In the end, we consume ourselves.
At least, that’s the idea. You eat and drink, and that fuel settles into fat. Your body uses that fat to power your muscles and organs. If you don’t take in enough calories, your body wastes away, and literally devours itself. The same thing happens with the mind: We consume ideas, thoughts, and art, and we convert them into inspiration, and that inspiration becomes action. Cognitive Behavioral Theory frames it this way: we have thoughts, which become feelings, which become actions. That’s why, when our mental intake is comprised of lies or trauma, our psyches turn inward and destroy us through depression or anxiety or OCD or eating disorders.
Does something similar happen with the spirit? If we ask Paul Schrader, director of First Reformed, I think we’d get a yes.
In Schrader’s First Reformed, Ethan Hawke stars as the troubled and reclusive Reverend Ernst Toller. Reeling from the death of his son, Toller is in something of a long, dark night of the soul. He has fewer congregants than tourists passing through his sleepy Dutch Reformed Church. His quiet, collared demeanor couldn’t be more out of place in the bombastic megachurch that helps keep his ministry afloat. His journal is full of searching and scrawling and longing. So when Mary comes to him with her husband’s demand she abort lest their daughter grow up in the ash heap of a world destroyed by climate change, Toller has true and genuine purpose. Maybe for the first time in years.The question isn’t if Schrader should have made a more uplifting movie: the question is if Schrader is right or not. Are we doomed to consume ourselves?
This newfound purpose is short lived when Mary’s husband Michael—spoiler alert—kills himself. It seemed an inevitable choice. Just before Toller finds his dead body, he and Mary come across a suicide vest that Michael apparently intended in an eco-terrorist attack. As Toller goes through Michael’s belongings with Mary, he finds himself carrying the torch for Michael’s cause. His newfound zeal leads him on a crusade against climate change, bringing him into direct conflict with his megachurch’s wealthy donors. Apathy gives way to rage. Sorrow surrenders to indignation. His life, once characterized by passivity, becomes dominated by his compulsion to carry out Michael’s martyrdom. This spiritual starvation is echoed in his body, as alcoholism and cancer combine to wreck his gut, leave him heaving blood. The mild-mannered Rev. Toller becomes, in every sense, consumed.
But what allows Toller to be so consumed? How can a man so full of faith be empty enough to suffer this kind of self-consumption? In other words, if we look at Toller, can we actually say this is a man who’s spiritually starved?
We can. Schrader makes this eminently clear through the journals that Toller records and reads throughout the film. But there’s a deeper way we get to see this, and maybe something that speaks to a spiritual starvation in Schrader’s life. Because when Schrader created Toller and his other religious characters, he created characters that don’t necessarily seem like Christians. For example, Toller’s counseling sessions are absent of any appeal to Jesus Christ or the gospel. When his environmentalist theology is challenged by a wealthy donor who asks “who can know the mind of God?” Toller doesn’t appeal to Scripture. In fact, he seems to entirely buy into the deistic idea that God is remote, apart, and totally inscrutable to his people. Such a vulnerability shouldn’t exist in someone who knows that God came to earth as a man that he might be better known, who knows that God has spoken through scriptures precisely so we can know the mind of God. The person of Christ is all but absent in not only Toller’s daily religious experience, but also in his theology, both theoretical and applied. We see this in the megachurch as well. During a youth group session, the most vocal member of the group doesn’t share how the gospel is speaking into his life—instead, he rails against the increasing influence of Islam in a boorish fashion. Even the megachurch pastor seems more wrapped up in finances and donations than he is with the mission of his church.
There’s a commentary that’s made here about the church: it’s an institution overwhelmed by money and politics, and those who don’t get swept up in the fervor are consumed by their own inner demons. We can see this in Michael as well: in lieu of being caught up in the church, he let himself be conquered by environmental fanaticism, with suicide as his inevitable outcome. Schrader doesn’t consider a third way between the superficial and the suicidal, despite coming from a Reformed background himself. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he leaves the third way of Gospel Satisfaction out of the picture precisely because he never found it. Despite a degree in theology and a childhood surrounded by church, Schrader lives an a-religious life today. Despite being surrounded by what others called “spiritual fruit,” Schrader never found it satisfying enough to stay in the church. How could we expect someone who hasn’t found the gospel appealing to create characters who genuinely understand how fulfilling Christ can be?
Without that grounding, Schrader presents us with an inevitability: the part of us that longs for spiritual fulfillment will forever be starved. The God-size hole cannot be filled, because there is in fact no God. And so all the little idols we throw into that pit (environmentalism, capitalism, self-flagellation) will never truly prevent our spirits from self-consuming. Suicide—at least in a spiritual sense—is an inevitability.
It’s bleak: I know. But bear in mind that Paul Schrader recruited a musician most famous for recordings of ambient noises in slaughterhouses and abandoned asylums to write the score. “Uplifting” wasn’t ever on the menu. The question isn’t if Schrader should have made a more uplifting movie: the question is if Schrader is right or not. Are we doomed to consume ourselves?
Even in the world of First Reformed, there’s a glimmer of hope, some echo of the Imago Dei at work in the art. We see it in the film’s most prominent female character, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried). When her husband urges her to abort, she seeks out counsel from the church. When she learns about what her husband had planned, she doesn’t abandon the faith but seems to lean on her pastor even more, even responding to his hurt and pain. She is not self-consumed: she is endlessly pouring out, even in her moments of desperation and pain. This outflow of mercy is unconstrained, wild, chaotic. It leads her into love with her pastor, and a rite of physical intimacy that borders on the bizarre. Through the eyes of Mary, we seems to come as close as the auteur can to a genuine display of Christian hope.
The secret behind Mary’s relative satisfaction is never quite explained, but we might see its reflection in the role she plays (we are what we eat, so to speak). And the figure that Mary seems to represent the most is not the virgin mother of Jesus, but Christ himself. When Toller is left adrift in the middle of the film, it is Mary who takes him on a sacred journey of revelation and momentary fulfillment. The church’s 250th anniversary looks to be populated by modern-day Pharisees and tax collectors, so Mary vows to enter into the midst of the mess and see Toller through it. In the film’s closing scenes, as Toller wraps himself in barbed wire and bombs, it is Mary who steps in before he can drink a lethal dose of Drano and explode himself and his church. Mary is Toller’s savior.
Those final scenes are packed-in with ambiguity. Does Mary actually come in time to save Toller, or is her appearance merely a final hallucination before the poison sets in and Toller’s whole life cuts to black? Schrader isn’t telling—he says the ambiguity is intentional. Whenever test audiences walked out in agreement over the outcome, he would tweak it toward the ambiguous. Here too, we learn something about Schrader’s worldview: truth can never be truly known.
This paradox is at the heart of his attitude toward consumption. If we cannot know the mind of God, or be confident in the promise of salvation, we can’t find satisfaction and joy. We are doomed to spiritual starvation, to the futility of idolatry. But if Schrader is wrong—if we can certainly find Christ and allow the gospel to fulfill us—then our consumption need not be fruitless. We can eat and drink the things of God and not start feasting on ourselves. This truth lies at the heart of Christ’s ministry and is central to the promises he made. It’s a truth that’s present at every Lord’s Supper. “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel. “I am the bread of life,” he assures his disciples in John’s Gospel. “Whoever comes to me will never grow hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” In other words: “I alone can satisfy.”
It should not surprise us that Schrader created a world where this satisfaction is fleeting at best. It should astound us that we live in a world where it is permanent and within our grasp.