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A Powerful Film and Some Raw Emotions

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.

 


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    bwithers55  May 10, 2020

    Thank you for taking the time to talk about something so deeply personal for you.

    And- thanks for the movie recommendation! I’d never heard of this one and have ordered the DVD through Netflix. -bw

  2. Avatar
    robgrayson  May 10, 2020

    First Reformed is indeed an excellent film, for all the reasons you mention. Thanks, Bart, for your honest and vulnerable post.

  3. Avatar
    Jeff  May 10, 2020

    Bart

    Love the movie because it was written and directed by Paul Schrader. He often touches on the depravity of men which is reflected in his other films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull (screenwriter) and numerous others. Apparently First Reformed is his most personal work as it plays so closely to his Calvinist upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Schrader said he wrote main character as a Travis Bickle type..

    So does it hit close to home? Oh yes it did for me in like manner. As I think of my life years ago in the same church as Schrader, Christian Reformed Church, I know the struggle of leaving it behind, let alone making sense of things.

    Would like to also point out another academic to come out of the same tradition as Schrader is Alvin Plantinga, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Plantinga)

  4. Avatar
    LeRoy  May 10, 2020

    Just some information for your readers, “First Reformed” is a fictional congregation of the “Reformed Church in America” (RCA). The RCA calls itself the “oldest protestant denomination in the US with a continuous mission” as it was founded by Dutch Calvinists in Nieuw Amsterdam (today’s New York City) in 1628. There still are many revolutionary war-era churches in Manhattan and up and down the Hudson River to Albany. The most well known is the “Old Dutch Church” which was the setting for Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the Marble Collegiate Church in NYC, best known for being led by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale in the 60’s. The RCA is a relatively small, mainline denomination that still retains a bit of its pragmatic Dutch character.

    Writer/ Director Paul Schrader was a member of the “Christian Reformed Church” which is a more conservative sister denomination which broke away from the RCA in the 1850’s. Schrader rebelled against his stern, Calvinist upbringing. He is famous, of course, for writing “Raging Bull”, “Taxi Driver” and other award winning films.

  5. Avatar
    Perseus  May 10, 2020

    Thank you for this. It is exciting to live in an age when experiences and ideas can be expressed regarding religion that acknowledge profound changes in our willingness to explore doubt. It is wonderful for those of us who live in places where this can happen without fear of death. Obviously expressing such ideas in parts of the world would be met with death. But change, even incremental change, is welcome to this writer.

  6. Avatar
    mgamez777  May 10, 2020

    I don’t think you have wasted your time when you were christian, after all some how it make you realize and see the needs of the people and yes the bible had errors, mistranslations, etc; but the point of the bible is to make you a better person and here you are helping people thru this blog. So not everything was bad, life it’s a process that makes us mature little by little. So keep up the good work! Sorry about my English, Spanish is my native language. Regards.

  7. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  May 10, 2020

    I think a lot of us will have a hard time finding words to respond to this post Bart. What comes up for me is primarily gratitude. There are a few people in this world for whose existence I am grateful. People with intelligence, vision, discipline, sincerity, integrity, honesty, humility, creativity, generosity, courage, patience. It’s an elite group and those who belong to it don’t see themselves as members. I’m an old man and I’ve had time to reflect on and gauge many things so I’m not being impulsive when I say that you are one of them. Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    jscheller  May 10, 2020

    I don’t think I’m entitled to say “I feel your pain”. but I know I have gone through similar comfort zone shattering upheavals in my faith. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, with no doubt in what I was taught as “Truth”, the rug was pulled out from under me before I was twenty. 6 years later I excepted mainstream Christianity and dedicated my life to it, but found so many holes in scriptural continuity, that I found myself drifting further and further from the faith my brothers and sisters cling to. I am a pastor of two UMC churches now, and I consider my ministry a real blessing, but what I believe is still very different than the beliefs of my congregants. However, I consider my “calling” to be largely involved in freeing scripture from misconception and misuse, and I want you to know that I am very grateful to all that you have done in illuminating scripture and scriptural development in the most non-bias way I have ever been exposed to. It’s funny that, as a believer, I still consider consultation of your work as my first “go-to” over any other commentary source.
    You are doing, a very important work.

  9. Avatar
    jeffmd90  May 10, 2020

    Maybe someone should make a movie about you?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2020

      It would be mind-numbingly dull….

      • Avatar
        jscheller  May 11, 2020

        I think the title would be “The truth is in the Ehr, man.

      • Avatar
        jeffmd90  May 11, 2020

        Not if you were played by Tom Hardy.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2020

          Well, it would have to be the acting, not the story line….

  10. Avatar
    JonA  May 10, 2020

    Dear Bart,
    Thank you so much for your uncompromising honesty regarding your personal struggles. Your forthrightness adds a refreshing new dimension to your always engaging, but most often consumate
    academic and analytical persona.
    I think I understand what you mean by “just how raw it still is.”
    I wish you well. I’ll check out the movie.

  11. Avatar
    jhnaples  May 10, 2020

    Thank you for this excellent movie review; I’ll definitely find and watch this movie. More importantly, thank you for sharing so much of yourself in this review. Your search for meaning and truth resonate strongly with me in that I still find myself in my eighty-fourth year searching for that which is true in religion and life. Raised a Catholic and a seminarian for a couple of years, I thought I had it all figured out until about ten years ago. Now I question most of what I have been taught when it comes to religion. Interestingly, this doesn’t bother me; truth matters more.

    Your blog is excellent and I’m extremely grateful for finding it recently. You’re still ministering to a congregation; only the format has changed.

  12. Avatar
    JoeBTex  May 10, 2020

    Dr Ehrman. as someone who has also lost his faith but continues to seek spiritual truth, I found this film to be spot on ..when I was getting my undergraduate I had the opportunity to stand on the pastor’s side of the pulpit. I gave several sermons and worked with church members during some of their difficult times..I lost my faith as I saw the suffering and pain of these people and the empty attempts made by the church to help them …I’m glad this film was made and that you have reviewed it …your work continues to astound me on so many levels ..thank you for your devotion to the truth…

  13. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  May 11, 2020

    Beautifully written. I will be sure to watch the film. Thank you for sharing Bart.

  14. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 11, 2020

    Two anti-God positions concerning the bible are:
    1 – I disbelieve God because of the tragedy of life
    2 – I hate God because of the tragedy of life.

    DISBELIEVING God because of suffering presumes God would not allow suffering, therefore there’s no God. Perversely, long periods of peace and prosperity see religion decline.

    HATING God because He allows suffering is also curious. “All gods dispense suffering without reason.” writes Hurston, but what Jordan Peterson calls the “tragedy of life” helps us to grow as adults. A life of endless indulgences, as Solomon enjoyed, made him a dark figure. We can be offended when someone is free to hurt another – but that comes from our free will, and the loss of this freedom could cause us to also hate God. And the meekness of Christ, Dawkins’ “milk sop persona” is subject to ridicule.

    Job and David’s suffering gave them beautiful pictures of Jesus – the one who suffered and became our Redeemer.

    • Avatar
      DirkCampbell  May 11, 2020

      ‘Perversely, long periods of peace and prosperity see religion decline.’ Hmm. Is that why the USA is the most religious of the ‘developed’ countries of the world? Because it is so deprived and violent? Just curious.

      • Avatar
        Poohbear  May 13, 2020

        Not sure if I can answer here. Religion is more entrenched in America than Europe. But the same decline is obvious. Americans now talk about a “post religious generation.”

  15. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 11, 2020

    “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

  16. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  May 11, 2020

    This problem does not reduce how you turn the religious view.

    Although I go to science, we can basically say quantum physics which is the basis of physics at the quantum level. In this science, consciousness is / is the energy behind all creation (according to Max Planc, the intelligent energy). This science is pretty much equivalent to religion from an esoteric side, such as Christianity Gnosism etc, Esoteric Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and more. They unite in an inner spiritaul/concious understanding of the soul’s origion, and final return stretching the spiritual geography much wider.
    Even Carl Jung was deeply rooted in this seeking Gnosticism in the pursuit of knowledge in his field of psychology.

    Even from my life, from my experiences in life, I can so very well relate to your pain of living in a world of so much pain, and I still can’t find any relief.

    As cliche as it may sound, “Understanding does not cure evil, but it is a definite help, insofar as one can cope with an understandable darkness.” (Jung). In this sense (as charity or more) it seems to me, we must work and deal with it individually and collectively, as the only way to improve.

  17. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  May 11, 2020

    Must see the movie– needless to say it didn’t make the local theaters. If you someday decide to write a book about your own struggles, kind of a spiritual autobiography, It would be a book well worth reading. But I know it would be difficult to write, maybe painful. Someday?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2020

      Yeah, don’t know. Seems like I’ve talked about that a lot in a couple of my books. Or so people tell me!

  18. Avatar
    Hickman777  May 11, 2020

    Along those lines, have you read Barbara Brown Taylor’s book: Leaving Church? It has only been a few weeks since I read it. Very thought-provoking in the same way. For me, it was the most eloquent book I have ever read. She was listed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans. Not bad for one who was the pastor/priest of a rural Episcopal church.
    I have ordered First Reformed. Looking forward to it. Thanks for your honest and perceptive comments.

  19. Avatar
    Schonny77  May 11, 2020

    Good morning Bart,

    Really quick question. What is your opinion on taxing the church? I have no strong opinion either way but I am curious as to your viewpoint.

    Love the Blog.

    Thanks,
    Niels Schonberg,
    Oshawa, Ontario

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2020

      I think church and state should remain completely separate.

      • Avatar
        LeRoy  May 12, 2020

        “I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”

        George Carlin

        • Bart
          Bart  May 13, 2020

          Ha! Somehow I don’t think he would have changed his tune if he were still alive today. And oh boy could we use him now….

  20. Avatar
    gbsinkers  May 11, 2020

    Wanted to wait a day to see some comments before leaving my own, plus I needed a day to process that movie. I watched it privately immediately after reading your post. So glad I didn’t invite my wife to watch it with me, on Mothers Day especially. It’s one of those things I wish I could unsee. So much darkness and pain and then that weird and abrupt ending. And ultimately I came away with nothing, no take-aways, no lessons, no application. Even a day later I still can’t truly understand it or what I’m supposed to do with it. But, I subscribe to this blog to learn and to be exposed to things that challenge me and it certainly did that. That movie disturbed me. The fact that you saw some of your past in it tells me that losing your faith must have been 1000 times worse than how I felt losing mine, and my journey has been no picnic.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 12, 2020

      Thanks. I saw the ending as amazingly redemptive. It showed clearly where meaning lies. Not in God, the church, capitalist greed, social and political activism, personal sacrifice, imitation of Christ. It lies in one place only: deep and even unexpected love from other humans who share your pain.

      • Avatar
        jhnaples  May 13, 2020

        Exactly. Redemptive is the word. The ending took my breath away because I was totally prepared for something very different, something ghastly. I immediately understood why you originally found it difficult to explain the meaning without becoming banal. Movies such as this can be close to spiritual experiences. Overall, “Reformed” reminded me of Ingmar Bergman movies, which also are often not the most pleasant to view but which challenge us to ask the questions about what truly matters.

    • Avatar
      ecafischer  May 17, 2020

      I looked forward to viewing this movie. I appreciate your excellent review and willingness to be as direct and clear about your own experience of loss, grief, joy. It’s quite a ride heh? Mine has taken 80+ years and is a work in progress. Thanks for your help along the way….by simply hearing your story. The movie, and I understand it’s trying to convey the terrible anguish of the soul, is awful. I see no point in picking it apart. It left an awful “taste in my mouth.” I certainly don’t recommend it.

      I always am grateful to you and I’d kiss your cheeks if I could; in the Biblical sense of course.

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