Tuesday, June 12, 2018

I had read enough reviews in advance of seeing First Reformed that I was afraid I had ruined the movie for myself.

"Take and Read" calls out below a rack of pamphlets in the church vestibule, pamphlets unlikely to convert anybody.1 Better witnesses, four books on a nightstand: letters of Thomas Merton, Heretics, The Cloud of Unknowing, the American Standard Version of the Bible.2

In his conversation with Mary's husband, Michael, Rev. Toller seems to prevail, but it becomes gradually apparent that Michael's influence upon Toller is ultimately greater. Interiorly, Toller likens their back-and-forth to that of Jacob wrestling with the unnamed angel.3 Michael's agitation during the conversation may be explained as the typical uneasiness of a non-religious person4 in the presence of a clergyman. Or even fear his violent plans are found out. But Michael's death5 is a hit by the oil company, Balq Industries. Had Michael remained in the Canadian prison for his non-violent environmental protest, he would have been sufficiently neutralized to satisfy Balq. If not for his expectant wife. Michael turns the conversation to martyrdom,6 naming Dorothy Stang and others. The Rev. Toller tells him of his son who died in an unjust war. Thick irony: a suicidal father getting argued out of an abortion by a mourning father. Toller instructs Michael to hold hope and despair in balance with courage. How Toller dare speak to Michael about courage!

Toller is ineffective.7 He persuaded his son to enlist, killing him. His wife left him. Even his extra-marital affair failed. He can't pray. He talks of "the sickness that leads to death"8 metaphorically, but it is literally his situation. He pees blood and vomits uncontrollably. He is literally being poured out as a libation, 2 Timothy 4:6. He can't stand up to Balq9 or even Jeffers. Clues10 lie around him everywhere of what Christians used to be. He isn't blind to them: the Underground Railroad trap door in the old church, the bullet holes from the Skirmish of Snowbridge. Looking over the program booklet for an upcoming church anniversary, Toller marvels at the portraits of First Reformed's pastors, with his own last. He wonders if God gave them courage.

The worship at First Reformed: the Sunday service includes recitation of the Heidelberg Catechism,11 a Scripture reading and the Sacrament of Communion by intinction. With the pipe organ out of order, there's no music or singing. The church architecture isn't a style that I'm familiar with, seeing mostly Greek Revival Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the part of New Jersey where I live.

I believe when Toller tells off Esther, he is in fact speaking directly to the Reformed tradition. "You bring out the worse in me. I despise you." Esther represents that Calvinist tradition that writer and director Paul Schrader was raised in. Not surprisingly, Toller writes in his journal the following morning that he's never felt better, clear-headed. Amen.

Obviously, Jeffers represents the megachurch phenomenon. And perhaps Mary, with family in Buffalo, could stand for Catholicism, the only Christian tradition to still produce radical activists in our day. Funny how Toller drops everything when she's around. Mary casts quite a spell. She's there for him at the pearly gates in rapture.12
1 St. Augustine hears "Tolle Lege" and his eyes fall upon Romans 13:13-14.
2 "with Helps," though in the film, Rev. Toller makes greater use of the porcelain American Standard.
3 Who is probably the archangel Michael, "Who is like God?"
4 Recall that Michael refers to Abundant Life as being more like a corporation than a church. Michael has perused online Balq Industries's financial statements; he knows it's fact. Funding Abundant Life's church programs so congregants keep busy in-house and don't take interest in anything real world. How Jeffers dare speak to Toller about the real world!
5 Michael intended suicide, yes, but with the vest, not a shotgun.
6 For Christian martyrdom contrasted with suicide, see Chapter 6 of Chesterton's Orthodoxy: "Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die."
7 1 Corinthians 9:26 "So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air"
8 The inverse of what John 11:4 says.
9 Add to this, Ed Balq at their first meeting remarks rather callously that a man whom Rev. Toller was counseling took his own life. But we know what really happened, and this is an example of Balq's skill at neutralizing his adversaries.
10 Clues, aka witnesses, aka martyrs
11 "1 Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death? A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ."
12 Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Number One Funeral Hymn Top 10 Hymns for a Funeral Ceremony