An overview of the religious drama, First Reformed, in context of the church and Christianity.
Doubt, heresy and conviction have been some of the most enduring themes throughout film history. Since D.W Griffith’s 1919 silent masterpiece “Intolerance”, the struggle between those who see themselves as carrying out the divine will of God against the oppressive godless masses remains one of the most intriguing struggles in film to this day.
Director Paul Schrader (screenwriter for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”) is concerned with this conflict, and his latest film “First Reformed” is perhaps his most obvious analysis of this struggle with a close look at how it plays out in contemporary American culture.
The film addresses the loss of faith in the structural balance of the church, the economic effects on the church, the loss of young people to ideology and, primarily, the environment.
The film follows Father Ernest Toller, (Ethan Hawke) a disgruntled pastor of a dying historic church, as he councils a young couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger) to help them work through their convictions. Michael, the husband, involves himself with a radical environmentalist activist organization and Mary, his wife, is concerned about his well being.
The problems all three of these characters are forced to deal with are issues that currently plague the American church as a whole.
As the pastor researches climate change and other man-made environmental problems, he begins to see how closely monetary desires are connected with the harm done to the earth.
His church is owned and operated by the local megachurch and serves as more of a tourist attraction than an active part of the body of Christ. The megachurch pastor (Cedric Kyles) asks Toller to be more active in the community, but Toller is uncomfortable with the close connections between polluting industries and the church.
Toller does help lead a youth group for the megachurch, but he runs into even more problems. While discussing the global suffering of Christians, one young man in the group begins spouting right-wing talking points about protecting borders and fighting back. All of this is deeply antithetical to Toller’s philosophy and exacerbates his concerns about the state of contemporary Christianity.
The issues the film identifies are real problems the church needs to focus on.
The number of Americans who do not identify with organized religion has grown from 15 percent to 20 percent in the past five years, with 18-29 year-olds having the largest share (32 percent) of the “nones.”
While religious affiliation and regular church attendance are declining, megachurches are booming. Televangelists, multi-site churches, book deals, concerts, films and international ministries are how today’s churches service and many people of faith, like Toller, do not appreciate this shift.
When Toller sees the troubling statistics surrounding global climate change, he believes the church is to blame for taking a back seat and allowing monetary gain under capitalism to ride shotgun to Scripture. Christians watched corporations rip out the rainforests, contaminate the oceans, pollute the air and endanger thousands of species every year.
Despite all of this, Christians are largely unwilling to take responsibly, with only 28 percent of evangelicals believing humans are the primary reason for climate change, with many in support of President Trump’s abandonment of the Paris Agreement on climate change and his relaxing of environmental regulations on corporations. One would assume that, if biblical theology took precedence, Christians would be the most environmentally-conscious voters. After all, Paul notes that people who have never heard the name of Jesus can still come to God through nature.
Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”
The question “First Reformed” continually asks is, “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to his creation?” Through powerful performances and sharp dialogue that gives the two camps of thought adequate time to elaborate on the issue, the film poses fascinating questions to the religious viewer about his or her own life. Does he or she care enough about the earth to consider it a pure instrument of God?
The subsequent passages in Romans 1 says that humanity, “…did not glorify Him as God, nor were they thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—the birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.”
While there were no factories, sweatshops or fossil fuel extraction plants when Paul wrote that passage, the message can be prophetic for today’s readers. Humanity has defamed creation to such an extent that many scientists predict that it may soon be too late to reverse the damage. These facts make Toller’s conviction the most arresting element of the film. He is an incredibly compelling and complex character who persists in his faith despite everything around him.
Foregoing spoilers, many viewers may be uncomfortable with his actions by the end of the film, but whether he is right or wrong is almost irrelevant. What matters is the logic of his conviction. What answers do Christians provide to a world without hope?
It is a highly debatable issue that is sure to spark many fascinating conversations on theology and political and social consciousness. In a culture intent upon unrestrained capitalism and egocentrism, introspection in film is not only welcome, but direly needed.
By the end of the film, many viewers accustomed to religious movies having a clear protagonist and antagonist or well-rounded conclusion may be disappointed. “First Reformed” does not seek to give answers, but it does a fantastic job of cinematically interpreting the questions in order to help the viewer come to his or her own conclusion.
Each viewer may walk away with their own answers, but the powerful storytelling, passionate performances and strikingly beautiful cinematography are undeniably worth the watch.
This film is accessible on Kanopy, a free streaming service through public or university libraries nationwide.
Gaebe is an Opinion Writer.