Paul A. Creasman, Ph.D.
Arizona Christian University
The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony came and went with the usual amount of fanfare/controversy: The Academy couldn’t find a host, Spike Lee and President Trump traded barbs, Glenn Close still does not have an Oscar. Lost among the din of Twitter rants was an important moment for Christians interested in film: Paul Schrader was nominated for his first Oscar, for his original screenplay for First Reformed.[Spoiler Alert: He didn’t win.]
Schrader never really had a chance of winning, despite critical praise. Some called First Reformed the best film of the year. It is hard to believe Schrader had NOT been previously nominated, having written screenplays for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and the well-received Affliction in his 40+ years in Hollywood. Schrader has been previously recognized by the Writer’s Guild of America and the American Film Institute but come on…he wrote Taxi Driver AND Raging Bull, for crying out loud.
Schrader’s nomination ensures that First Reformed, which Schrader also directed, will not be forgotten. It will be chronicled on every “Oscar history” website until the end of time and has already earned Schrader an extra sentence on his Wikipedia entry. That’s not glib; it’s a good thing. First Reformed is a screenplay worth remembering, studying, and understanding.
First Reformed tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller, overseer of a small Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. “Museum” would be a more apt description: Toller gives tours to adults and school groups more often than he delivers sermons. Complicating matters is his relationship to the neighboring mega-church Abundant Life. They are friendly enough, but Toller seems lost, both when he roams the sterile interiors of Abundant Life and as he tends to his own facility where the organ doesn’t work, gravestones are toppled over and there’s no hot water in the men’s room. He spends his nights journaling while mixing cocktails of bourbon and Pepto-Bismol.
Toller’s melancholy routine is disrupted when Mary, a church member, asks him to counsel her radical environmentalist husband, Michael. Mary is pregnant and Michael is reluctant to support the birth of a child, given what he sees as a hopeless future, brought about by his belief in irreversible climate change.
This is not merely leftist propaganda. Climate change, taken in the film as a scientific certainty, is simply the vehicle Schrader uses to ask much deeper questions, ones that modern “Christian films” would not dare touch. As Toller counsels Michael, the Reverend is confronted with the shortcomings of how he (and by extension Abundant Life and all organized religion) has practiced faith personally and socially. Put another way, First Reformed raises important questions about the utility of religion itself.
But that’s not the most interesting part. I’m intrigued at how Schrader addresses those questions. In short, he doesn’t. And, in the words of First Reformed’s wearisome priest, it’s “exhilarating.”
Schrader is a leading proponent of what he calls “the Transcendental Style”—a way of expressing transcendent concepts through film. [One can say he literally wrote the book on the subject.] Key to “Transcendental Style” is mystery. Some films ask that you turn your brain off and munch popcorn as you watch. Not so with Schrader. You must pull your audience into your film, he says, but leave some things unexplained, allowing viewers to explore the ideas presented. The fault of so many films, Schrader says, is that they undercut this by telling you how to feel. The best films, he claims, allow you to wrestle with what the filmmaker is saying. It’s downright Aristotelian and enthymematic.
And this is where so many other “Christian films” fail.
Much of what we find in today’s marketplace of “Christian film” are no more than puff pieces for the faith–apologetic exercises and wish fulfillment for those already saved. Faith never fails the faithful. Outside challenges to the faith are always neatly resolved in the end. Viewers are supposed to walk away from a Christian film with one response: “Christianity certainly is the best, most perfect faith EVER!” On screen, that modus operandi doesn’t resonate with everyone.
One writer, describing the hugely successful “God’s Not Dead” stated, “instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears.” First Reformed, by contrast, paints a picture of faith in decline.
It is true that Christianity does not come off well in the film. Most believers in First Reformed are painted as hypocritical—Toller lies about his drinking; Abundant Life is possibly in bed with some shady businesses. But Schrader doesn’t seem interested in the outcome of Toller’s story, or Mary’s story, or Michael’s story. With First Reformed, he is asking us to consider “What difference does faith actually make in modern life?”
More so, true to his “transcendental style” of film-making, he doesn’t really answer that question. Rather, he pulls us into this complex story deeply and fiercely and wants us to come to our own conclusions. The greatest evidence of this is the film’s ending. I won’t spoil it, but the film’s last five minutes have been called everything from “unsatisfying“ to “gonzo.” One thing is for certain: the ending makes for a lot of possibilities and debate. Tenet #1 of the Transcendental Style quite possibly is “Thou shalt not provide all the answers.” That’s what we find with First Reformed. Just more questions. I’m sure that’s the way Schrader would want it. And I’m equally certain “Christian” films would abhor the approach.
All of which raises the question: “What is the best way for Christians to engage with the marketplace of ideas?” How should one approach the other when discussing matters of faith? Evangelism via the media often draws upon war metaphors, resulting in an “us-versus-them’ ethos. First Reformed seems to encourage the very opposite—not starting the conversation by providing all the answers, but by asking the right questions.
That’s an approach I think worth modeling.