18 June 2018

"First Reformed"

For those growing up in the Reformed Protestant subculture in the Midwest, going to "First Reformed" at 9:45 AM would seem entirely appropriate. Well, maybe 9:30 would have been better but starting with the first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism would have made up for a late start to the service. Of course, we went to see Paul Schrader's most recent film on a Saturday morning, not a service of divine worship.

In some respects "First Reformed" represents the opposite perspective on contemporary American Christianity to that of "I Can Only Imagine" (here). In a more fundamental sense, however, "First Reformed" represents the personal vision of its director, Paul Schrader. To be sure, Schrader has his primary character, the Dutch Reformed Reverend Toller played by Ethan Hawke, assert early on that he has not lost his faith. Yet, pastor Toller's life as depicted loses whatever vital connection it may have had to the truth of the comforting profession of the Catechism he had recited. As is the case with Schrader himself.

Set in 2017 in the burned-over district of New York, former Army chaplain Toller, whose wife had divorced him after the death of their only child in the war in Iraq, now serves as pastor of the eponymous church/gift shop/tourist stop. First Reformed subsists only at the largess of Abundant Life Church, a nearby mega-church lead by an African-American pastor effectively (under)played by Cedric the Entertainer. Coming up on the 250th anniversary of First Reformed's founding, Abundant Life is promoting a politically star-studded reconsecration service. BALQ industries which, according to whether one believes environmental activists or the company's PR flack, either is or is not one of the leading sources of environmental degradation in the US, is providing the money for the event.

I won't retell the story of the downward spiral of Toller's life as he ignores signs of cancer within and becomes increasingly fixated on the human environmental "cancer." I can say, however, that Schrader's conclusion for the film was a let down. For a film that had pretensions of deep thoughts about the environment, God's simultaneous absence and prospective judgment, and a pastor's increasing personal disintegration, the film ends with a long embrace between Toller and the pregnant widow of an activist who had committed suicide. Schrader seems to suggest that interpersonal love is humanity's best hope. Not God. Not even environmental activism. But love.

Love is surely a great power for good in the world but given what came before, Schrader seems to have run out of creative juice and ends what had been a serious film with 1940s schmaltz. Oh yeah, and after the 360-degree embrace, the film cuts to black and we wait five seconds before the credits roll.

I can't really recommend that folks see "First Reformed." The production values, particularly its cinematography, are very good and for significant stretches "First Reformed" invites us to consider hard questions. In other words, geeky Christians might find it a platform for discussion. Yet in the end, "First Reformed" simply doesn't deliver on its promise.

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