As a rule I don’t watch a lot of films, but during the crisis Sarah and I have reinstated our weekly “movie night,” and on Friday we saw Ethan Hawke’s First Reformed. Have you seen it? I was very reluctant to do so for personal reasons. I thought it would hit to close to home. Oh boy was I right.
I’ve always loved Ethan Hawke, from Dead Poet’s Society onward. But this one was a bit hard. The movie itself is brilliant, extremely layered and thoughtful. Hawke plays the role of Rev. Toller, the pastor of a small, historic, but failing church in upstate New York. But he is losing his faith and trying to makes sense of his religion, his world, and the meaning of life. The movie doesn’t hit you over the head with the options, but if you think about what you’ve just seen carefully enough, they are there.
The backdrop to the story is that Rev. Toller is on his own, lives by himself, in a rectory connected with the church, which is a bit of a tourist attraction because it is nearly 250 years old and is of great historical significance; but during services there are literally only a handful of people who turn up. That is not the Rev. Toller’s biggest concern. He has a devastating personal history and is trying to cope with it.
He comes from a military family for generations, was himself a military chaplain, who some years earlier had urged his 18-year-old son to follow family tradition and enlist. Rev Toller’s wife was against the idea. Six months later the son was killed in Iraq. The wife could not forgive him (she was not on board with his views), and left him. He hit bottom. All of that is backdrop to the story, not portrayed).
The leader of a megachurch (played convincingly by Cedric “the Entertainer”!) had taken Rev. Toller under his patronage after he left his chaplaincy and provided him with the position at First Reformed church, where he dutifully serves even though, inside, he is torn apart. He cannot pray, he does not understand why such horrible things happen, he doesn’t fit into the world he inhabits. He keeps a hand-written diary to lay out his deep feelings.
The plot unfolds as a young couple in his church ask him for help. The husband is an extremely committed environmental activist who makes a convincing case that the climate crisis is going to worsen so badly that in two or three decades there will be massive social disruption. But the couple is expecting their first child. The husband wants his wife, Mary, to terminate the pregnancy; Rev. Toller is called in to counsel him about it.
I don’t need to spoil the plot any further, in case you haven’t seen it, in order to make the points I want to make. While the story carries on, the church, being directed and funded by the megachurch, is preparing for its 250th anniversary, and this raises all sorts of tensions in the relationship between the two pastors and their two churches, the (massively) larger and more successful of which is funded by a prominent businessman, the owner of a major company, extremely wealthy, used to getting his own way, and constantly using his financial clout to determine what happens in the church, including interfering with purely ministerial matters. Rev. Toller is torn between the arrogant and powerful capitalist funding the church that is making his little ministry possible and his own commitments that are not materialistic, nationalist, or self-centered.
It is hard to convey the powerful tensions in the movie on the level of plot, without getting into the Spoiler Details, but let me just say that it is powerful.
It is powerful on a deeper level than most people will go, because it is the kind of movie that is most significant not because of its action but because of its penetrating look at major existential issues. The basic issue: what is it that provides meaning to a transitory life? The movie explores the question within the context of the Christian tradition (there is nothing remotely pious or “religious” about the film even though it is dealing with religious themes). The film argues – without arguing a single thing, but simply portraying several lives in the course of tragic events – that neither God, nor traditional Christian religion, nor capitalist-driven modern evangelical religion, nor social and political activism, nor self-sacrifice for the good of others or even the world at large, or even the pure “imitation of Christ” apart from social or political agendas – that none of these things is what can ultimately provide meaning to those desperately trying to make sense of this life.
Something else does. To explain it here would make it seem banal. (I tried to put it in writing just now. I can’t doing it without making it seem banal. But oh my god is it right. So, watch the film.)
It can be a disturbing movie, because it is dealing with a disturbing issue, especially for those of us who do not settle for the easy answers, traditional religion, simple claims of faith, the virtues of raw capitalism, the interpenetration of capital, technology, media, and religion and the simplistic ideology that results from it; or even self-sacrifice for the sake of others and the willingness to give everything to a worthy cause. What then? What provides us with some kind of transcendence beyond our small and painful lives, lives for many too painful to endure.
That issue itself is obviously hard. But the film was especially hard for me, I have to say, for somewhat other, though related reasons. Not many people will have the same reaction to it I did. They simply can’t. The movie hit me at an unusually deep emotional level, as I was afraid it would.
The film is about a pastor of a small historic church doing his best to help the needs of his parishioners while while losing his faith. In my late 20s, just out of seminary, I was the pastor of a small historic church doing his best to help the needs of his parishioners while losing his faith.
The movie roused so many memories and feelings that it literally left me speechless. I have never experienced the agonizing pain of Rev. Toller. Nothing like it. But while pastoring the church I too had deep burdens of guilt and a sense of inadequacy. I too was coming to doubt my faith at the deepest level. And I too had the responsibility of doing my best in my position to help those in need. Like him I had trouble praying and performing the duties of the church – visiting those in need, providing pastoral counseling. It is much easier to provide comfort to those in pain when you feel confident that you understand the truth.
I should stress, I actually did enjoy a good bit of my pastoral ministry. I enjoyed preaching three weeks of the month. I enjoyed helping people. I enjoyed trying to help the church struggle along. And I was grateful for the opportunity. But it is an extremely difficult position to be in when one is losing one’s faith.
By this time, I did not hold to the complete infallibility of the Bible any longer; I was not an evangelical. But I did think Jesus was raised from the dead and was the way to salvation – even if I wasn’t committed to him being the only way. Even so, I regularly admitted to myself that I continued to believe in the Christian message in some more or less literal way (in large part because my position in the church was *forcing* me to believe it). And I suspected that as soon as I left the church, and had no compulsion to continue believing, I might well realize I did not believe. And that is indeed what happened.
It wasn’t because of the Bible. It was because of all the suffering – in evidence even in a small community church such as that, everyday suffering to be sure, but also some very extreme suffering, with sickness, death, disaster, and suicide, much of it for no obvious “reason” or “sense.”
Seeing some of that up close and personal (pastors see far more of it than the regular ole human being…) helped seal the deal for me. I hung on for a while. Leaving the faith ended up taking some years. But it was emotionally traumatic. My Christian faith had literally been the world for me. I was willing to do just about anything for it; certainly die for it if I was called to do so. You can’t just abandon that kind of deeply-seated commitment overnight, and without some serious scarring. Most of my life I can ignore the scars, but this movie reopened some of the wounds. I think that’s probably a good thing, even if it hasn’t been very pleasant.
But we all have to wrestle with our pasts – not just our presents and our futures. I am very glad indeed that I pastored that church for a short while, as well as the other ministries that I was involved with over the years (as youth pastor, director of Christian education, teacher, Bible study leader, etc….): there were loving friendships, good fellowship, helpful things that we all did as a community for one another and for others outside. But looking back, I remember the emotional difficulties more than happy moments. Since that was nearly four decades ago, I imagine that’s how it will always be. The surprise for me, over the past couple of days, is just how raw it still is.