I’m not going to feign like I am the gatekeeper of fine cinema; I can admit that I love movies and I consume a healthy dose of it, but I am aware that I lack the acumen in the areas of film and I am less of a connoisseur and more of a mouth-breathing, acne-laden lover of the craft. Moviepass has been one of the greatest things to happen in my life. It’s a buffet of movies (except not really).
I knew going in that this would be one of those movies that was more profound than pleasurable. Not that all movies are one or the other, but it’s rare that a movie can interweave those two in a wonderful, symbiotic way. Most cases, a movie is either entertaining or thought-provoking. If you are an avid fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise, or if your favorite actor is the Rock, or if you wear jeans with white stitching, or if your go-to energy drink is Venom, then this movie is most likely not for you.
/end of pleasantries
I had been looking forward to watching First Reformed for quite some time. The premise was what really piqued my interest; it was an intentional yet intimate peek into the psyche and glacial evolution of one Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke). It’s almost incredible that someone with four Oscar nominations can be underrated, but he is. Even though he was incredible in Training Day, Dead Poets’ Society (which is almost 30 years old), and Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight (the most underrated romantic movies), he is simply transcendent in his role.
As a man of the cloth myself, I was not only intrigued by the portrayal of the pastorate (and to be privy to all its potential internal torment that comes with the job), I was excited to see Paul Schrader work his magic. Having a Calvinist background, I felt that this movie, both in story and aesthetic, was the proverbial sweet spot for Schrader.
On a smaller scale, I have become a huge Amanda Seyfried fan. She has come a long way from her All My Children and Mean Girls days. She has some serious acting chops.
But again, this is not a cinematic review; there are plenty out there. Rather, I want to use this as a canvas to work out some things related to ministry and theology that the movie allowed certain deep-seeded, well, seeds to come into full bloom. I’ll even format in an enumerated list. You’re welcome.
1. “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time.”
Part of me wishes that I wrote this post as soon as I watched it because I would have a better recollection of my own thoughts and of the movie itself, but I have a condition called laziness. I’m recovering, but it’s touch and go.
In the early parts of the film, Toller, at Mary’s (Seyfried) behest, counsels her husband. Michael, who is a non-violent environmental zealot, struggles with the idea that he is bringing a child into a doomed planet. He emotionally poses the question (paraphrased), how can one knowingly bring in a child that is going to be a barren wasteland? How could one, in good conscience, bring someone into a burning house?
At face value, Michael is concerned with the deteriorating environment and it’s inevitable and irreversible plummet into an unlivable condition, but it points to a deeper and more common struggle: the lack of hope.
Pastorally, this is something that is hard to conjure up for people. When I would struggle with my own “dark night of the soul”, the last thing I wanted to hear was “oh cheer up, buddy boy! Christ is for you! He died for you! Have hope!” It’s not that I did not believe in these truths. It wasn’t that I did not comprehend it. I know that flossing is beneficial with my mind, yet why do I avoid it like I avoid eye-contact? It was that generic pill that was pastorally dispensed to me and everyone else, as if hope was a switch that I just had to spiritually turn on.
The whole movie deals with this juggling act of hope and despair. The near two hour movie is seemingly an inner soliloquy, trying to resolve this tension. But therein lies the rub: there really isn’t a neat and tidy resolution (to both the movie and this concept). Hope is only as uplifting as when it is contrasted to the flagrant pangs of despair.
Over the years, I have made it a point to give up this notion that every single counseling session had to end with a pleasant resolution. I am trying to be ok with leaving a meeting in dissonance. I think that’s my way of trying to relinquish this savior complex but also having a macro view of each person’s unique story. The ironic thing is, now that I’m sitting on this side of the table, I want to dispense the one-size-fits-all, John 3:16 truisms and expect it to grow into this strong oak tree of faith, but I’m realizing that part of my responsibility is to sit in the tricky tension, as one who also is in constant tension.
2. Can God forgive us?
This is a reoccurring question that is first asked to the theological expert, Toller, but then is deeply contemplative and ambivalent to the question. Throughout the movie, you can see the precipitous decrescendo of his theological convictions. When Toller was first asked, he sharply responds, “how can I know the mind of God?” I’m not sure if that’s the most pastoral response, but if anything, is indicative of maybe his own spiritual wellbeing and a telltale sign of things to come.
When you’re in it, like really in it, the question that haunts me isn’t so much can God forgive us, but rather, will God forgive us. The core issue of my doubt, that can sometimes seep into my theological tank, is not God’s ability, but God’s sympathy. Both are equally offensive, but in a perverted way, doubting God’s sympathy almost seems more superficially pious because it’s my way of acting as a flagellant. Not to spoil the movie, but I think that Toller is attempting to figure out the answer to that question; and through his own reflections, his own doubt leads to a more spirited efforts to make up for his transgressions.
3. “These kids, they want certainty. You know, they don’t think, follow. They fall prey to extremism. It’s a world without hope.”
The title of the movie is also the name of the historic church in which Rev. Toller ministers. Having experienced the death of his son and the divorce of his wife, he is offered the position by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), the senior pastor at the overseeing megachurch (aptly named Abundant Life Church).
There’s a scene where Toller is answering a question about suffering and its correlation to one’s faith, and he says that the way of Jesus is not always the safest nor the smoothest journey; he proceeds to even say that the American way is not always the Jesus way. And this triggers a young man to a point of white rage, and he accuses Toller of being unpatriotic and crazy. This is, yet again, Schrader, touching on the interplay between hope and hopelessness, but I find it almost prophetic, being a casualty of my own extremism. For me, ministry success needs have a certain aesthetic. Don’t get me wrong; there are certain theological truths that are clearly black and white. But when I’m in the grind of ministry, I feel like I have to give myself grace to find the victories in the grey. Not only that, Jeffers refers to a thoughtless obedience as a byproduct of such automatic and fatalist philosophy. As much as I want copious note taking, verbal affirmations, and even an intermittent “amen” or “preach, preacha!”, I don’t want lemmings; I would rather have people cultivate and harness the ability to think critically, pushback (graciously), and take ownership of the things they believe. How much stronger, then, would one’s own theological convictions be?
This movie is more “Christian”, to me, then say something like God’s Not Dead. Or God’s Not Dead 2. Or God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, set to come out later this year. They really take the phrase “if at first you don’t succeed” to an insufferable level. I feel the same way about Christian music. I feel more spiritual when I listen to jazz then I do, say, Toby Mac. But that’s neither here nor there.
First Reformed is far from a perfect film and is more uncomfortable than it is entertaining. The grace aspects that pop up are hardly conspicuous and are only truly seen in hindsight after digesting what I had just watched.
Even though I have divulged quite a bit of the movie here, and not to give away even more of it (I feel like I’m offering the remaining two bites my sandwich), there are definite streams of grace that is beautifully yet subtly weaved throughout. For instance, there are moments where Toller is tormented by his own theological thoughts, or he is consumed by this newfound conviction to be a caretaker for God’s creation, but there are moments in which those thoughts are silenced and he is present. Those moments also happen to coincide with Mary’s presence, and I’m not sure what she is supposed to be a metaphor for, but I, too, have moments when I am in desperate need for intervention and a respite to quiet the never ending machinations of my mind.
First Reformed was such a profound experience because it was a good but imperfect reflection of the things that I struggle with. For example, how do I, as a minister of the Gospel, deal with my propensity to, not even look at the glass half empty, but complain that the glass is filled with water and not cold brew, brewed with beans from Ethiopia? I don’t know. The movie almost felt like a transcendental experience. I mean, I’m not going to suddenly go on a retreat of solitude next to a lake, and start my own bean farm, but I was strangely encouraged. Scratch that. I am encouraged. I am encouraged that even in my complicated and seemingly endless state of tension, plagued by my occasional doubts of God’s amazing grace in the form of his forgiveness, suffering from an all-or-nothing philosophy of ministry, and a struggle to allow my suffering to blot out the ability to see God’s grace, that it doesn’t change the fact that God’s grace is existent and that it is enough.
I’ll end with this gratuitous quotes (mainly because it’s so beautifully written) from one of my favorite film critics, Justin Chang of the LA Times:
First Reformed thus becomes a bitterly corrosive portrait of the conscientious Christian as environmental warrior-revolutionary, in which a lonely man of God is not just disillusioned but radicalized against the institution that called him forth…The ending, with its stark commingling of horror and grace, refutes that fear without banishing it entirely. Early on in the movie, Toller says, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time.” And so it is with First Reformed, which is finally fulfilled rather than torn apart by its contradictions. It is a cinephile’s delight and a believer’s conundrum, an austere American art film with a bracing B-movie soul, and a story in which the cruelest of cosmic punchlines may finally be no different from the most beautiful accession of grace.