Film review: First Reformed

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, June 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It, a new film released this month purports to be a genuine exploration of Christian living. WORLD’s movie reviewer Megan Basham has evidence to the contrary.

MEGAN BASHAM, ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR: I had high hopes for Paul Schrader’s new movie “First Reformed.” Not because I particularly loved Taxi Driver—the film that made Schrader famous. Or because I’m such a big fan of Ethan Hawke, who stars. But because First Reformed is a rare film reaping praise far and wide for its thoughtful depiction of Christian faith.  

NPR hailed it as a “spiritually probing work of art.” The Washington Post described it as, “a film about discernment, a listening for God’s call.” Most intriguing the San Francisco Chronicle called it a “seriously Christian movie.” And not as an insult.  

It even sits at an almost unheard of 98 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes… at least, until I submit my review.

Sadly, “First Reformed” isn’t any of those things secular critics called it. What it is is a movie populated by characters who call themselves Christian but offer philosophy that flies in the face of Biblical teaching as some spiritual—even Christian profundity.  

Reverend Ernst Toller is a former military chaplain who loses his son to war and his wife to divorce. He spends his time playing caretaker to a dying historic church and writing tortured entries in his journal that begin, “desolation came upon me.” The depiction of Toller’s daily ministry is similarly alien, stiff, and like no church body I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

When a young parishioner asks him to counsel her environmental-extremist husband who wants to abort their baby, Toller—a purported Bible teacher—betrays startling Biblical illiteracy.

AUDIO: Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world? Who can know the mind of God.

Um, we can. At least on this question because the Bible answers it with absolute clarity. It’s so clear, in fact, my four-year-old daughter could answer it. Of course God can forgive any destruction of nature, just as he forgives our destruction of ourselves and each other when we ask based on the sacrifice made by his son.  But this answer is evidently too simplistic for the very serious topic of caring for the environment. Toller argues for life, but not on the basis that human beings are eternal bearers of God’s image. Instead, it’s because we’re part of creation.

Not surprising, the extremist begins to have more influence on Toller’s thinking than the other way around. And this activist awakening is offered as evidence of the pastor’s spiritual growth.

In a scene with a group of teens where one describes Jesus as a happiness pill, Schrader skewers what he sees as Christianity’s corruption by the success-obsessed political right. Fair enough. Yet he misses the thundering irony that his entire narrative pleads for it to instead serve the preoccupations of the political left.

AUDIO: I wasn’t aware that I had offended. Jesus doesn’t want our suffering. He suffered for us. He wants our commitment and our obedience. And what of his creation? “The Heavens declare the glory of God.” God is present everywhere, in every plant, in every river, every tiny insect. The whole world is a manifestation of His holy presence. I think this is an issue where the church can lead. But they say nothing. The U.S. Congress still denies climate change? Where were we when these people were elected?

The problem with both those who preach prosperity and social gospels is that they forget Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to live the quiet, hard-working lives Paul espouses—and that often lead to affluence. Or that we shouldn’t show our love to others by engaging in causes that further justice and mercy.

But the kind of urgent, rebellious “do something” crusade Toller represents is fundamentally un-Christian. We are commanded to live meek lives, subject to all authority. This is something Schrader, who frequently touts his Calvinist upbringing in interviews, doesn’t seem aware of.  

Further bolstering the theme that Mere Christianity is too naive a solution to sophisticated problems, “First Reformed” places our own self-guided conclusions about morality above what God actually says. The characters, however Christian, are too despairing, too world-weary to be subject to such childish restraints as Scripture. As in this exchange:

AUDIO: Do you think that what we did together was a sin? I’ve seen enough real sin to know the difference.

It’s not intellectually serious, it’s not adult, you see, to view sex outside of marriage as sin. And this is a film entirely populated by adults, all of whom are too proud of the maturity of their pain to turn, like children, to the comfort their father offers.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(A24 via AP) This image released by A24 shows Ethan Hawke, left, and Amanda Seyfriend in a scene from “First Reformed.”

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