Wednesday, June 20, 2018

In Theaters Now: First Reformed

First Reformed (2018)
Let’s start off with a reminder of the purpose of this blog. I’ve said it here lots of times before, but I’m saying it again: this blog doesn’t exist to critique films, it exists to rate the churches and clergy in films. In other words, we’re not here to discuss Paul Schrader, the writer and director of this film, even though he has some interesting tidbits in his autobiography. He was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and, because of the strict nature of his upbringing, didn’t see a movie until he snuck out to see one at the age of 17. (He saw The Absent Minded Professor. He was not impressed.) He earned his B.A. from Calvin College with a minor in theology. He first achieved acclaim as a writer for his screenplay for Taxi Driver. He wrote and directed a film about a character with a midwest Calvinist Reformed background, Hardcore, with George C. Scott.

First Reformed seems a return to those early religious roots, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

I'm also not here to write about the acclaim First Reformed has received on the film festival circuit or the relative financial success the film has received for a low budget film (dwarfed, or course, by your average superhero film). Nor am I here to write about the film’s 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes or its 85% rating at Metacritic (those are good numbers, but the way).

Nope, we’re just here to talk about the churches and the clergy in the film, and the film has both. First, the churches. There are two in the film: First Reformed, of course, and another church called Abundant Life.

Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of First Reformed, calls it the souvenir shop. We’re told it’s the oldest church in the state of New York. Though weekly worship services are still held as the church prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary, fewer than a dozen people attend. The building seems to be a historical marker and tourist attraction rather than a vibrant place of worship. It has a noble history, including being a stop on the Underground Railroad with a secret hiding place. Its current status as a showcase for small t-shirts (they’re out of other sizes) and baseball caps with the church logo, is less impressive.

The other church in the film is Abundant Life. It has an African American pastor with a racially diverse congregation. It’s hard to tell what kind of church it is; it might be evangelical, might be charismatic. They seem to be theologically conservative and they sing traditional hymns. The church seems to be prospering, with a worship center that seats 5000 and a multi-person staff. The church even has its own cafeteria (with a mural with the text of Acts 2). It is puzzling that the “church choir” consists of 5 teenagers led by a director who’s on the church staff (not a volunteer).

It’s also puzzling that this church, which again seems to be theologically conservative and probably is an independent congregation, provides the financial support for First Reformed -- which seems to be part of a theologically liberal mainline denomination. It’s surprisingly ecumenical of them.

Pastor Joel Jeffers (played by Cedric the Entertainer) is the senior pastor at Abundant Life. He seems to be a good guy. The church receives money from an industrialist, which Rev. Toller seems to disapprove. Taking money from questionable sources can be a difficult question for a church, especially if the money might have been obtained illegally, but the industrialist in the film has dealt been cleared by the government of violating environmental laws. Who can judge everyone who puts money in the offering plate?

Jeffers is very concerned about the welfare of the pastor of First Reformed, and his concern is well founded. He doesn’t just work with the rich industrialist; Jeffers also has influence with the mayor and the governor. He also seems to be available to his church staff and congregation.

Reverend Toller is a much more complex man of ministry. His job description seems to be part pastor but also part tour guide. He does a good job with the tours -- we see him showing a family around, patiently putting up with the children and the father’s crude joke in order to teach them about the history of the church.

We also see Toller in the pulpit, but pretty much reading Scripture and then serving communion. We never really hear him preach. Considering the small number of attendees, we can guess that his ministry isn’t too dynamic.

We also see him help lead a “youth group” at Abundant Life. Pastor Jeffers says the kids love him, which is a baffling thing judging from what we see at the one meeting. A dozen or so teenagers sit in a circle and talk off the top of their heads. When one girl tells how her father, a godly man, lost his job, Toller says that Jesus never promised prosperity. This sets off a kid who is the embodiment of cartoonish right wing talking points saying he doesn’t want to hear that garbage of Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek. The discussion seems to fall apart from there.

We also see Toller as a counselor. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to meet with her husband who is dealing with depression. We discover that her husband, Michael, is obsessed with environmental issues. Mary is pregnant, and Michael asks Toller whether it is right to bring children into this world, arguing that 97% of scientists agree that climate change will make the world uninhabitable by the year 2050. Their conversations remind Toller of Jacob’s wrestling with God, and he enjoys them.

After Michael kills himself, Toller also becomes obsessed with environmental issues. He argues with Jeffers that it is their duty to speak for “God’s side,” defending His creation. (Many toward the conservative end of the political spectrum would say that defending the unborn is “God’s side” as well.) Toller seems to sink into Michael’s despair, though his favorite writer, Thomas Merton, would not approve. (Merton wrote, “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love” because despair is a belief that one’s problems are beyond God’s capacity to handle.)

Toller seems to have other problems as well. He drinks to excess. He had an affair with Esther, the choir director at Abundant Life, then treats her with contempt. He puts himself in a morally compromising situation with Mary when she’s emotionally fragile. Finally, I have to say that any pastor who seriously considers being a suicide bomber probably isn’t thinking, “What would Jesus do?”

So I’m giving Pastor Jeffers and Abundant LIfe three steeples out of four, but only two steeples to Pastor Toller and First Reformed (and one of those is just a legacy steeple from the Underground Railroad days).

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