Faith abhors a vacuum. One religion sets and another rises: what human beings worship fluctuates, but that they worship is constant. Idols can replace each other in the temple, yet the gods remain. Thus do uprooted doctrines survive their original context, which had grounded and moderated them, when worshippers seek new systems for their beliefs.
Early Christianity destroyed pagan belief in spirits and heroes, yet Christendom established the cult of saints and martyrs. The new contexts that replace the old are not always better, however. The modern world, said Chesterton, is “full of the old Christian virtues gone mad” because “they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” First Reformed, a dramatic thriller from Paul Schrader, shows this dynamic by telling the story of a mainline pastor who becomes a radical environmentalist with immoderate zeal for the wrath of the Almighty.
“Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks,” says Schrader’s most famous character, Travis Bickle. “All the animals come out at night,” he says, but “someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” The protagonist of Taxi Driver (1976), psychologically scarred from Vietnam and unnerved by urban decay, oscillates in his loneliness from political assassin to vigilante killer of gangsters. Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for that film, now gives us what one critic calls “the Travis Bickle of Climate Change.” Instead of the social scum on the streets, the original sin is the material scum humans have put on the earth. And the Reverend Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, is the prophet of cataclysm.
The filmmaker—a longtime maker of risqué movies such as American Gigolo (1988) and screenwriter for Martin Scorsese-directed films such as Raging Bull (1980) and Last Temptation of Christ (1988)—thinks there probably will not be many future generations to inherit our pollution. He has, in short, offered us a Calvinist movie with his fusion of religion and going green, and it is not an easy synthesis.
Largely praised by liberal film critics, First Reformed seems made, Richard Brody writes, in “ a state of anger, passion, pain, mourning, and desire, held together by the conflicted religious fury—blending exaltation and torment—that runs through all of his films.” As with Bickle, Pastor Toller believes a deluge is coming to cleanse our sinful cities of decadent humans. The movie has split conservative critics, with some declaring a “caricature study” that “leads moviegoers astray” and others noting warnings of activist nihilism. One underdeveloped point, however, is how Schrader depicts the historic decline of pastorship into partisanship, and how Mainline Protestantism has become more political as it has become more irrelevant.
A Return to Eschatology
Raised reformed Protestant and still a churchgoer, Schrader began in film criticism, writing the book, The Transcendental Style in Film (1972), which, Armond White explains, merged “his religious and artistic fascinations” in a “detailed study of the themes and methods of three master filmmakers”: the Japanese director Yasajiro Ozu, who made Tokyo Story (1953), the French director Robert Bresson, who made Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who made The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Ordet (1955). Their works “all seem to verge on the eschatological.” While Schrader’s films generally eschew eschatology, this movie marks his return to it: The planet nears divine judgement for sin as civilization edges towards its last days. First Reformed could have been called “Mainline Radical” for it transplants the Diary of a Country Priest plotline into America’s declining Protestantism, where sins are social and environmental. Human ecology has been corrupted as earthly ecology has been polluted.
Ethan Hawke’s Toller is a former military chaplain, a divorcé and alcoholic whose son died in Iraq, and who serves at a historic upstate New York church with a dwindling membership. The First Reformed Church he pastors is run by a larger institution—a megachurch called Abundant Life, led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer). Earnest, lonely, and depressed, Toller narrates (as did Bickle) through a voiceover quoting from the nightly journal he keeps.
His conversion to the environmentalist cause begins after he meets Michael, a wild-eyed enviro-radical (Philip Ettinger), and his religious, pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). In shepherding Mary and Michael—who wants Mary to get an abortion, despairing that one musn’t bring a child in a world soon to end—the pastor becomes convinced that divine punishment for human pollution is at hand. It is righteous therefore to follow Michael’s path to eco-terrorism. The deluge is coming, but Toller decides not to be a Noah who toils to save an animal and human remnant. In his brooding mental collapse, he plans to set off a bomb at the historic re-consecration of First Reformed, which locals, the governor, and a corporate polluter will attend. When Michael asks—“Can God forgive us?”—Toller is shaken, convicted no grace shall sustain us.
This fallen shepherd is an insightful case study of a larger trend, the one that Joseph Bottum limned in his book, An Anxious Age: the Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (2014). Once upon a time, the old sects of Protestant America were the backbone of our moral consensus and chaplains of our national life. But that was then. Mainline churches—from Methodists and Quakers to Congregationalists and Episcopalians—had constituted nearly half the country 60 years ago, yet now are less than a tenth of it. Bottum diagnoses how “the Great Church of America” ended, and how its death distinguishes the last several decades from every other period in our history. In its place are secular ideologies and political causes that are the zombie children of mainline churches.
With the loss of the Mainline capacity for national influence, Bottum notes, a “set of spiritual concerns”—original sin, salvation, and atonement—“once contained and channeled by the churches” have found “new homes in our public conflicts.” Leftwing issues pursued with religious zeal at colleges nest concepts that Protestant religion once contained. White guilt is original sin; towing the woke line assures salvation; and environmental impurities must be cleansed.
Both “environmentalism and New England Puritanism” hold that “simply to be human is to be guilty,” testifies the noted novelist Jonathan Franzen, who “was raised Protestant,” but “became an environmentalist. And with “environmentalism, the feeling is grounded in scientific fact.” Unless “we repent and mend our ways,” adds Franzen, “we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth.”
First Reformed shows the Frankenstein of this fusion. After Michael martyrs himself for the cause, Toller holds an outdoor funeral, as a choir sings “Who Will Save the Earth?” while ashes scatter upon polluted waters. This ceremony signals the death of the church as much as that of the deluded radical.
Religion at the Box Office
Admittedly, Schrader’s film is at times pretentious in its ecological preaching and religious satire. But it is not as nihilistic or pedantic as some critics charge. True, among films that deal with religious themes it has better peers. Darren Aronofsky’s “postmodern midrash” on the Great Flood in Noah (2014) feels more Biblically attuned than Schrader. There are, as well, more serious showings of piety in certain foreign movies—Of Gods and Men (2010), Ida (2013), and Calvary (2014) come to mind—and also American ones, from the violent films of Mel Gibson to the mysterious oeuvre of Coen Brothers and the esoteric repertoire of Terrence Malick. Even Paulo Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope is deeper.
Still, Schrader touches acutely on the “theologico-political problem”—that is, what happens when politics replaces religion. Irreligion has bad effects in First Reformed, namely nihilistic despair and suicide. The film critiques industrial society along with political radicalism and a throwaway culture.
Nobody in First Reformed positively doubts the existence of God. All are merely seeking to discover His will. But as Pastor Toller despairs, he forgets grace. Yet grace does enter the picture at its surreal ending—one that replaces the denouement of Bresson’s country priest, who dies after one last drink, with that of Dryer’s Ordet.
In Ordet, “the first two hours of the film consist mainly of Danish farmers and craftspeople arguing about Christian theology in veritable slow motion,” James Schamus explains, while “the final six minutes” will “have you on your knees, eyes lifted in wonder to the screen.” As these dissident Protestants argue theology for two hours until a farmer’s wife dies in childbirth, an itinerant preacher who had apparently gone mad, believing himself to be Christ after reading too much Kierkegaard, comes and resurrects her.
Schrader’s “Withholding Techniques”
Now consider one of the early scenes in First Reformed. Toller’s soldier-son was named Joseph. As Toller first counsels Michael, Joseph from Genesis is mentioned (“The one with the dreams, right?”). Another Joseph, the husband of Mary, goes unmentioned. Yet after Michael’s suicide, Toller watches over Mary, soon to give birth, and assumes that role. Mary comes to the church’s re-consecration, against Toller’s wishes, and finds him about to drink poison as an improvised plan to die before filled pews. Caught off guard in his mental collapse, he embraces her and they kiss, in a sensual scene—as someone sings, “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?”—breaking through all the prior sterile, still-camera moments. (And this is akin to the husband who kisses his wife at the end of Ordet.)
“In order to get to that place where the holy resides, you have to get involved with withholding techniques,” Schrader explained in a recent interview. “Taking things away from the viewer is the same as meditation. Good things happen to people who wait and making people wait until it happens to them is the delicate dance of a spiritual style.” Well, perhaps.
Finally, if somewhat belatedly, First Reformed ecstatically asks: Have you been washed in the blood of the lamb? It is a film that shows us that despair is a choice, and that what comes after that old-time religion is less a secular paradise and more a nihilism that can only be saved by grace. Faith abhors a mainline radical’s delusions.