Faith and Morality in a Time of a Bull Market What Can We Learn from the film First Reformed?


©David Seelow, PhD

          “Is man God’s mistake, or is God man’s mistake?”

          Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

          The unholy juxtaposition of the holiday shopping season and the Congressional impeachment process this year brings an opportunity for genuine end of year refection.1 The commercialization of Christmas has been a long standing reality in the United States, but this past year (2019) has proved even more troubling than recent years. The shopping frenzy traditionally begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving albeit, that has now become 12 midnight or the turn of the day not a typical 9 am when most retail stores would ordinarily open for the day. However, this year more and more stores opened on early Thanksgiving evening.  Apparently, we are giving thanks for the chance to purchase more commodities earlier than ever. Think now of the juxtaposition of traditional Christmas carolers strolling around a neighborhood singing in affirmation and joy with a mob of shoppers gathered at the “gates” of Walmart or Target ready to burst through the doors in hopes of grabbing a discounted oversize HD TV. That split screen image represents some jarring cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) for those who know the holiday’s true spiritual purpose.

          Is Christmas a celebration of faith or a reason to shop? How does one resolve the cognitive dissonance of over the top materialism with the Nativity? The failure to reconcile this dissonance results in a spiritual crisis, which I will discuss below. At the same time, the human mind has tremendous creativity, and, I believe, only magical thinking can reconcile the dissonance of unfettered materialism with spirituality during the holy season. In the United States, the rise of megachurches and mass media communications has helped, I would argue, allow many to falsely use Christian belief to support the accumulation of individual wealth.2 I am neither a theologian nor a pastor, but I find nothing in the gospels that suggests Jesus supported individual wealth at the expense of others, or, in lieu of helping the less fortunate. The Roman Empire was never copasetic with Jesus’s sermons. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a sign of humility. Under no fanciful thinking can I imagine Jesus in modern life riding to church in a Mercedes. All four gospels report that the one time this world changing peacemaker lost his temper and displayed what could be construed as a violent act he did so in disgust at the commercial use of the Temple. The gospels differ in reporting Jesus’s exact words but all support something to the extent that a “House of Prayer” had become a place of “merchandise” or a “den for robbers.”3

          The small indie film First Reformed (2018), written and directed by Paul Schrader, renowned screenwriter of Taxi Diver (1976) and Raging Bull  (1980), caught my attention because of its setting in Albany Country, New York where I currently live, and not far from where I grew up. Although I live in a more populated section of the county, its grey, somber landscape are very familiar. Even more striking to me, was the First Reformed Church, which reminded me so much of the Glen Reformed Church in the tiny hamlet of Glen where my aunts and uncles attended and where I often visited/attended as a small child. Rural Montgomery County had a strong Dutch Reform presence and many of my mother’s family are buried in Fultonville’s old Dutch Reform Cemetery on Maple Avenue in Fultonville.

Kinderhook Dutch Reformed Church in Kinderhook, New York. Photo by author.

          The Hudson Valley region of upstate New York has a deep Dutch heritage. Henry Hudson, for whom the river and valley are named, established the Dutch East India Company in 1609. Albany (originally named Fort Orange) was settled by the Dutch in 1617. Even today as I drive around the city prominent Dutch names are everywhere: Schulyer, Van Dyke, TenEyck to name a few. Most prominent of all, the 8th president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, was born in Kinderhook, a small village in the Hudson Valley near Albany County. President Van Burenn(1782-1862) was raised Dutch Reformed and spoke Dutch as his first language. Van Buren later became a powerful abolitionist, and that historical position- abolitionism- ghosts the movie. Indeed, I think the Protestant Reformation of which the Dutch Reformed movement played a key role, in general, serves as a distant backdrop for the film’s emerging politics; a politics that morphs from reform toward revolution but ends in an anarchic gesture.

          The film’s protagonist, Reverend Ernst Toller, played with subdued, powerful angst by Ethan Hawke, has the austere, stern pastorship of a Dutch Reformed Church. He lives in spartan simplicity adjoined to the small church, always dresses in his ecclesiastical garb, and conducts his congregation with stoic seriousness. Rev. Toller appears from the start to face a spiritual crisis on three fronts. His only son died in the Iraq War 6 months after enlistment. Rev. Toller encouraged his son’s service against his wife’s wishes, and now lives consumed with guilt, no longer a supporter of war, but too late. He has lost his son and his wife. She divorced him after their child’s tragic death. Second, Rev. Toller lives in constant agony from stomach cancer. Whether the cancer is terminal the film does not report, but he lives as if that’s the case and copes with both his psychological guilt and physical pain through rapidly progressing alcoholism. The alcohol makes both his conditions worse. Finally, the reverend suffers from the spiritual crisis of a dwindling congregation. He speaks to only a handful of congregants on Sunday. The church is preserved primarily as a historical landmark. Its finances are subsidized by the neighboring megachurch, Abundant Life, led by affable pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles). Its 5,000 or so congregation, in small Albany County, would be considered very large. I liken this historical situation to teaching a course on “Shakespeare’s Tragedies” to a class of 3 while the class on “Zombie Literature” across the hall has a capacity 50 students. Those who are devoted to their craft often struggle with cultural and historical changes that they perceive as accommodation to lower standards and expectations- a hallowing out of the discipline or craft’s core.

          The reverend’s very name is deeply symbolic. Toller is a German name that, at least to me, alludes to the Reformation and its progenitor Martin Luther, but more specific Ernst Toller is the name of the German-Jewish playwright who hung himself in New York’s Mayflower Hotel, May 22, 1939.4 A refugee from Nazi Germany, Toller had already spent 5 years in prison (where he wrote several expressionist plays) for political activism. When he learned that his brother and sister had been sent to concentration camps the mental anguish became overwhelming. Toller’s tragic life symbolizes resistance to authoritarianism as well as support for the working man, both are critical concerns for American society in 2019-2020. His name casts a huge shadow over the film and presents suicide as one of the movie’s central motifs.

          The film’s dramatic conflict begins when one of the church’s faithful congregants, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Rev. Toller to speak to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), about her pregnancy. Michael does not attend church and he wants Mary to terminate her pregnancy because the world is no longer a place where Michael believes a child should be brought into. Mary- note her Catholic name- thinks otherwise. Consequently, the reverend and Michael have a earnest discussion about faith in the contemporary world. Michael, turns out, has a touch of Toller in him. He had spent time in prison for political activism and remains a staunch environmental activist. The two have a far reaching spiritual discussion during which Michael presents the reverend with powerful evidence about humans’ ruination of the planet and the likelihood of a human induced natural apocalypse. Michael poses the question” Will God forgive us?” for our destruction of his world. His words strike a chord and Rev. Toller sets up a second meeting.  Tragically, the reverend takes a note from Michael’s asking to meet him in the nearby woods for this second session. When Toller goes to the meeting he discovers Michael’s corpse. Michael has committed suicide with a shot gun. It is a jarring discovery.

          Michael’s will stipulates that his ashes by scattered over the local toxic waste dump. It is a moving scene that stimulates Rev. Toller to take Michael’s warnings about climate change to heart. Rev. Toller does some earnest investigation of our collective pollution of the environment. He learns how severe the local environment has been polluted by a major local oil company, BALQ Industries that, not unsurprisingly, underwrites he church’s 250th anniversary, a major event that will be attended by the governor and other dignitaries. Rev. Toller has become increasingly agitated by environmental ruination and consumed by the question “Will God Forgive Us?”, which he places on the church’s marquee. In a discussion between the company’s CEO Edward Balq and Pastor Jeffers at a local coffee shop the executive is clear the celebration must “leave politics out of it.” Although Jeffers supports Rev. Toller’s religious position and personal belief, he has also learned to accommodate corporate support and the compromises that entails. Rev. Jeffers conducts a practical pastorship, but accommodation ethics do not satisfy Toller, so he plans to make his dissent public.

          The conflict of values this film dramatizes play out every day in different locales. The Hudson River near where the film unfolds suffered enormous toxic pollution from local mega corporation General Electric (GE), which dumped over a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs-banned in 1977) into the river.5 Only environmental activism and legal action brought about the corporation’s reluctant effort to remedy the severe damage caused by their gross negligence. Walking my dog this past Christmas Eve, we could not avoid the disturbing sight or loud noise of a local developer/builder Hodorowski Homes and J. Luke Construction Company, LLC,  ripping up one of the few remaining green spaces in the Village of Latham, disrupting a natural spot in order to build yet another housing development in an already saturated area of the county.6 The new “community” is named with unintended, but significant irony, Boght Meadows. Regardless of political party, local politicians and leaders too often surrender to corporate, monied interests in the name of purported economic development. Sadly, making short term decisions independent of any ethical framework or moral compass has potentially disastrous, irreversible long term consequences. Land occupied for residential or commercial development cannot be reversed. I see local retail stores frequently go out of business, but the open spaces erased by short sighted self-interest can never be recovered. Likewise, even environmental cleanup has resulted in serious problems as documented by New York State’s recent lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for letting GE off the hook too early with respect to the Hudson River cleanup they are obligated to conduct.7

Housing Development site of the future “Boght Meadows” in the Village of Latham, Town of Colonie in upstate New York. Photo by author.

          Returning to the film, the acute conflict of values that radicalized Rev. Toller can be seen in different interpretations of the Abundant Life Church. The church’s prosperity under Rev. Jeffers and BALQ Industries signifies a material abundance: comfortable pews, a media production studio, a well fed pastor and largely middle class congregation, but, the sparse attendance at the nearby Reformed Church suggests that Abundant Life’s  material abundance might hide a spiritual poverty, or, if not, at least an insufficiently examined spirituality. Rev. Toller’s radicalism has two symbolic American historical antecedents.  First, the small Reformed Church, despite a tiny congregation, serves as a historical landmark for both the Dutch presence in New York, and the underground railroad, which helped southern slaves to freedom in the north. In an important, but understated scene, Rev. Toller, giving a tour of the church to school children, points out the “trap door” that helped fugitive slaves hide from their pursuers. The underground railroad network required many people to act with deep moral conviction, not economic self-interest, and their bravery should be commemorated- something the film does in a subtle fashion. Leadership during the anti-slavery period on up through the Civil Rights and into today’s Black Lives Matters movements necessarily consists of character and value.

          A second, easily overlooked subtly of the film, is the reverend’s homage to the great theologian, writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968).8  Early in the film, Rev. Toller begins a diary or journal which he calls a conversation with God. This devotional type writing takes its inspiration form Merton, who was a prolific writer. The one book sitting on Toller’s table has Merton’s name clearly visibly on the cover. Merton was a deeply spiritual man, an intellectual and ecumenical in his inclusive vision. He argued against the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement. Merton’s reclusiveness at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky did not prevent his commitment to social justice or community action. That dedication to community action helps fuel Rev. Toller’s desire to speak and act out against local environmental pollution.

          In contrast to Rev. Toller’s radicalization, the film presents his devout parishioner Mary Mensana. Mary encouraged her husband to seek counseling and despite Michael’s suicide she remains steadfast in her spirituality, “I am the spiritual one,” she remarks in the film. After his death, she takes solace in Rev. Toller’s faith, unaware, I believe of his personal crisis. In one of the film’s most haunting sceneries, Mary asks the reverend to reenact a ritual of intimacy she had with her late husband. It is an adult version of airplane where a father lays on his back and the small child lays on top of dad’s outstretched arms and pretends to fly. In the adult version the reverend and Mary levitate, breaking the film’s austere, realistic frame entirely as Rev. Toller’s disembodied spirit flies across a futurist landscape devasted by climate change; a vision of total ruination. This fantastic scenario has very real overtones if one listens, as we all should, to scientific evidence, and this predicted apocalyptic future is near not distant.

          Reverend Toller’s plan for ultimate revolt is shockingly anti—Christian. Mary has given him a suicide vest of Michael’s she found after his death. In a sense, Rev. Toller becomes Michael as he puts the vest on under his religious attire. He intends to detonate the vest the day of the 250th anniversary. It will be anarchy; destroying not only those who anger him, but innocent celebrants as well. The reverend tells Mary- implores her, not to attend the ceremony where he is scheduled to preside. However, much Mary respects Rev. Toller, her faith is unshakeable, and she ignores his request. Rev. Toller spots her about to enter the church and abandons his radical mission in deference to Mary’s faith.

          The film’s vary last scene simply stops. The reverend and Mary embrace and kiss passionately. Is it fantasy or reality? We don’t know for certain. The film ends abruptly. The screen goes black, not fade to black, rather jump to black. The scene seems to me to be like the hallucinatory earlier scene where Mary and Rev. Toller reenact Mary’s intimate ritual with her husband. These scenes are examples of what Schrader called the transcendental in film or the “paradox of the spiritual existing within the physical” (1972, p.108). Moments that shatter or transcend the film’s naturalistic surface are what novelist James Joyce called epiphanies.9 These are spiritual breakthroughs that escape narration; hence the cut to black. Most likely, Rev. Toller has fantasized the kiss with Mary since within the narrative’s logic she is locked out of his living quarters and cannot reach him. The end implies the reverend’s suicide, drinking whiskey laced with Drano. Rev. Toller prepared the poisonous cocktail after wrapping his body in barbed wire, an act of self-flagellation. This religious act of fleshly mortification represents a reminder of sin or vileness in the face of God, a direct inversion of a passionate kiss with Mary. The reverend is dead, the film ends. Suicide does nor redeem. Such darkness can only be represented by a black screen.

          The question the film leaves viewers with returns to the question posed to Rev. Toller by Michael and from the reverend to his congregation, “Can God forgive us?” Michael answers no, but he was not a religious man. The reverend, a man of the cloth, repeats that negative response by repeating Michael’s suicide. That leaves the question within the film to his congregation and to those outside the film, the viewers, i.e. us, to answer the question. Can our species be forgiven for ruining the planet, killing each other, and destroying other species, and doing all this deliberately with our full faculties and reason intact?

Notes

1.The impeachment hearings presented a curious form of cognitive dissonance (i.e. conflicting beliefs (see Fetinger below).  Supporters of the president rested their support most squarely on the stock market’s robust year end performance and the economy overall good health. Leave aside the possibility that the wealthiest Americans reap the lion share of these economic gains and accept for argument’s sake the economy is good. Now juxtapose that economic reality with the president’s repeated use of social media to call opponents names, belittle people, bully, even disrespect the memory of a recently deceased long time Congressman John Dingell from Michigan. Teachers will recognize this behavior as a characteristic of many middle school students in their early teens, but can a president’s summary dismissal of all contrary points of view, all forms of dissent be easily reconciled with leadership in a democracy, which, in principle, depends upon tolerance and openness to honest debate through argument and evidence?

The two articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives both concern perceived threats to American democracy’s bedrock principle of separation of powers. The charge of “Abuse of Power” speaks to the threat of monarchical style decision making with regards to national policy, and the charge “Obstruction of Congress” refers to the Executive Branch’s refusal to supply lawfully issued subpoenas from the legislative branch of government. If one ascribes America’s predominate value as money, making it and spending it, then such public behavior might not present a problem. However, if, as the framers intended, our national values have an ethical standard to uphold there is something of a moral crisis today.

 For an overview and discussion of the two articles of impeachment see, Zachary B. Wolf and Curt Merill, CNN. “The articles of impeachment against President Trump,” annotated.” CNN website, https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/12/politics/impeachment-articles-annotated/, Dec. 10. 2019. For a report on President Trump’s uncivil remarks on the late Rep. Dingel see, “Trump’s Dingel insults disrupt GOP unity amid impeachment,” by Brett Samuels and Morgan Chaflant, The Hill, 12/20/10, retrieved from https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/475374-trumps-dingell-insults-disrupt-gop-unity-on-impeachment, 12/27/19. Web.

The impeachment of President Clinton also had a clear moral dimension. He perjured himself, but the act leading to that perjury was his adultery with a young woman, Monica Lewinsky. It was not an illegal act, but the poor judgment and lack or moral character exhibited by that affair compromised President Clinton’s political standing and leadership at the time of its occurrence. President Clinton also presided over a strong economy, but, like with President Trump, the country expected moral integrity and transparency from its leader. Unlike President Trump, President Clinton offered a public apology and took some accountability for his errors. President Clinton did not call opposing politicians, world leaders or career civil servants’ names, nor did he belittle them. However distasteful President Clinton’s sexual behavior might have been he neither compromised the electoral process nor did he solicit a foreign power as President Trump is alleged to do.

Finally, the Senate trial amounted to nothing but a show trial with no witnesses called and the likely verdict predetermined independent of any proffered arguments. The lack of integrity shown by many of our national leaders reflects again on the failure of ethical thinking and deliberation.

2. A megachurch requires a minimum of 2,000 worshippers. They have been around since the 19th century, but their proliferation began in the 1980s coincident with business deregulation and the expansion of corporate mergers and acquisitions. Megachurches are often multisite, but also have a home church with a huge seating capacity. The country’s largest such church, Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, has over 50,000 weekly worshipers and a seating capacity at the church building in Houston (the former home of the Houston Rockets basketball team) of 16,800. Some megachurches are criticized as practicing so called “prosperity gospel” a bizarre misreading of the gospels that attempts to equate Christian acts with making money. I don’t think this is the case with the Abundant Life Church (by the way many megachurches are named Abundant) depicted in the film, but wealth is an uneasy fit with Christianity. Lakewoood Church, for example, spent over a $100 million on renovations. A pastor or senior pastor like Lakewood’s famous Joel Osteen, even if he or she makes a reasonable salary for a Protestant minister, and does not take money from the congregation, can; nonetheless, still easily reap millions from speaking engagements, book sales made possible from the celebrity status megachurch and televangelism makes possible.

Some interesting facts about megachurches are they are most popular in the south. They are conservative and evangelical in practice and, very important, require a charismatic leader and highly sophisticated level of technology like that shown in the film. Rev. Osteen has use of state of the art studio equipment and can preach through Trinity Broadcasting Network and Daystar Television Network (both are Christian broadcasting networks) to millions.

For detailed information on megachurches see the Hartford Institute for Religious Research at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/definition.html

We might recall that Martin Luther sparked the Protestant reformation with his severe criticism of the Catholic Church’s use of indulgences which Luther saw as a form of purchasing salvation or commercializing a spirituality. Ironically, Luther, a father figure of Protestantism, would not be favorable toward Abundant Life churches in their material manifestations nor would be find the spiritual and material manifestations of “abundant life” compatible.

3. Compare: Mark 11: 15-19; Matthew 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22.

4. See The Ernst-Toller Society/Ernst-Toller Gesellschaft, https://www.ernst-toller.de/eng/gesellschaft.htm. Three of Toller’s pertinent plays are Transfiguration/Die Wandlang (1919), Masses Man/Masse Mensch (1921) and The Machine Wreckers/Die Maschinenstumer (1922).

5. Information about the pollution of the Hudson River and cleanup efforts can be found on the website for The River Keeper, Inc., https://www.riverkeeper.org/campaigns/stop-polluters/pcbs/, 2009-2019 Web.

6. There is an excellent report on land use and aggressive development in the Town of Colonie by Mallory Moench, “What will Colonie’s development look like in a decade?” The Albany Times Union, July 28, 2019, https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/What-will-Colonie-s-development-look-like-in-a-191830.php, retrieved 12/28/2019. Web. The Town of Colonie has often been considered a highly desirable suburban community, but rapid development that has consumed nearly 85% of the land suitable for development bodes poorly for the future. Big box retail stores, sprawling parking lots, limited open space, congested roads etc. do not make for leisurely living. Development always involves a tug between economic investment and nature conservancy, but a balance is necessary for long term health. Even if a property owner wants to make a chunk of money and the developer wants to reap big profits, there are ethical considerations on all sides about how the land will be used. A failure of ethical decision making results in environmental destruction. A Town Board should insist on ethical considerations about land use, but this framework seems entirely lacking to the point where smart planning in suburban communities appears an oxymoron.

7. See the recent report from Reuters News Service by Jonathan Stempel, “New York sues EPA over GE’s Hudson River cleanup,” REUTERS, 2019. Web.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-new-york-epa/new-york-sues-epa-over-ges-hudson-river-pcb-cleanup-idUSKCN1VB1YM. Web.

8. Thomas Merton was extraordinarily prolific writing in many genres. Perhaps, the best way to acquaint oneself with is work would be to read through The Pocket Thomas Merton published by Shambala Pocket Library, 2012. Print.

9. The actual Christian Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 when Jesus revealed himself to the Magi. James Joyce, a writer educated by Jesuits, appropriated the term beginning with Stephen Hero, the prototype for his great novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1917). Joyce uses the term to convey a nonnarrative moment of revelation such as Gabriel’s realization in the story The Dead (1912) that his wife Greta has been in love throughout their marriage with a now deceased teenage boy. Of course, Joyce was a novelist not a theologian and he often used the epiphany in complex, ironic ways.

Works Cited

Cortellessa, Eric.“Paul Schrader on First Reformed’s Provocative Ending and Its Many Influences,” Slate, https://slate.com/culture/2018/06/first-reformeds-ending-paul-schrader-explains-why-its-designed-to-be-ambiguous.html, June 13, 2018, retrieved December 4, 2019. Web..

First Reformed, Dir. Paul Schrader, A 24, 2018. Film.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film. University of California Press, 1972. Print.

“Thomas Merton’s Life and Work,” The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, http://merton.org/chrono.aspx, web.

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