The following movie review is born out of a long email exchange I had with Jarrod, a friend I met through this blog. It was through the long emails that we sent back and fourth that I came to see just how profound a film this is. I have tried in this blog post, to put Jarod and I’s conversations into narrative form, giving a reading of the film in its own terms. I find that even after having written this post, there is much left unprobed, many questions left unanswered, and there is much left to grapple with. I found myself while writing, to be speaking at several different levels at once. I will leave the reader to decide which level is most illuminating. Spoilers ahead, proceed at your own risk.
Reverend Ernst Toller is the pastor of First Reformed Church, a small Dutch Reformed congregation with dwindling membership. In one of the opening scenes of the movie, we see Toller reading from the lectionary to mostly empty pews. The health of Toller’s congregation is reflected in Toller himself, who is both spiritually and physically unwell. Toller is on the brink of despair as he struggles with his faith, agonized by the silence of God and his own inability to pray. Toller has decided to keep a journal to “set out all the thoughts and events” of his day, “factually without hiding anything.” His journal entries, serving as the narrative backdrop for much of the film, give us insight into Toller’s tormented mind and the central tension of the film: Toller’s attempt to hold fast to hope amidst mounting despair. Toller does not see much hope and he self-medicates with bottles of whiskey, a habit which does not help Toller’s physical ailments; he has a horrible cough and is revealed later in the movie to have cancer.
One day after the service, a woman named Mary comes to see Toller. She tells Toller that she is worried about her husband Michael, a climate change activist, who seems to be struggling with depression. She wants Toller to come to council him. Toller agrees and the following day, Toller pays the couple a visit. Mary welcomes him into her house, offers him some tea and ushers him into Michael’s study for a talk. Almost immediately Michael starts telling Toller about the apocalyptic future that climate change will bring by 2050. According the climate scientists, there will be “Severe, widespread and irreversible impacts.” How, asks Michael, “do you sanction bringing a child into this world?”
Toller does not seem fazed by this question, and he sees what is really behind Michael’s question. This isn’t about Mary or your baby, Toller tells Michael, “it’s about you and your despair, your lack of hope.” The problem is not a new one, Toller continues, “people throughout history have woken up in the dead of the night, confronted by blackness, the sense that our lives are without meaning—the sickness unto death.” While climate change is a new threat in the horizon, the problem of despair is a perennial one.
Toller’s reference to “the Sickness Unto Death” calls to mind Kierkegaard’s book of the same name. There Kierkegaard defines despair as follows: “To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself, is the formula for all despair.” What Kierkegaard is saying is that despair is never about something external, but rather about a dis-relation within the tension that makes a human. Toller makes the same point when he tells Michael that while climate change is a new problem, “the blackness” is perennial. To Kierkegaard, the self is a synthesis of the finite and infinite or the actual and the possible, to fall into one side of the tension is to be in despair. The self then, is always in the process of becoming a self. Kierkegaard calls despair “the sickness unto death” because to be in despair is to will to be rid of oneself and yet not to be able to be rid of oneself, and it is precisely this inability which feeds despair and makes it “self-consuming.” Kierkegaard thinks that despair is not about external things because when we tell ourselves that “if only I had x” or “if only x were the case” we would be satisfied, what we are saying is that we cannot live with who we are now, when x is not the case. If our lack of despair is dependent on something external to us, which we do not now possess, this means, for Kierkegaard, that we are currently in despair. For Kierkegaard, despair is something universal, “there is not one single man who after all is not to some extant in despair.” Of course, some people suffer more acutely, but all of us suffer from some perturbation of the soul. The only solution to despair for Kierkegaard is “to rest transparently in the Power which posited it.”
Toller continues, “Courage is the solution to despair,” “reason, provides no answers.” While the projections of science seem to show a hopeless future, Toller maintains that we cannot ultimately know the future, and we must put our hope in the unknown. Wisdom, “is holding two contradictory truths in our minds, simultaneously: hope and despair.” This tension, Toller says, “is life itself,” there is no life without hope, just as there is no life without despair.
Michael then asks the question that will haunt the rest of the movie: “Will God forgive us what we’ve done to this world?” Toller has no answers, “who can know the mind of God?” All we can do in the face of this question is “choose a righteous life” and bet on the Grace of God, “Grace covers us all, I believe that,” Toller concludes. With that, the meeting draws to a close, they agree to meet again, but it will be the last time Toller will speak to Michael.
Toller’s next stop is at Abundant Life™, a sparkling Mega Church which is supporting First Reformed financially. Toller is there to talk to Reverend Jeffers about the 250th anniversary reconsecration event for First Reformed. The large, professional Church is in stark contrast to the old, historic, liturgical First Reformed, we see now why Michael told his wife that Abundant Life is more like “a company than a Church.” On the stage in the auditorium, a small group is rehearsing the song Are you Washed in the Blood? Toller sits down in one of the front pews, closes his eyes and listens to the song. The young people, all dressed neatly in Abundant Life uniforms, stand in two rows of three, polished, pious, professional. One young man from the back row reaches forward to grope at the butt of the girl in front of him. He smirks when she slaps his hand away. This scene captures for me the conflict between the Christianity of First Reformed and that of Abundant Life. While Toller is an obviously flawed character, the authenticity of his Christianity exposes the shallowness of Abundant Life. For Toller, Christianity demands a radical commitment to following Jesus and a struggle with the world, (world in the theological sense of the term) and for this reason, Christianity necessarily entails suffering. Christianity, is for Toller, a “faith of Action”, and we see this manifested in his life in various ways, in his simple lifestyle, his care for the poor and his passion for God’s creation. Jarrod puts it this way:
That’s not to say that Toller is an ideal representation of an authentic Christian, but that he understands what it is to be an authentic Christian, and gives us an impression of what it is to know what to do and fail at it, whereas the megachurch pastor fails at it because he doesn’t know what to do.
For Abundant Life o the other hand, Christianity is not connected to suffering, nor does it require any kind of radical lifestyle. Abundant Life has made its peace with the world and it sees no contradiction between Christianity and big business or any point of tension between Christ and Caesar. Reverend Jeffers, the lead pastor of Abundant Life sees no essential connection between Christianity and suffering, as Toller so clearly does, and preaches a version of the prosperity gospel on Sunday. In one fascinating exchange, an exasperated Jeffers tells Toller: “You’re always in the garden, not even Jesus was always in the garden…Jesus doesn’t want our suffering, he suffered for us!” Jeffers is referring here to the agonizing trial of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, where he begged his Father to “take this cup from me.” His comment, while it seems to accurately describe Toller’s Christian existence, shows an inability to understand suffering and despair in the life of the Christian. For Jeffers, suffering is inexplicable, a moral failing, or God’s judgement, but it has not natural place in the Christian life. He says one Sunday sermon:
We tend to think that anxiety and worry are simply an indication of how wise we are, yet it is a much better indication of how wicked we are. Fretting arises from our determination to have our own way. Our Lord never worried and was never anxious.
For Abundant Life, Christianity is about “Joy, Joy, Joy down in your heart,” being a upstanding citizen and living a wealth, healthy and prosperous life. The young people at Abundant Life manifest the same confusion. In a youth group Toller takes part in, a girl wonders about the misfortune that has recently befallen her father, how could this happen? she asks, “nobody loves the Lord more than my father.” Toller responds:
Well, Cynthia. I’m sorry that happened to your father. There’s a lot of church people, good Christians, who see, uh, a connection between godliness and prosperity. But that’s not what Jesus teaches. That’s not what Jesus lived. There’s no dollar sign on His pulpit. There’s no American flag either.
Toller continues, but is interrupted by an outraged teenager:
Christians shouldn’t succeed. That’s what he means. Christianity is for losers? I just get tired of turn the other cheek. Jesus didn’t turn the other cheek. Why stand for anything? Take prayer out of the schools. Give money to people too lazy to work for it. And whatever you do, don’t offend the Muslims.
We see in these comments that the Church has failed to be a radical alternative to the ways of the world, but rather is sinfully participating in them, justifying its idolatry with a thin vainer of spirituality. This is an issue that will become key for Toller as the film goes on.
Toller, now back at First Reformed, receieves a text message from Michael, telling him to meet him at the local park. When Toller arrives at the park, he doesn’t immediately see Michael, so he heads down the trail, looking for him. A little ways down the path he suddenly tops in his tracks and gasps in horror: there ahead lies Michael, his head blown off with a shotgun. It is a suicide. For Michael, hope has been eclipsed by despair. Michael’s suicide is a turning point for Toller which will lead him into questions of creation, eschatology, the church, and ultimately his own spiral into despair.
Toller leads a service in honour of Michael according to the wishes of his last will and testimony. The funeral is held at a toxic waste site and Michael’s ashes are dumped in the polluted water as the Abundant Life youth choir sings “who’s gonna stand up and save the earth?” The question does does not seem to have any ready answer. The scene is apocalyptic, grim, and hopeless, the backdrop of nuclear devastation signifies only a lost future. Death slips into death. Hope lies dead in the landscape, just as it has been snuffed out in Michael’s life. Michael, unlike Toller, has placed his hope entirely in the immanent, in the rational, the known, in creation itself. While Toller concealed him to look beyond the hopeless state of the world, beyond what we know and which science tells us, to the Ultimate, the eschatological Hope that is found only in faith, not in reason—Michael could not see beyond the dim horizons of reason. Because his hope is tied up with the future of the world, he despairs at the coming apocalypse of climate change. This despair, Toller recognizes, is rooted ultimately in pride. Earlier in the film he quotes Thomas Merton: “Despair is the development of a pride so great that it choses ones own certitude rather than admit God is more creative that we are.” And so, while Michael’s hope dies, Toller’s lives on.
Mary, Michael’s widow, is the symbol of hope in this film and her departure signifies the loss of hope. After Michael’s death, Mary tells Toller that she kind-of wasn’t surprised because she had felt Michael become distant, unlike the person she fell in love with. In the same conversation Toller asks her if she too is an activist. Mary responds: “I share Michael’s beliefs but not his despair. I mean, I wanna live, I wanna be a mother.” While Michael looses hope in the world—and for this reason thinks its wrong for Mary to have a child—Mary holds the hope of the world in her womb. The theological overtones should be obvious at this point, and they are made even clearer when it is revealed that Mary’s child is a boy. Mary the mother of Christ is the ultimate Christian symbol of hope and, the symbol of the Church—the hope of the world. And here we find the source of Toller’s hope, Toller retains his hope because the church is for him a eschatological promise of a restored cosmos and restored humanity and for that reason the only refuge, the only source of life in dying world. So, even as Toller struggles with his faith, his hope is grounded in the Church where, each Sunday, he partakes in the body and blood of Christ. Even if he cannot pray, in the worship he participates in a Reality deeper and greater than himself. Mary as the symbol of hope accompanies Toller through his battles with despair. After the suicide, Toller winds up at her house. After the argument at the youth group, he stands next to her at the funeral. After a disastrous meeting with Ed Balq, the biggest donor to Abundant Life who dismisses climate change as “complicated,” Toller goes for a bike ride with Mary. After each dark event, Toller finds hope again.
This tug of war between hope and despair continues in Toller’s soul until one climactic night. Toller is looking through Michael’s laptop and opens an article which lists the “top 100 polluters.” There number five on the list, Toller finds Balq industries, the number one benefactor of Abundant Life Church. This is a devastating revelation for Toller. He does not fall into despair over the devastating effects of climate change, but the discovery of the Church’s complacency is too much for Toller.
All around him, creation is dying. Toller is dying. His faith is dying. First Reformed is dying. The earth is dying. This death is the source of his despair. But up until now, Toller has been able to put his hope in the unknown future. But as he discovers that the church, rather than being an eschatological witness to a hopeful future, is actually a destroyer of the earth and a bringer of death, his hope starts to crumble. For Toller, as the Church dies, the future dies with it. As the Church dies, hope for the world dies with it. The obsessive question for Toller now becomes, as it was for Michael: “Will God forgive us?” Is there any hope of is there only judgement? Is there any grace for such an utterly depraved humanity?
Toller visits Abundant Life where he is confronted by Esther, asking him about his recent hospital visit. (Toller finally visited the doctor a few days prior, where he discovered he has cancer) Toller suddenly lashes out at her, he can “no longer bear” her concerns he tells her. She is a “constant reminder of his failings and inadequacies” and “a stumbling block” Jarrod’s comments here are illuminating:
The scene that hit me the hardest, probably in the whole movie, was when Toller lashed out at the choir leader. Not only is this the scene that first caused me to lose a lot of sympathy with Toller’s character (a character I had really sympathized with up to that point), it was incredibly thought-provoking. I was struck by the fact that he called her a “stumbling block”. After all, he said that he knows what sin is, and the affair he had with her wasn’t sin. So, if he didn’t think she’s a stumbling block in his question toward sexual purity, what quest is she a stumbling block toward?
I think he’s determined to march to his own destruction. I think he’s made up his mind about that. Only, this woman (who is focused on his happiness and well-being, damn her) is getting in his way. I think she’s a “stumbling block” toward his goal of self destruction. Kierkegaard pointed out in Sickness that one of the properties of despair was that it robs of even of the ability to tolerate absolution, and then the lack of absolution becomes, again, cause for despair. It becomes a bottomless pit, an endless cycle. I think that’s where Toller is.
Toller is then visited by Mary at his home. In a very strange scene, Mary lies on top of Toller and both spread out their hands. Fully clothed, they stare into each other’s eyes. Both of them appear to be levitating, a few inches off the ground, the movie director is probably trying to communicate a transcendent experience. Toller sees visions of new creation, lush landscapes, and the fullness of life—hope. But then, Toller adverts his gaze, Mary’s hair falls away from his face and he looks out into the blackness and sees visions of pollution, destruction and devastation—despair. It is significant that this scene with Mary has ended on a note of despair for Toller. The horizon of hope is fading into the blackness of night.
Toller’s descent into despair is complete a little later when Mary tells him she will be moving away. Hope departs and only judgement remains. All is utterly hopeless. There is no hope for the cosmos, no future, only the coming apocalypse. We come to the final scenes of the film with the verse from Revelation read by Toller in the background:
The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth
This is what Toller, in his prideful despair, has set out to do. He has placed himself in the place of God and sees it as his task to bring down judgement on the destroyers of the earth. Who are the destroyers? The idolatrous Whore of Babylon, the Church, wha has brought the wrath of God upon herself. Toller straps on the suicide vest (its a bit of a long story where he got it from, watch the film) and dons his black vestments. At First Reformed, the 250th Anniversary is being celebrated, and the Church is packed with Church members, the mayor and Balq industries. Toller prepares to bring down fire from heaven.
And now we come to that final, ambiguous scene in the movie. I believe that First Reformed, despite its darkness, is ultimately hopeful and ultimately redemptive. It is in fact a very Reformed movie, in that it shows the utter depravity of a sinful humanity, and broken cosmos, only so that it can show the infinite and unmerited grace of God. But to understand that, we have to go back to the begging and trace a theme through the film.
The Movie starts in the Church with Toller at the pulpit, he quotes the Heidelberg Catechism: “Our only hope in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” This is significant. Then we have the Eucharist, he says: “the cup of salvation.” There seems to be some foreshadowing to the end here, Jesus as the only hope in life and in death. Drano, as “the cup of salvation,” some Garden of Gethsemane imagery here with Jesus asking that “this cup be taken from me.” As Toller councils Michael, he concludes with hope: “Grace covers us all, I believe that.”
Somewhere in the middle of the movie, after the death of the activist, Toller is contemplating in his journal. He wonders what the last thought is when the bullet hits: “There goes my head or Jesus watch over me.” This is the the dichotomy between hope and despair. But again, Jesus watch over me, Jesus as my only hope in life and in death.
The scene with Mary on the floor in his room mirrors, of course, the final scene. Mary knocks, he drowns the whiskey and opens, they unite on the floor. He is still struggling between hope and despair.
We come to the final incredibly dense scene. Toller sees it as his task to punish the destroyers, but suddenly, as Toller looks out the window, he is shocked to see Mary entering the Church. Has Hope returned? Has he found one righteous in all of Sodom and Gomorrah? Toller rents his cloths, thrusts the bomb aside: he will take the judgement of the world upon himself. He empties his whiskey glass and fills it with Drano, a poisonous drain cleaner. He wraps himself in barbed wire—a crown of thorns for his chest—and prepares to drink the cup of God’s wrath…
But the glorious hymn swells in the background. Two lines from earlier in the movie: “My only comfort and hope in life and in death is that I am not my own but belong to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” and “Jesus watch over me,” touch with the song playing in the background: Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Just as Toller prepares to drink the cup of God’s wrath—the question is after all “Will God forgive us”—Mary stands at the door and calls him by name: “Ernst”. And here we see God’s great “yes” to humanity, God’s great “yes” to creation. Grace, we see, does indeed “cover us all.” Toller falls into the arms of Hope, he does not despair now, but remains in the Kiss of Life, “he is not his own, but belongs to his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”