God for that hope that He has provided me, and my aim is to move forward in life from that place of motivation, ambition, and belief that this is not all for naught.
I’ve had my issues with the Evangelical church, but, while I now refuse the term “Evangelical” as a descriptor for myself, I couldn’t possibly hate Evangelicals. For all the disagreements I may have, for all the issues I may see, for as much as I want to rip the status quo to shreds, I still see God within them. I know He’s there, and He’s doing remarkable things with broken vessels like He’s always done. I love the American Evangelical church. It’s my roots. It’s what’s made me who I am. And it’s that point of tension between love and anger, when I feel alone and helpless, that makes me want to curl up in the foetal position and weep. It’s what made First Reformed such a cathartic piece for me – a work of art moulded by decades of experience, wisdom, and reflection that seeks not to condemn but to confess. Thanks to Paul Schrader’s confession, I feel far less lonely in mine.