A Hollywood Movie About Christianity Worth Seeing

"First Reformed" is multilayered, artistic, and serious: there should be far more movies like this.

“First Reformed” starring Ethan Hawke. Credit: Killer Films/A24/YouTube Screenshot

American evangelicalism has always had a strong sense of the apocalyptic, urging the faithful toward reflection on the eschatological judgment to come. Mainline Protestantism, by contrast, has tended towards a more immanentist sensibility, stressing the social gospel and the need for transformative change on earth. But First Reformed, written and directed by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, transcends this binary, thrusting the clergyman at its heart into a deep struggle with existential despair.

As the film opens, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is pastoring First Reformed Church in the little town of Snowbridge, New York. While his church is a historical landmark on the cusp of celebrating its 250th anniversary, his congregation is nearly extinct: only a few devoted parishioners straggle in on Sundays to hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. Not far off, though, Abundant Life Fellowship—the local megachurch—is booming.

Bit by bit, Toller is inexorably drawn into the lives of Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young couple who have just started attending First Reformed. (For Mary, at least, Abundant Life “feels more like a company than a church.”) Michael, we learn, is a radical environmentalist obsessed with impending eco-collapse: upon learning Mary is pregnant with their child, he urges her to get an abortion, arguing that it would be immoral to bring a child into a world destined for damnation. His home is littered with charts and books detailing the horrors of climate change, his criminal record is littered with activism-related arrests…and most disturbingly of all, hidden in a chest in his garage is a vest packed with explosives.

But in Michael, Toller sees something more than a parishioner in need of counsel. He sees a tortured prophet daring to speak the truth. And soon, Michael’s sense of doom begins to infect Toller himself.

Through a series of anguished, bourbon-fueled journal entries, Toller’s personal ordeal of belief unfolds. It would be inaccurate to call it a crisis of faith in the conventional sense—Toller is never tempted by atheism or agnosticism, but rather by a creeping sense of futility and horror. “Will God forgive us?” he muses repeatedly. Can the Creator of heaven and earth forgive our destruction of His cosmos?

That’s a fascinating question in its own right, but First Reformed is much more than a well-wrought environmental fable: it’s a sober-minded meditation on what it means for the Christian Church to be the Church. As we discover alongside Toller, Abundant Life is heavily funded by donations from the local energy tycoon—and any message the tycoon doesn’t like is squelched. Conscience must take a backseat to cash flow. Such a dynamic, naturally, is anathema to any possibility of prophetic witness.

Toller—rooted as he is in the historic Reformed tradition—isn’t having it. His struggle is reminiscent of James K.A. Smith’s study of “cultural liturgies”—the bodily habits and practices through which our spiritual and ethical sensibilities are formed. Smith argues that the physical components of the traditional liturgy inculcate essential tenets of the faith: that we kneel only to God, not Caesar; that our first allegiance, over and above any national identity, is to the Kingdom of God; that we stand equal alongside our brothers and sisters as children of God; that through the sacraments we experience the utter unmerited givenness of all things; and so forth. These practices, Smith contends, help form a bulwark against “church capture” and the dissipation of Christian identity. Worship is a declaration of one’s citizenship in the Kingdom of God, and—in contexts where the kingdom of man oversteps its bounds—an act of defiance and opposition to the “powers and principalities” of the earth. Building on a similar foundation, Toller—and First Reformed—declares that the Church ought never be a handmaiden to those interests who would dilute her message. And regardless of what one thinks of Schrader’s environmentalist focus, that point is valid.

Even better, the movie’s engagement with these high-level themes doesn’t come at the expense of human drama. Hawke’s Toller is a tortured figure, wracked by physical ailments, alcoholism, and longstanding demons from his past. When others reach out to him in kindness, Toller pushes them away: for a man who weekly announces the good news of divine forgiveness, he’s incapable of giving or receiving any love himself.

His alienation, the film hints, is a self-inflicted wound—and indeed, as the story unfolds, we watch Toller’s ostensibly theological concern for creation teeter on the edge of a self-absorbed messianism. Toller echoes David Bentley Hart’s bracing hypothesis that “most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent”—but unlike Hart, Toller clearly believes himself capable of becoming such a perfect Christlike figure. Tragic consequences inevitably follow. Accordingly, those inclined to see in First Reformed a straightforward vindication of their environmental concerns had best not get too comfortable: Schrader is more than happy to turn his cinematic scalpel on them too, stripping away any pretensions of superiority. All have sinned, Schrader reminds us, and grace is beautiful because it is wholly unearned.

In sum, First Reformed is a complex, multilayered narrative that defies attempts at straightforward categorization. It’s also one of the few artistically excellent films I’ve seen that engages Christian theology with genuine seriousness (a particularly memorable sequence, for example, features an extended argument between Toller and the pastor of Abundant Life over environmental stewardship and the implications of Thomas Merton’s work). There should be far more movies like this one.

At the same time, this is certainly not a film for all tastes. It’s almost unremittingly bleak, punctuated only by moments of black humor and startlingly violent imagery. Perhaps paradoxically, the rare flickers of hope reflected in Schrader’s work always accompany moments of real suffering and darkness. Yet those willing to follow Reverend Toller on his painful journey will find the experience both haunting and profoundly rewarding.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post and a graduate of Yale Law School.

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23 Responses to A Hollywood Movie About Christianity Worth Seeing

  1. Jeremy Buxton says:

    Thank you, excellent analysis and I shall now take good care NOT to see a film with a bleak message and one that appears to cast eco-fascists in any sort of positive light. Good movies ought entertain and never depress.

  2. Grumpy Old Man says:

    The ending was stupid. Off the rails.

  3. John says:

    “Can the Creator of heaven and earth forgive our destruction of His cosmos?”

    The premise is flawed.

    Have you seen the planet?

    Whatever “destruction” man thinks he can inflict on the planet is eventually corrected by the earth that you think is so delicate.

    I have to live in the same world you do so no, I don’t want to live with polluted water, soil or air but alarmists like you are not helping.

  4. Jon says:

    When tradition is forsaken for purity the cult of personality prevails. Rather than establishing a connection with the Divine without the distraction of symbols, this iconoclasm merely displaces the image with a flesh and blood person, the man of cloth. Perhaps movies such as the one described above point out this dilemma?

    We have to collect our wits to engage one another in dealing with the foibles rooted in our humanity. The traditional approach is not devoid of human frailty and excesses of authority. Yet, how much more so is reliance on a single individual, the preacher, filled with the potential to err?

    The staying power of a congregation no matter the religion is not in its edifice but in its traditions molded over centuries that lasts millennia. It provides the anchor which in the long run, the very long run a check on the excesses caused by human weakness.

    I speak as one who is an outsider and thus an observer of that which has lasted centuries. And in the distance from these hallowed institutions, can admire and appreciate their spiritual force. No individual can tend the sheep with the shepherd’s crook alone. The faithful must look to tradition upheld by a living and breathing heirocracy whose span of authority governs only members of said faith.

  5. John Gruskos says:

    “Abundant Life is heavily funded by donations from the local energy tycoon”

    Very unrealistic.

    Evangelical churches tend to be flush with cash for 2 reasons:

    1. They tend to be relatively well attended, because actual Christians are fleeing the SJW lunacy found in liberal “mainline Protestant” churches.
    2. The congregants take tithing seriously. (This is why Mississippi, despite being one of the poorest states, has the highest rate of charitable giving. The disproportionately Evangelical people of Mississippi take tithing seriously.)

    The “mainline Protestant” churches are more likely to be dependent on a few large donors.

    This movie is not only a slander, it is a shockingly ill-informed slander.

  6. Dave Rice says:

    Hello, John. Are you a church-going man? I ask on behalf of my Son, 22, and his wife, who are moving to Redondo Beach.

    Good review, btw. Can’t wait to see it. I’m a huge Hawke fan.

  7. Donald says:

    It ought to be possible to make a movie about the lives and clashing views of ordinary people in different types of churches without explosives as part of the plot line. Most of us Christians argue about abortion and ecology and evangelical vs liberal Christianity without becoming either ecoterrorists or abortion clinic bombers. Once you bring in explosives it eclipses all the other issues.

    I would like to see a movie about these subjects where people argue about Thomas Merton, but without the melodrama. I haven’t seen this one, but it doesn’t sound like one I would want to see.

  8. cka2nd says:

    Jeremy Buxton says: “Good movies ought entertain and never depress.”

    Why not? “Make Way for Tomorrow” is sad, heartbreaking and depressing, and one of the best movies of the 1930’s. Also one of the best “conservative” films ever made.

  9. Kurt Gayle says:

    Mr. Ehrett writes that “First Reformed”…thrust[s] the clergyman at its heart into a deep struggle with existential despair.”

    “Existential despair”?

    For a Christian there is no “existential despair.”

    John 3:16 tells us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

    Even “Schrader reminds us…[that] all have sinned…and [God’s] grace is beautiful because it is wholly unearned.”

    A very detailed Christian review (with a spoiler warning) from “Plugged In” (Focus on the Family) for fundamentalist Christians wondering about “First Reformed” in terms of content cautions for kids, teens, adults:

    https://www.pluggedin.ca/movie-reviews/first-reformed-2018/

  10. Kurt Gayle says:

    One very disturbing thing about the critical reaction to the film is that “First Reformed” has received a very high 97% (124 or 128) “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes reviewers – and 35 of 36 “top critics” rated it “fresh.” In my experience that’s NOT a good sign for a film that purports to deal with religion. (The audience score is 74%, although this rating is based upon a tiny—so far—user rating of 966.)

  11. Kurt Gayle says:

    Grumpy Old Man says: “The ending was stupid. Off the rails.”

    In the final scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “The Sacrifice” the hero Alexander tricks his family members and friends into going for a walk, and then, while they are away, he sets fire to the family house. When the family and friends see the smoke from the fire and come back, Alexander confesses that he set the fire himself and then he runs around the yard. The context of what Alexander does is what matters – the meaning of it.

  12. Mark says:

    First Reformed is intense, serious and thoughtful. I visited the theatre this past weekend to view the film.

    One of the startling images that struck me was when Toller pours the Pepto-Bismol into the glass of bourbon producing a pink mushroom cloud in the glass; then later that same glass is filled with Drano.

    And the ending…still unsure of it. The appearance of Mary in the room and the embrace as the camera spins around them seemed uncharacteristic, unexpected from the rest of the film. Is it real? Or is it go back to that levitation scene, a fantasy?

  13. TJ Martin says:

    1) Film should both entertain .. as well as educate . Problem is most of us ( US ) are unwilling to be ‘ educated ‘ having been addled by celebrity and addicted to entertainment /social media preferring to remain immature and a part of the ever burgeoning Collective Stupidity of America

    2) If those here ‘ claiming ‘ to be Christians were to actually read their Bibles rather than what is said about the Bible ( full discloser I am a Reformation Theologian Apologist Philosopher ) they’d realize that the planet we live upon is God’s not ours and that we are commanded by Scripture to be GOOD STEWARDS of the planet .. not to abuse it for gain , bragging rights and personal profit

    3) As for the doubters … ” Science Does Not Care What You Think ”

    4) The movie itself though partially flawed in a couple of areas is intentionally thought provoking … assuming there is any thought to be provoked . But the reality is the overall premise is one far too many so called Christians are and prefer to remain ignorant of as they continue to do their best to be OF the world while pretending to live apart from it

    4) Sadly I have to say the overall discourse among the majority of commenters here is at best devoid of genuine thought , discernment or consideration preferring to remain deeply embedded in the sand while displaying the polar opposite of all that genuine Christianity according to the Bible stands for

    In conclusion as a bit of advice to the naysayers above thinking they are Christians . To borrow the words of Paul slightly modified ;

    ‘ When you were a child you thought like a child and that was ok . But now that you are an adult it is about damn time you start thinking like an adult ‘

  14. I’ve been dying to see this ever since the reviews started pouring out. It’s encouraging to see a film that both takes Christianity seriously and is thoughtful and entertaining.

  15. Houstonian says:

    I rushed out to see it last night, leaving my husband and three teenage daughters at home and was justified in this urgency. Less than ten other moviegoers joined me in the experience. Not sure this film will stick around long in theatres.

    Now I am a middle-aged, church-raised, theologically conservative Christian — but I will tell you this — just like the eco-activist in the film, I have done those same calculations in my mind about what this planet will be like when my kids are my age. I find some other commenters on this thread shockingly glib, by the way.

    To me, where Schrader gets it wrong with this theme is that we have been told “the mind of God,” about creation: the real end game biblically is a new heavens and new earth. The future material existence that Christ’s post-resurrection body revealed.

    The tension is: how long (for the sake of the lost) will God forebear with humankind’s rebellion? And what sort of misery will we create for ourselves and our children in that meantime?

    It is clear that my boomer generation has been headlong in pursuit of individual comfort at the cost of environmental destruction (and I am complicit in this). But GenXers have been busy destroying our interior life through technology. Perhaps Schrader Should tackle that theme next.

    However, it is quite possible that Schrader is being much more metaphorical throughout this film even with the environmental theme.

  16. Donald says:

    I read the pluggedin link that Kurt Gayle supplied. It contains many spoilers but warns you about it. Anyway, yes, it does sound like a movie that tackles a great many serious issues, but in that overly melodramatic way that “ serious” movie reviewers love. I can see why they like it so much. For myself, I agree with the environmental message, but the movie is apparently overflowing with personal melodrama and to me that would actually detract from the message. After all, if the protagonist has that many personal problems, how seriously are you going to take his concerns about what we are doing to the planet?

  17. Pshr says:

    Kurt gayle says:
    For a Christian there is no “existential despair.”

    John 3:16 tells us: “… he gave his only begotten Son, …”

    Sir, it is exactly that pagan ideology which should be cause for the existential despair.

  18. Kurt Gayle says:

    “Houstonian” has called “First Reformed” movie attendance right: “Less than ten other moviegoers joined me in the experience. Not sure this film will stick around long in theatres.”

    You’ve got that right! Since its release on May 18th “First Reformed” has tanked in theaters. Religious audiences are staying away and general movie-going audiences are staying away.

    Box Office Mojo chronicles the first 27 days of the “First Reformed” flop. On June 13th—the 27th day since “First Reformed” was released, it was being shown on 334 screens that were taking in an average of $251 per day. OUCH! Check this out:

    http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=daily&id=firstreformed.htm

  19. Anondustrious says:

    It covers so many subjects of concern today. So I will choose one. His depression interested me. When he road the bike and experienced exercise as the “gift from God,” it was a window for him. You knew when he hung up the bikes, because it indicated he would not pursue that path.

    The codependent woman (the choir director) was an interesting touch. Codependents are too needy themselves; they are not a help. The organ player man could have confronted him. I hate to say he was too far gone by then. I guess the message is you really have to push. When the Abundant Life pastor confronted him, he eventually said they would do the anniversary, then deal with the Toller’s (the majorly depressed, isolated, alcoholic’s) issues. Toller’s conversation with Michael had been as direct. I guess the fish need to bite, or you have to use a net. The doctor could have questioned Toller about his obvious depression. But people wear masks, and I guess we can’t go ripping them off. I’ve heard before of the loneliness of the priest.

    I think his turning point was in the diner. Did he take up the cause because the corporate man implied his ineffectualness as a shepherd and therefore his implied guilt in Michael’s death, or because of the corporate man’s greed, power over the church, and attitude to the environment? I think both – drove him to take up Michael’s cause.

    His whole turn – upon seeing Mary ascend the church stairs. It was interesting how his plan became his passion – which finally showed when he moaned and kicked the kitchen door in frustration – he got a little physical.

    Even suicide by the terminally ill was touched on in this movie. He wasn’t a healthy man strapping on a bomb.

    Paul Schrader must be incredibly observant of people – and then to be able to show it back to us – all of the pieces (not just Toller’s depression). The conversation between the two pastors…esp. about being in the real world vs sitting and writing…. I’m not up on Merton, but Schrader’s writing is saying something, now.

    Mark, I don’t think the appearance of Mary at the end was real. It would’ve been out of character for her, and I imagine his door was locked. I think he’d actually taken a swig, though they didn’t show it. The scene was very intense. and I thought…if he could have reached for a path like that, instead…. It said a lot about Connection.

    I recently read Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle. A few commenters here might appreciate it. Plus JD has a great song “You Were Cool” by The Mountain Goats – it’s on YouTube.

  20. Anondustrious says:

    I forgot to write Spoilers in my previous post.

    Now that I’ve slept on it, at the end, I think he dropped the glass (without drinking it) like we saw, but I think he imagined her there.

    If you really like that kind of…mysteriousness, you might like Personal Shopper.

  21. Anondustrious says:

    He stitched his new martyrs onto the vest. He tore out his previous pages that “didn’t mean anything…now I’m writing about the real thing.” (to paraphrase) Yes, he asked if God would forgive us, but he did change his religion – from eternal salvation (the reason the early Christians were martyrs) to saving the planet. Just a fascinating movie.

  22. EliteCommInc. says:

    it’s always risky to discuss a film one hasn’t seen. But a film in which a man wants to kill his child to spare him/her or the planet from a life in this once one because the environment is a mess in his view, just begs the question —

    if that was a primary concern — the answer to the dilemma and the integrity of the film itself — contraception. If the conscientiousness about the world around is that intense, i would think those so inclined would be knee deep in ethos, practices and devices to prevent pregnancy.

    ______________________

    “Sir, it is exactly that pagan ideology which should be cause for the existential despair.”

    Obviously completely unaware of christ’s impact on the planet, even if one doesn’t agree to follow his as christ. But the observation holds a very unique suggestion of what paganism is.

    _____________________________

    ” Science Does Not Care What You Think ”

    I have no issues that science doesn’t care what I think. But I certainly care about science and what science says constitutes the difference between theory and fact. And “global warming”, hidden the phrase “climate change” is a theory, not fact. If it was fact they could make predictions about the specific nature of the changes to some.

    As for taking liberties with the meaning of scripture,

    ” Scripture to be GOOD STEWARDS of the planet .. not to abuse it for gain , bragging rights and personal profit . . .”

    Stewardship does not discount making a living from the planet’s resources — in fact, scripture makes it quite clear that earning a living — even for profit from stewards of the planet is not a violation in any manner of christian faith.
    ________________________
    ” that we kneel only to God, not Caesar; that our first allegiance, over and above any national identity, is to the Kingdom of God; that we stand equal alongside our brothers and sisters as children of God; that through the sacraments we experience the utter unmerited givenness of all things; and so forth. These practices, Smith contends, help form a bulwark against “church capture” and the dissipation of Christian identity. Worship is a declaration of one’s citizenship in the Kingdom of God, and—in contexts where the kingdom of man oversteps its bounds—an act of defiance and opposition to the “powers and principalities” of the earth. ”

    I come from a strong catholic tradition. But I was encouraged to read scripture. And the practices of faith that I have traveled since have even been more encouraging in that regard. The above generics is loaded with traps.
    For example, the allegiance is first and foremost to christ, but I don’t get to dance willy nilly around all laws merely because I disagree with them — they must violate the identity of christ. Immigration for example, is a laws of good order and management. Nothing in US immigration laws or that of most other states prevents from being christ like. I don’t get subvert said laws in the name of christ, merely because I make a claim to helping others. Violating immigration regulations are aiding and abetting. Mission trips to aide people outside of the US not against the law, nor is sending money, services and other means of support.

    Christ died for all because all are fallen — that is not a license for engaging in whatever behaviors I want because in the end — forgiveness is available — that’s a walk on the “milk” of the word. Since scripture does not break practice into sacramental practices 0 we are bonded by one belief, that jesus christ died buried and resurrected will be our sacrificial lamb all we need do is ask forgiveness and follow him. And what we know of following him is best l;aid by the apostles in scripture and the references they make to the old testament as proof of christ as messiah – primarily to doubting jews.
    This film sounds as a critique on evangelicals. The grittiness of taxi driver/ Another in a long lone pf attacks against fundamental believers, whose political involvement derailed the liberal guarantee of electing Sec. Clinton. If so, why not have chosen some real questionable dynamics by supposed christian leaders formerly involved with the “moral majority” as they manipulated native american nations with casino politics – playing one against the other.

    That entire episode is seedy, real life, poignant and ripe for critiquing people of faith.

    My steady diet of netflix has provided a bevy of films and programs about and by people of faith”
    unmiracle, the sparrows, believe, a matter of faith, little boy, the heart of a man, a question of faith, my daddy is in heaven are all films that most likely won’t have the sophistication or production silkiness of the the film in question, but their agendas are pretty clear which allows their story lines to be clear and cleaner than productions loaded with political agendas. There is a wonderful performed series on netflix called greenleaf. And while faith is the center piece, the depth of what constitutes faith and its relationship to scripture is shallow. The issues are political, but any discussion in terms of what scripture has to say is nonexistent.

    —————–

    I am looking forward to this film. I have appreciated the performances of Ethan Hawke. He has been pretty busy of late.

    Whether or not man is christian or otherwise should abuse the environment for any reason, is not really a tough call any more than murdering one’s child in the solution is a morally valid question.

  23. EliteCommInc. says:

    another neat film Anyday

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