When Protestant reformer Martin Luther met with fellow Augustinian monks in Heidelberg in 1518 shortly after posting his Ninety-five Theses, he explained what he thought was the essence of true faith. He advocated for a “theology of the cross,” which affirms that God is revealed in the crucified Christ, rather than a “theology of glory,” which seeks to avoid suffering. In Luther’s view, only someone who understands that “the visible and manifest things of God [are] seen through suffering and the cross” deserves to be called a theologian.

As Christians, we are often asked — perhaps more than we would like to admit — to affirm two things that appear contradictory: God is both one and three; Jesus is both human and divine; we are both justified and sinful; God’s kingdom is both present and not yet fully revealed. It can be difficult to make sense of such statements, yet these are precisely the truths that embody our faith.If that is so, then Paul Schrader is a masterful theologian. His latest film, First Reformed, offers a kind of cinematic theology of the cross.

Diary of an Upstate Pastor

Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of First Reformed, a dwindling congregation in upstate New York. A former military chaplain, he is struggling with both his faith and his health in the wake of the death of his son, who died in Iraq after Toller encouraged him to enlist, and the subsequent collapse of his marriage. In the midst of his dark night of the soul, he has decided to keep a diary.

The once-thriving church, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad but where the headstones now outnumber the people in the pews, is more of a tourist destination than a functioning congregation. Like its pastor, the church is dependent upon Abundant Life, the nearby megachurch led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a Cedric the Entertainer), who offered Toller the pastoral position.

Toller is drawn from his own suffering to that of others when one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who is pregnant, seeks counseling for her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). An environmental activist, Michael despairs at the current state of the world and the prospect of an apocalypse to the point that he wants Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into this world. Toller’s entanglement in the situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the primary donors to Abundant Life and the re-consecration service to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the church is Balq Industries, an oil company. When Michael commits suicide, Toller takes up his question: “Will God Forgive Us?”

Schrader’s Transcendental Vision

Schrader is best known as the writer of several films directed by Martin Scorsese, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, and the director of films such as American Gigolo and Affliction. But unlike his contemporaries in the “New Hollywood” — including the likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and George Lucas — Schrader did not seem destined for a career in film. Quite the contrary. He grew up in a strict Calvinist family, was forbidden from seeing a film until he was eighteen, and later attended Calvin College.

Before he became known for characters like Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta, Schrader wrote a book entitled Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. In the book, he argues that the transcendental style is “the proper method for conveying the Holy on film.” This style, which is not bound by personal or cultural tastes, prefers what Schrader calls sparse means — for example, limited camera movement and minimal musical accompaniment — as opposed to the abundant, thereby leaving room for the spiritual and “drawing the viewer from the familiar world to the other world.” The effect is similar to the experience of a worshiper who enters a church, moving from the external world to the interior space. As the noise and busyness of the world outside fades away, an encounter with God becomes possible.

First Reformed allows for just this kind of experience. But it is not the result of a light-hearted stroll into a church for a quick look around, as we find some characters in the film doing. Rather, it is a difficult walk along a stony path that requires patience. Viewers of some of Schrader’s cinematic influences — for example, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice — as well as Scorsese’s recent adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence will have a sense of what awaits them. Being disappointed because you expected something completely different would be like going to a Quentin Tarantino film and then complaining that there was so much violence. You should be aware before getting on that you’re going to get wet on this log ride.

The character of Rev. Toller will surely stand alongside some of the other great clerical figures in film, including the pastoral/priestly characters in John Ford’s The Fugitive (based on Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Bergman’s Winter Light, and Scorsese’s Silence. What makes each of these characters compelling is the authenticity of their struggle. The same could be said for Schrader’s other characters, often disaffected men, who strive to make sense of the world and their lives.

In terms of its plot, First Reformed weaves together strands from several of these films, especially Diary of a Country Priest, Winter Light, and Taxi Driver. The pastor of a small church. A diary. A distressing medical diagnosis. A young woman. An existential crisis. Plans that go awry. All of these make an appearance in First Reformed. But the film is neither simply derivative nor stuck in the past. Indeed, in its critique of megachurch Christianity and the prosperity gospel, a version of which exists at Abundant Life, and its sober assessment of the decline of mainline denominations, it is decidedly contemporary.

Despair and Hope

At its core, however, First Reformed is about the perennial challenge of maintaining faith and hope in the midst of doubt and despair. When Toller meets with Michael to counsel him, he says, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously, hope and despair.” At its worst, this kind of thinking results in the mentality depicted as “doublethink” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But at its best, it reflects the recognition that the world and the Christian life are complex realities.

As Christians, we are often asked — perhaps more than we would like to admit — to affirm two things that appear contradictory: God is both one and three; Jesus is both human and divine; we are both justified and sinful; God’s kingdom is both present and not yet fully revealed. It can be difficult to make sense of such statements, yet these are precisely the truths that embody our faith. In his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther observed this very dynamic at work when we are confronted with the terrible news of our sinfulness because it points to our hope in Christ: “It is apparent that not despair, but rather hope, is preached when we are told that we are sinners.”

Despite his dark night of the soul, which leads him to take part in self-destructive behavior and to consider extremist actions, Toller still maintains hope. The final scene will surely engender different interpretations, but I view it as a reaffirmation of the goodness of life and the promise of grace, even in the midst of the suffering — as if Travis Bickle had been pulled back from the precipice.

First Reformed will not entertain you, but it is not meant to. Like the cross of Christ, it is meant to summon you.


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