“Will God forgive us?”
A pastor’s grief, guilt, and growing crisis of faith gives rise to First Reformed, from writer-director Paul Schrader. Schrader has delved into faith before in films like Hardcore and The Last Temptation of Christ (for which he wrote the screenplay). He has also sought to plumb the dark places of life with scripts such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. In First Reformed all of this comes together.
Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a historic church in upstate New York. It is now little more than a tourist stop with a very small congregation. The church operates under the auspices of a nearby megachurch, Abundant Life. After church one Sunday, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is severely depressed over environmental issues. Although Toller tries to lead Michael to see hope, eventually Michael succumbs to his despair. This adds to Toller’s already dark mood.
Toller had been a military chaplain and had encouraged his son to go into the military as well. After his son was killed in Iraq, Toller has lived with guilt and seems to be trying to live a life of penance. He lives a Spartan existence and seems to put off any who would seek to care for him—especially the choir director at Abundant Live (Victoria Hill) who carries a torch for him. The only person he can find any connection with in his world of darkness is Mary. As Toller’s mood continues to spiral down and his health seems to be failing as well, he decides to take a drastic action to bring attention to the environmental issues that concerned Michael.
At one level, First Reformed is a study of a crisis in faith faced by an individual. Toller’s struggle with guilt over his son, a pessimism about where the world is headed, and his failure to find happiness in life seems to have cut Toller off from any sense of God. As he journals (which we often hear in voice over) Toller says the things he writes are much like the things he says to God “when he is listening.” Through all this he must continue to serve the church week after week.
But this film also raises the question of how is the church to act faithfully in a world facing crises. Toller’s little church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary and Abundant Life is planning a big event. One of the biggest donors is Edward Balq, an industrialist who doesn’t want global warming or the environment talked about. He wants to make sure politics are avoided in the anniversary celebration. Toller is beginning to question how the church cannot be involved in such issues. It falls on Abundant Life senior pastor, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles) to try to keep Toller in line.
What of the question of political issues in church? It should be noted that First Reformed was a waystation on the Underground Railroad. Obviously political issues have mattered here in the past. But Jeffers, although appreciating where Toller is coming from, must also try to appease those who give generously to the church. This can often be a struggle for those who believe that God’s message speaks to many of the woes that face the world. There are always those who do not want the prophetic voice of the church to be heard.
Pastor Toller’s spiritual anguish, I think, is an exaggeration of a malaise that afflicts much of the church and society. It is not a lack of faith (either for Toller or the church at large). We become so overwhelmed by the griefs and pains of life that we feel paralyzed to address the deep needs of the world around us. After all, we can barely deal with our own problems as we watch the church seeming to be in a death spiral of its own and society falling apart in anger, crudeness, and incivility. This film speaks to the struggle of how to live out the faith we hold to in a time that challenges our faith and values.
Photos courtesy of A24