Monday, June 11, 2018

First Reformed (The Movie)

In First Reformed, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely, middle-aged parish pastor of a historic 250 year old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York, that was once upon a time a stop on the Underground Railroad, but which is now down to a tiny congregation and reduced to something of a tourist attraction. It is overshadowed by the nearby Abundant Life mega-church, which actually now owns it. (The two churches and their ministers and staffs seem to cooperate on a regular basis.) Toller is lonely not just because his congregation  has dwindled to almost no one, but because his marriage has failed. Apparently, his wife left him after their son died in Iraq, for which she blamed him for having encouraged their son to go to VMI. 

Echoing Georges Bernanos' justly famous 1936 novel, Diary of a Country Priest, Toller is also seriously sick with a stomach ailment and keeps a diary. The film also immediately reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's 1963 film Winter Light. Like Bergman's film, also set in a small church in winter, this movie begins with a Communion Service. If, like Bernanos' priest, Toller is increasingly ill and keeps a journal, like Bergman's Lutheran cleric, Toller seems to be struggling with the meaning of his vocation and has previously been romantically involved with a parishioner. And, like Bergman's pastor, he is deeply affected by a woman's request to counsel her husband who has become apocalyptically anxious about the world situation - and who then kills himself. Very early in the film, Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who has become a radical environmentalist. Toller tries his best to reach out to Michael, but Michael soon commits suicide. Indeed, Toller is the one who finds his body. He also finds - or, rather, Mary shows him - a terrorist-type suicide-bomb vest which Michael had been keeping in his garage.

Mary shares her husband's environmental views but not his fatal apocalypticism. She wants to live. The encounter (and his interaction with a local church benefactor who heads a polluting corporation) has the opposite effect on Toller, however, who becomes increasingly obsessed with whether God will forgive us for destroying the environment. As his physical condition deteriorates, he also seems to deteriorate mentally and emotionally, turning the community's preparations for the church's 250th anniversary into preparation for his own act of suicidal, apocalypitc eco-terorism. Without revealing the actual and surprising ending, suffice it to say that that outcome is averted thanks to the one person who alone seems to represent any sort of experience of grace in his life. (I presume her name is not an accident.)

I am uncertain exactly what to make of the film's surprisingly bizarre ending. (In contrast, Bergman ended Winter Light with the pastor and people reassembled for the afternoon service.)

Setting aside issues related to the film's surprising ending, the movie does in fact highlight many matters worth focusing on. Obviously, there is the whole dilemma of being a pastor of what his colleague at Abundant Life calls a tourist church that no one attends. Dealing with diminishment is a primary preoccupation of many Church institutions today. The film highlights how destructive diminishment can be in reality - both for the larger community and for an individuals whose vocational commitment seems thus called into question. 

It also calls attention to the impact of unresolved personal problems on ministry - and vice versa.  And it illustrates the serious importance of pastors being pastored - something Toller's colleague at Abundant Life tries to tell him, but which Toller simply seems unwilling or unable to hear. In a sense Toller's personal pastoral failure with Michael is replicated in the Abundant Life pastor's failure to get through to him. The need for mutual support among clergy - and what happens when it breaks down - is definitely on display in this film.

And, of course, the storyline highlights the dangers inherent in apocalyptic thinking. Ironically, Toller recognizes the politically distorted thinking of the young people he meets with at Abundant Life, but he cannot control the distortions that are coming to control him. It may be that Toller did finally find grace through Mary. But what of the rest of his life before that? Where was grace in his day-to-day life and church work? It may be that his Abundant Life colleague was not far from the mark in his advice!

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