Scratch the surface of the 96% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating for First Reformed and you’ll find frustration and discontent from those hoping for a more faith-filled movie about a small church pastor trying to make sense of the ever-bleaker world around him. This review at First Things is a good rundown of some of those concerns . . . definitely more thoughtful than I could ever put together.
I tried going into my recent viewing knowing as little as possible. I knew it was bleak. And I heard a little about its environmental concern (though not the extreme sense that comes through in the movie). And while it’s totally bleak and truly frustrating in a faith-empty way, it does point towards some tensions worth teasing out in conversations.
The first is danger of isolation. This is a very lonely movie, and it’s not just a loneliness for a single clergy. Toller, the priest, is lonely. Mary and Michael, the married couple who serve as one of the catalysts for the movie’s conflict are lonely in their marriage and as a marred couple. So it’s not just a single, celibate thing (which is the direction some might turn the conversation). Setting the story in a bleak New York winter only accentuates the loneliness, too. Toller’s church is mostly empty. The same could be said for his parsonage, with maybe one simple set of furniture in each room. This definitely begs questions about community and fellowship, both with other Christians and with others in civil society beyond the Sunday morning crunch.
The second tension is the relationship between old and new when it comes to ecclesiology. Toller’s First Reformed Church is consistently contrasted with the larger, sponsoring church, Abundant Life Church. Large sanctuary. Youth choir. Recording studio. Cafeteria? Michael, the depressed young man whose wife seeks out Toller, refuses to go to Abundant Life for counseling because of its artificial feel. The assumption, right or wrong, is that the kind of spiritual wisdom that cannot exist in a large, factory-sized, church can and should be found in a smaller church. If only that had turned out to be the case. There seems to be a good bit of worldly wisdom found at Abundant Life Church, but Toller flees from it, is probably pushed farther into a more isolated life as a way of being critical for what appears to be a more artificial approach to the faith.
The third tension is the question of suffering and success. There’s this great scene about halfway through the movie where Toller visits the youth/young-adult group at Abundant Life Church. The meant-to-be-cool pastor is checking in with his group. One person gushes about the faithfulness and goodness of God. The pastor responds warmly and with great cliche to this news. Then a young woman shares about her father, how is a faithful Christian who has lost his job and has no prospects for what’s next. Instead of answering her concerns, the cool pastor turns attention to Toller, who has to find some way to answer questions of theodicy that the other couldn’t. And so the tension of success and suffering ultimately articulates the best/worst of both sides of the spectrum. In the end, any “success” is shallow because it is compromised by worldly intervention. But Toller’s “suffering” is also frustratingly shallow. By the end of the movie he puts on the metaphorical “hair shirt” as a kind of penance for his inability to work well in the fallen world.
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I can’t say that I loved the movie. But I did find it engaging. Some of the tensions played out in humorous moments, though with a dark humor, I suppose. A number of the turning points were sad and frustrating, too. It makes you wonder how easily the Gospel could get lost in the mess of the movie . . . but then you realize how easily we lose it in our own lives together. Ethan Hawke, who plays Toller, does a great job. He brings some interesting nuance to the role. He’s a deeply tortured soul. I wanted to know about his formation (beyond the personal tragedy that moved him to the church). They probably won’t make a movie about that, though.
(image from birthmoviesdeath.com)