‘First Reformed’: 2018’s Most Thought-Provoking Film So Far

Courtesy A24

Paul Schrader is a name Christian artists and art-appreciators should know. The Grand Rapids native grew up in the Christian Reformed church and received a BA from Calvin College before becoming one of America’s most celebrated filmmakers and theorists.

Whether as screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s most iconic films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) or director of his own films (American Gigolo, Affliction), Schrader has been a formidable presence in American cinema for decades. But he’s also made significant contributions to film theory. In 1972 he published Transcendental Style in Film, a book still discussed in film and art classes that represents an important contribution to discussions of the sacred in art broadly and movies particularly.

It’s appropriate that Schrader’s new film, First Reformed, was released in theaters the same month an updated edition of Transcendental Style (with a new introduction by Schrader) was also released. In the book’s new introduction, Schrader describes how, as a 24-year-old grad student in UCLA’s film school, he had “sensed a bridge” between the spirituality he was raised with and the “profane” (according to his church upbringing) movies he loved.

“It was a bridge of style, not content,” Schrader notes, and Transcendental Style was his attempt to articulate this bridge in a work of film theory and theological aesthetics.

First Reformed feels like a personal culmination of this “bridge” of Schrader’s worlds, just as it feels like Exhibit A of the “transcendental style” he’s grappled with all these years. But it is bigger than that. The film is a work of art and rightly acclaimed by critics as a serious and provocative exploration of Christian faith. It makes astute observations about the state of religion generally in our secular age, as well as the toxic temptations facing Christians particularly.

It’s a difficult and disturbing film, yes, but one befitting our difficult and disturbing moment.

Tale of Two Churches

First Reformed is a tale of two churches: First Reformed and Abundant Life. The juxtaposition of these two fictional, upstate New York congregations provides the backbone of the plot and frames the film’s larger commentaries on Christianity.

First Reformed is a Dutch Reformed Church pastored by the Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). The 250-year-old congregation has a lively history but a pitiful present. On any given Sunday there are scarcely a dozen parishioners in the pews. More tourists than church members pass through the church building each week. The Rev. Toller has an austere, sober, melancholic personality that matches the church’s ambience. He’s an misanthropic existentialist who loves Thomas Merton and finds discussing theological conundrums “exhilarating.” Aware of depravity to the point of nihilistic indulgence, Toller fetishizes “the struggle,” idealizes brokenness, and spends most of his time in the proverbial garden (of Gethsemane).

Though Abundant Life is the “parent” church of First Reformed and pays its bills (presumably keeping the dying church on life support), it couldn’t be more different. With John 10:10 (“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”) emblazoned on the side of the church’s opulent facade, Abundant Life is a prosperity-oriented, opulent megachurch complete with a tattooed youth pastor and a full-service cafeteria (whose walls ironically display the words of Acts 2:42–47 and the humble beginnings of early Christian community).

Whereas Toller and First Reformed pursue unadorned, minimalist ministry that unsurprisingly attracts few—Toller ponders in his journal: “Did Jesus care about being liked?”—Abundant Life is a seeker-sensitive community that avoids uncomfortable topics, especially left-leaning politics. Abundant Life is led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), whose name may or may not be a nod to Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress.

Whereas Abundant Life is tempted to minimize the cost of discipleship and downplay the justice implications of the gospel (especially because its biggest tithers are conservative business tycoons), First Reformed—a church that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad—is tempted to focus exclusively on justice, trading piety for political activism and worshipful joy for partisan rage. The two churches represent the equally problematic temptations of “cheap grace” nominalism (Abundant Life) and theological liberalism (First Reformed)—two active fronts in the current battle for the soul of evangelicalism.

Despair and Hope

At their best, however, First Reformed and Abundant Life (who, we must remember, are connected as part of the same church family) represent two essential aspects of the Christian life that may feel at odds but must be held together: the cross and the resurrection, spare simplicity and gratuitous abundance, fasting and feasting, suffering and joy, pessimism because of sin and optimism because of sanctification, despair and hope. It’s no coincidence Schrader spends many pages in Transcendental Style talking about how both “abundant” and “sparse” aesthetics are essential if an artist wants their work to express the transcendent. As in art, so in faith: the contradictions and paradoxes are uncomfortable but essential.

As in art, so in faith: the contradictions and paradoxes are uncomfortable but essential.

The tension of despair and hope is especially central to Toller’s journey in First Reformed. Already prone to despair because of personal setbacks (his son died in Iraq and his wife left him), Toller’s journey into the dark night of the soul deepens over the course of the film. He becomes involved in environmental activism and despairs over the seemingly irreversible harm being done to God’s creation (and the apathy expressed about the issue by so many Christians). Here the mood of the film—which certainly tilts toward the despair end of the spectrum—reflects the outlook of Schrader himself, who at a recent screening responded to the question “Are you in despair” with a simple “Yes.”

Courtesy A24

“Anyone who is optimistic at this moment hasn’t been paying attention,” Schrader said. “There’s not a lot to be optimistic about, both in the long-range and the short-range.”

But while despair is the prevailing outlook of First Reformed, Schrader doesn’t necessarily frame it as heroic. If anything, Toller’s journey deeper into despair—which eventually leads to violence—is seen as a symptom of pride. Notably, Toller paraphrases Merton at one point in the film: “Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses someone’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.”

Merton also said, “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man deliberately turns his back on all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.”

This sums up Toller by film’s end. His Gethsemane complex morphs into a narcissistic obsession with brokenness, to the point that he responds to one concerned church woman with brazen verbal abuse: “I despise you. . . . Your concerns are petty. You are a stumbling block.” The more he isolates himself from others and assumes the mantle of a martyr facing the madness of the world head-on, the more dangerous and graceless he becomes.

Robert Bresson’s 1954 classic Diary of a Country Priest, and the “holy agony” of its priest protagonist, is clearly an inspiration for First Reformed, both in subject matter and also in “slow cinema” style. Schrader’s lengthy analysis of Priest in Transcendental Style could just as easily be describing Hawke in First Reformed. Schrader describes Claude Laydu’s priest as sickly, alienated, socially isolated: “Unable to cope with the world of sin, either in himself or others . . . he progresses inexorably toward the metaphor of martyrdom.”

Disparity and Transcendence

One of the key elements of a movie with “transcendental style,” according to Schrader, is what he calls “disparity.” Disparity, he writes in the book, “extends spiritual schizophrenia—that acute sense of two opposing worlds—to the viewer.” Often disparity is a gradual process in a film, culminating in a “decisive action,” which Schrader defines as “a totally bold call for emotion which dismisses any pretense of everyday reality.” It’s a moment like the raising-from-the-dead scene in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), or the “raining frogs” scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999): “an incredible event within the banal reality which must by and large be taken on faith.”

Disparity is certainly present in First Reformed. Toller is plagued by the “spiritual schizophrenia” he feels between the paradoxical extremes of Christianity represented by his church and Abundant Life. He embodies the whiplash many Christians today doubtless also feel. How do we manage the many paradoxes of the Christian life (weakness is strength, dying is life, losing is finding, and so on)? How do we simultaneously pursue truth and love, mercy and judgment, grace and discipline? How do we wrap our heads around a Christianity where Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, all claim to be adherents?

How do we wrap our heads around a Christianity where Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, all claim to be adherents?

Living in disparity is often too hard to bear (as seen in Toller’s descent into madness), and perhaps it’s getting harder than ever before. Pastor Jeffers remarks in the film that today’s young people “want certainty” and are thus prone to extremism. The paradoxes of Christianity aren’t clean enough for them, and so they often resort to politics instead—more clear-cut “causes” where their fervor for justice can be efficiently funneled in what feels like a more productive direction.

Indeed, one hallmark of our secular age is how politics has supplanted religion as a source of “transcendence.” We see this in a darkly comic funeral scene in First Reformed. Instead of a hymn, a church choir honors the dead by singing Neil Young’s environmental anthem “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” We see it as well in the film’s provocative third-act turn, where sacred and political iconography are blurred to disturbing effect.

Challenge to Christians

In First Reformed, does Schrader follow the “politics as new religion” trajectory of post-Christian culture? The film could certainly be construed in this way. But it might also be construed as a challenge to Christians to avoid the either/or extremes that define the First Reformed/Abundant Life disparity. Rather than a critique of one or the other iteration of Christianity, perhaps the film is calling out any form of Christianity that conveniently picks and chooses, embracing some but excluding other aspects of biblical truth and discipleship.

As Ross Douthat argues in Bad Religion, heresy almost always stems from “a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.”  But a “cleaner” faith is not a sustainable one. This is important to understand in our world of choose-your-own-adventure spirituality, where young people want certainty, and the both/and tensions of Christianity can feel like cumbersome impediments to the urgent justice tasks at hand.

It’s messier to adopt a Christianity where evangelism, repentance, and holiness are pressing concerns as are social issues like racial reconciliation, abortion, and environmental destruction. It’s messier to follow Jesus in ways that don’t line up neatly with political parties. It’s messier to embrace a faith that is soberly aware of sin, suffering, and injustice but also full of joy, hope, and bold faith. It’s messier to embrace the best of First Reformed and Abundant Life.

It’s messier, yes, but it’s also healthier, and closer to the heart of Jesus. Schrader’s First Reformed may not show us what this healthier Christianity looks like. But maybe in time we can show it to the world.