The church stands white in a world of gray, a cross and steeple rising above a field of barren trees.
Built in 1767 by men and women from a more fervent, faithful age, it has served as a house of prayer, of action, as a stop on the Underground Railroad. You can still see the trap door in the sanctuary, beneath which desperate souls hid and hoped.
The crawl space is empty now. Most days, so is the church—more tourist stop now than house of God. The organ doesn’t work, but the souvenir stand is filled with drinking glasses and playing cards and one-size-fits-all hats. If it hadn’t been for Abundant Life, the generous megachurch down the road that owns and operates the place as a sort of independent satellite church, First Reformed might’ve shuttered its doors by now.
But every Sunday it opens them still, to the trickle of faithful who find hope and peace within. Every Sunday, Father Toller stands at the pulpit, offering what words of wisdom he has to give, accompanied by a rasping cough or two. Like many a pastor, he’s more than a pastor. He’s a tour guide. Plumber. Counselor.
He’s a dad, too. Or, rather, he used to be. Before his boy was killed in Iraq. Neither Toller nor his son agreed with the war. But Toller, then a military chaplain, came from a long line of servicemen. He encouraged his boy to serve. In the aftermath, the grief nearly tore him apart.
“Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said. But Toller, though thankful for his spiritual vocation, has little time for such comfort. He must comfort his small flock that needs (deserves?) God’s salvific grace more than he does.
Young, pretty Mary visits Toller after a service one day, asking for help. Her husband, a radical environmentalist named Michael, is angry. Anxious. Depressed. He believes it would be irresponsible to bring a child into a world teetering on the edge of environmental collapse. And Mary’s pregnant.
“He wants to kill our baby,” she says.
Toller suggests they go to Abundant Life and seek one of the trained counselors there. Mary says no: The big-box church makes Michael uncomfortable. But Toller? He feels … real to Michael.
Toller agrees to help if he can. But help can sometimes be difficult to give. And receive.
For 350 years, First Reformed Church has stood in the same spot, weathering sun and rain and snow. Countless congregants have worshipped in its sanctuary, seeking absolution and solace and sometimes new life. But inside its whitewashed walls, in its sanctuary floor, a trap door sits closed, hiding a dark cellar once filled with panicked heartbeats and hurried breath, living souls filled with desperate hope and fear.
Perhaps it’s not so different now, as Toller prepares to pry the trap door off Michael’s own soul. But will lifting the door allow the sun (Son) to shine through? Or will the darkness beneath pour out like water, drowning all in its path?
Toller meets with Michael, initially saying all the expected things. The pastor is no Pollyanna: He shares Michael’s environmental concerns on some level, and he’s certainly no stranger to grief. His sad experiences give him personal authority that perhaps those untroubled souls at Abundant Life simply can’t share, gravitas born of grief. “Bringing a child into this [imperfect, painful] world cannot compare to having a child taken from you,” he tells Michael.
But amid the world’s failings, Toller says we can still find hope and joy and life. We live in the midst of paradox: “Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself, hope and despair,” he says. Later, he formulates other arguments he wishes he could’ve used as well. “We can’t know the mind of God,” Toller admits to himself. “But we can still choose a righteous life.”
Mary embodies those sentiments much better, really, than Toller himself. She’s an environmentalist, too. But while Michael’s activism has pushed him into a place of overwhelming despair, Mary still hopes. She loves life. She wants to bring a new child into a broken, but still beautiful, world.
First Reformed, the movie, shares Michael’s environmental concerns (if not his despair). The film encourages its audience to consider and, frankly, to care more about the environment—a message that may not resonate equally with some Christians. But even for those who might struggle with this film’s strong environmental emphasis, it still offers another call to action, one that’s symbolized by First Reform’s trap door.
The door reminds us that this congregation was once an active participant in the abolition movement (as were many churches back in the day). The film suggests the Church as a whole needs be about something more than just peddling feel-good sentimentality and shallow spirituality. We need to be actively, even politically involved in the world—helping widows and orphans, sheltering the poor, caring for the unborn, and (in the movie’s estimation) serving as good stewards of the environment, etc.
The Church, it’s implied, should not compromise its morals and values for the sake of political power or social expediency. It needs to stand for something. And perhaps that’s a sentiment most of us can stand behind.
Obviously, First Reformed is saturated in spiritual content, from its title, to its setting, to its characters. The climactic scene takes place during the church’s much-ballyhooed re-consecration service, commemorating 350 years of preaching, teaching and serving.
We hear several hymns, including “Are You Washed in the Blood?” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Pastor Jeffers, the senior pastor of Abundant Life, insists that “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” should be one of the hymns played at the ceremony; he also belabors the story of how Martin Luther allegedly composed it while using the outhouse. Various Bible verses are quoted, read or written on walls. (Acts 2:46-47, for instance, is emblazoned on the cafeteria walls of Abundant Life.)
We learn that Mary went to church as a child and never lost her affection for it, but that Michael was never religious at all. Michael asks Toller, “Can God forgive us?” for what we’ve done to the planet. (Toller later puts that question up on the church marquee.) Michael suggests that those who’ve died for environmental causes are themselves martyrs (feeding into a criticism that environmentalism can be, in itself, a sort of religion itself). One of the “martyrs” Michael namechecks was a real-life Catholic nun allegedly killed by assassins who were hired by loggers in the Brazilian rainforest.
Toller and Mary have something that looks like a surreal, New Agey religious experience later on in the movie: They lie down together (fully clothed), she on top of him. As their breath slowly syncs, both float off the floor. Toller imagines zipping through the universe and across the surface of Earth, seeing vistas of beauty and wonder. But those beautiful scenes give way to heartbreaking images of overcrowded landfills and environmental catastrophe.
That shared, out-of-body experience above isn’t explicitly sexual, but it is an incredibly intimate moment at a time when both Mary and Toller are lonely and vulnerable.
Mary says that she and Michael used to perform the ritual when Mary was feeling particularly anxious. She explains that they always tried to have as much of their bodies touching as possible. We see Mary and Toller pressed together (fully clothed), almost like gingerbread cookies stacked one on top of the other. Their noses touch as Mary’s hair falls over Toller’s face.
Toller, we infer, had an intimate relationship with a woman named Esther, a music director at Abundant Life, the year before. (Toller is currently unmarried, and it’s hinted that his son’s devastating death may have ended his marriage, too.) Esther asks Toller if he considers “what they did together [to be] a sin.” Toller rejects the notion: “I’ve seen enough real sin to know the difference,” he says. Esther seems to want the relationship to continue and perhaps deepen into something more committed, but Toller is unwilling to go further, emotionally.
A man and a woman share a passionate, prolonged kiss and embrace. A tourist to First Reformed tells Toller a dirty joke about a pastor—one that relies a double entendre involving the word organ.
Michael’s eco-related despair is grim indeed—so grim that he plans to make himself a martyr for the cause. Mary finds an explosive vest stored in the garage. When she calls Toller, he quickly confiscates it, though he advises her not to call the police (believing that would make matters worse). But things get worse anyway.
[Spoiler Warning] His vest gone, Michael kills himself with a shotgun, making sure that Toller finds the body. He sees (as does the audience) the bloodied, mangled corpse on a pillow of fresh snow. Michael’s suicide—blended with Toller’s still-searing grief over his son’s death, his own environmental leanings and (as he later learns) his own suspected cancer—sends Toller falling into his own eco-terrorist fantasies. He watches suicide bombers in their last fatal action on YouTube. He fits Michael’s suicide vest on himself, ready to blow himself, his church and his congregation up during the re-consecration service. When that plan gets upended, he turns to a personally destructive Plan B: Toller takes off his priestly garments and wraps his torso up with barbed wire, blood coursing from the open wounds. Then he pours himself a glass of toilet cleaner and prepares to drink it.
We hear one use each of the s-word, “b–ch” and “d–n.”
Toller tries to numb his pain—physical, mental and spiritual—through alcohol. Though he tells others that he has the occasional glass of wine with dinner, the truth is more corrosive: The church organist finds empty liquor bottles in the trash. Toller’s drinking habits grow progressively worse, moving from mixing liquor with his Pepto-Bismol to downing drink after drink while writing in his journal. When Mary comes to visit, he hurriedly hides the alcohol, tests his breath and tries to act as normally as he can.
When Toller goes to the bathroom, his urine is bright pink.
In my experience, most Christian movies are a lot like a church service: Encouraging. Edifying. Filled with positive takeaways and exhortations to live your life better. If we dare call First Reformed a “Christian” movie, it kind of reminds me of a church service, too … one held on the deck of the Titanic or in the middle of a raging forest fire.
How do we pray amid tormenting grief and soul-gnawing doubt and loss? How is our core faith—faith in a loving, just God; in heaven; in meaning itself—shaped in such a crucible? Do such fiery trials galvanize our convictions? Or do they simply crumble to dust?
This is a film that tries and tests the limits of faith, one that flirts with despair and annihilation. It challenges any Christians to take stock of their beliefs and ask, What are they good for?
Religion, First Reformed suggests, is easy. It’s faith that’s hard.
So I suppose it’s fitting that First Reformed is a hard movie to watch—maybe particularly for Christians. While it suggests that the Christian faith can be a catalyst for hope and change, it also argues that Christianity has often been co-opted and turned trite and cynical and impotent, unable to breathe hope into a desperate, despairing world.
And while the film suggests that Christianity has historically been useful and beneficial, it doesn’t suggest that those virtues make it true. Toller’s own faith—at least his faith in Christianity—seems uncertain toward the end, with his “salvation” coming from other quarters. That, paired with the movie’s sporadic-but-difficult content, makes this a difficult movie to recommend.
But I don’t want to equate challenging with bad, either.
For certain Christians who grapple with what it means to cling to faith in an unkind world, who understand the paradox that Toller spoke of in the beginning—to hold hope and despair in the mind simultaneously—First Reformed might offer a thought-provoking conversation starter. It probably won’t inspire you. It won’t likely edify or encourage you. But it could push you. And that, in itself, isn’t inherently a bad thing.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.