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The Toxic Environments of First Reformed

July 25th, 2018 | 55 min read

By Zack Holbrook

Michael Mensana is in despair. The world is coming to an end, and there is nothing any of us can do about it. Here is the timeline. Here is the graph of the inevitable, the coming judgement. What kind of world will we leave to our children? Will God forgive us?

Across the home office from Michael sits Reverend Ernst Toller, pastor of First Reformed, his wife Mary’s small church in upstate New York. Toller is there at Mary’s request; she is pregnant, and Michael cannot see how it can be moral to bring a child into this damned world. Michael recites statistics as memorized as Scripture: dates, measures of sea level rise, atmospheric concentrations of carbon, while animated temperature-increase maps flicker over his shoulder.

Toller is calm with his cup of tea, but engages Michael’s darkness forcefully, drawing from Kierkegaard and explaining that, while the historical moment may be unique, its crises overwhelming, despair is not unique – it is the human condition, absent faith and hope. His own history – the death of his son, pushed by Toller to join the military, in the Iraq war, and the ensuing end of his marriage – has had its share of dark moments, but hope remains, even when held in tension. To which Michael replies: Will God forgive us?

Toller’s resolve falters. “Who can know the mind of God?” Perhaps this could be a merely pastoral concern, an ambivalence borne of fear that too firm an answer might drive away an already reluctant parishioner. But as we watch Toller’s path play out in writer/director Paul Shrader’s film First Reformed, it is clear that more is at work beneath the surface. Toller has been infected by Michael’s question. Like the environments Michael so wants to save, his faith has been polluted by despair, both his own latent grief over his losses and now through the despair of Michael, whose passion Toller will come to vainly valorize.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus compares the word of God to seed planted in various soils. His comparisons draw on the qualities of the soil, showing how faith can sprout or wither in response to both the worries and the wealth of this world. These differences were present long before toxic runoff and industrial waste were a common feature of the soil; there is nothing new under the sun. But in a world marked by the desecration of earth, sea, sky, and spirit, we may ask what unique pollutants make environments – whether individual people or entire populations – inhospitable for the growth of God’s seeds. As Toller leaves Michael with a promise to meet again, we watch his story with Michael’s question in mind: Will God forgive Ernst Toller?

A Creature Caged

“The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
   that one may turn away from the snares of death.” –Prov. 14:27

After Toller’s meeting with Michael, he is intellectually invigorated, enticed by the prospect of a debating a new and formidable opponent, but the next meeting never happens. Michael is called in to work the following day, but Toller receives a call from Mary to come to their house anyway. He arrives to learn that Mary has discovered a suicide vest rigged with explosives. Michael was an eco-activist recently returned from imprisonment for direct action, and sees heroism in those who have given their lives for this cause. Toller takes the vest to dispose of it, promising to address it with Michael in their rescheduled meeting the next day. But when he arrives at the park where they planned to meet, he finds Michael’s bloody remains: he has killed himself with a shotgun.

Environmental scientists measure pollution from both point and non-point sources. Point sources of pollution come from an identifiable terminus, such as a specific factory or power plant or sewage outfall; non-point sources are more diffuse than localized, like the runoff from the impervious roads and parking lots in a given watershed. This concept provides a useful lens for examining spiritual pollution.

Michael’s most obvious point source of spiritual pollution is Mary’s discovery of his suicide vest. We never see his reaction, but one can imagine the fear and shame that must have knotted his stomach upon realizing she knew of his plans. While this led directly to his actual suicide, Mary’s pregnancy is another point source. The prospect of new life might seem like an unquestionable good, a symbol of hope, even, but the moral anguish caused by Michael’s fear of the world his child will inherit is what drives his wife to reach out to Toller.

A moment of clarification: like with any work of art, we must use some imaginative license here. It would obviously not be better for Mary to have never found the suicide vest, not would her assent to an abortion have assuaged Michael’s deeper issues. These spiritual point sources aid in our diagnosis of where pollution comes from, though they are not necessarily perilous in themselves. But as any good can be disordered and made into an idol, so also can we have a negative reaction to a gift of God. Later, we will see how a point source can be a primary factor in polluting an environment. However, that these points are ostensible goods causes us to look for a broader, non-point source of Michael’s despair.

In his description of the coming climate catastrophe, Michael is especially desperate. As Mary tells us, she is the religious one in the couple, and though Michael clearly respects Toller’s history and integrity, he gives no indication of sharing the pastor’s faith. But his fervor for his cause is virtually religious, and the implicit materialist theology of the environmental movement is the greatest non-point source of his spiritual pollution. The detailed predictions of coming doom resemble nothing so much as a fundamentalist tribulation timeline. With no vision of a life after death, this worldview denying even a symbolic “eternal life” of offspring to inherit one’s legacy, how can we hope beyond the urgency of the moment?

To be sure, Michael gives Toller vague agreements alluding to a belief in life beyond this one. But as his words and deeds make clear, he does not so much anticipate a future Promised Land as he does a Poisoned one. Over time, Michael has absorbed his movement’s lack of future hope, and it has imprisoned his soul. Knowingly or not, he is trapped in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame,” and when one imagines that there is no transcendent “outside” for help to come from, the pressure of urgency is always at risk of becoming the burden of futility.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of his future expectation is his funeral, in which a plaintive protest song scores the scattering of his ashes at a local Superfund site. N. T. Wright, in Surprised By Hope, writes of cremation’s “underlying implication… a desire simply to be merged back into the created world, without any affirmation of a future life of new embodiment” (p.24). Wright’s larger point, though, is not about the secular world, but about a Church who has lost the understanding of her creedal belief in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

Compare the embrace of cremation within the modern Church with Benedict XVI’s description of early Christian sarcophagi in his encyclical Spe Salvi. These coffins displayed hope through images of Jesus as both “the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life,” and as the “true shepherd” of Psalm 23, “who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death.” Many churches ostensibly believe in a future hope, but display words and deeds that focus too heavily on a similar expectation of burning destruction. If Michael’s beliefs bear such poisonous fruit, how can these bear something better? If all Creation is merely about to perish in imminent flames, it becomes easy to dismiss any crisis as political posturing, while ignoring any vision of the common good that Christian politics should compel us to work towards. (Lest this admonition be read as mere ambivalence, we will return to the idea of God’s judgement by the end.)

Wright sees the Christian hope of glorified bodies in a recreated heavens and earth a moral source, capable of energizing Christian work in the world, including stewardship of the environment. He frequently reminds us of 1 Corinthians 15:58, assuring us that Paul’s conclusion of his forceful theology of resurrection is that our “labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Though there are worthwhile critiques of Wright’s approach – after all, we long for a kingdom not made with human hands – remembering that we are God’s fellow workers reorients our approach to stewardship. As Toller tries to tell Michael, we must endure a life in tension, constantly in pursuit of God and confident in the accomplished victory of Christ, while continuing to fight against the demonic powers still loose in the world.

Referencing the archangel of Jude 9 and Revelation 12:7, Michael’s name hints that he is battling these dark forces, although it is a battle his character cannot win. But his last name, Mensana, may be even more significant, a portmanteau of mens sana, Latin for “healthy mind.” Perhaps best known from the phrase mens sana in corpore sano from the Roman poet Juvenal (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”), the bitter irony is surely no accident. Juvenal bawdily echoes the Teacher of Ecclesiastes in his regard that all human desire is vanity. Sex, beauty, power, fame, wisdom: all decay, “For death alone reveals/How small the remnants of a human being.” He admonishes that we forsake “fear of death” and to “endure any hardship;” instead of earthly goods, “The one true path that leads to a tranquil life is that of virtue.”

Like Michael, though, the poet makes a crucial error, thinking that a prayer for virtue “you can grant yourself.” As the Biblical guide to virtue – the book of Proverbs – says numerous times, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” It is only through the fear of the Lord, rather than following the strictly material mindset of the world, that our hope in the future can persevere (Prov. 23:17-18).

Although Michael is gone early in the film, his namesake phrase has similarly ironic import for Toller, too. His mind, though sharp, is dark. He writes moodily in a journal, the words of which narrate many scenes in voiceover. His writing is self-excoriating and unflinching; towards the beginning, he writes things he regrets but cannot bring himself to cross them out. From this we learn of his struggle to pray. His body is unhealthy as well. We see his recurring cough early in the movie; we see him heaving over a toilet bowl, and grimacing as he relieves himself bloodily. But before looking at Toller’s particular pollutions, we will examine the health of a larger body.

Cultural Climate Change

“Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint…” –Prov. 29:18a

Augustine writes in City of God that “the source of a community’s felicity is no different from that of one man, since a community is simply a united multitude of individuals” (1.15). If felicity works like this, vice may operate in much the same way, working its way upward gradually through a society, just as it grows in one’s heart. In ecology, a concept called biomagnification describes how pollution can increase as it works its way from the bottom of a food chain to the top: an insect exposed to pollution may have a low concentration of the pollutant, but the fish that eats several such insects will have a higher concentration, and a bird that eats several polluted fish higher still.

The church First Reformed is 250 years old, and was a stop on the Underground Railroad, but now it is virtually vacant. It is mostly funded by a nearby megachurch called Abundant Life. Their multi-screened auditorium seats 5,000; they call First Reformed “the souvenir shop.” Led by Reverend Joel Jeffers (played by Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles), Abundant Life’s contrast with First Reformed allows Shrader to draw a distinction between more “entertainment-based” churches and those more focused on “devotion and meditation.” The glimpses we see of Abundant Life show how the culture shaping a church’s congregants can be magnified upward into the larger church culture.

We are only shown one subset of Abundant Life’s actual members: the youth, some of the smallest organisms in this ecosystem. Esther, the choir director and the only staffer we get to know beyond Jeffers, actually attends First Reformed. But our first impression of the Abundant Life teens comes as she directs the small youth chorus (which will eventually be enlisted for Michael’s funeral) in a peppy acapella rendition of “Are You Washed In the Blood?” while Toller walks in. A boy in the back row takes advantage of her distraction to grope the girl in front of him, and he’s smacked away, smirking amidst the giggles. This subtle gesture communicates much about the kids in the choir: their garments – matching khakis and branded polos – are spotless, to be sure, but their exposure to anything truly soul-cleansing remains dubious.

The next glimpse comes from Toller’s visit to the church’s youth group. Toller, in his dark coat and clerical collar, is conspicuous and somber next to the fashionable haircut and tattoos of the youth pastor. The kids are “sharing.” One boy describes the prosperity path he’s walked after turning his life over to Jesus: a raise at work, an improved attitude, relationships that are just, you know, better. Pastor Haircut fawns wispily, “Every breath a prayer!”

Another girl’s path is not so uplifting; almost shamefully, she admits her fears about her father’s protracted unemployment. Is God punishing him? This seems more Toller territory, but as he begins to offer solace tempered with an understanding of the suffering inherent in Christian life, he is cut off by a third youth: “So Christianity is for losers?” He continues on incoherently, tying his righteous angst almost instinctively to nationalist non sequiturs and leaving Toller thoroughly baffled.

“It’s just not the Church I was called to,” Toller later sighs to Jeffers, who replies, “Me either, brother!” And it’s easy to believe him. Jeffers comes across as a decent guy, offering at least perfunctory care for Toller and cracking seminary jokes with him. He seems genuinely frustrated with the state of the youth, who demand a brand of certainty Christianity doesn’t offer. The Gospel Coalition’s Brett McCracken, in his review of the film, highlights how the “paradoxes of Christianity aren’t clean enough for [young people], and so they often resort to politics instead.”

The problem with Jeffers isn’t his intentions; it’s that he should be maturing his flock to eat meat, but insists on giving them only the most watered-down milk. Rather than guide the youth culture in moral formation, the church leadership is shaped by what the youth wants to hear. Consider Jeffers’ banal retort to Toller later on, “Jesus doesn’t want our suffering,” or his similar interpretation of Psalm 37:8 in a brief televised sermon snippet.

But Jesus calls us to take up our cross to follow him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously reminds us that the call of Christ is the call to “come and die.” The apostle Paul often tells the churches he wrote to that suffering is to be expected, and he had the scars to show he meant it. While we must not succumb to false asceticism, and the avoidance of pointless suffering can be a form of wise stewardship, Christians are called to rejoice in our suffering. Paul exhorts the Corinthians that the tension between our suffering and our hope is the hallmark of the Christian life, Christ’s death and resurrection played out in our daily lives. Do Jeffers or his congregants ever remember Paul’s chains?

Systems theorists talk of feedback loops, in which which mutually reinforcing factors can create exponential growth – or decline. Abundant Life’s theology has the shallow sentimentality its youth think they desire, their naiveté bubbling up as an unnoticed non-point source of spiritual pollution, and the cheapened teaching has no power to change their lives. Fleming Rutledge writes in The Crucifixion, “A believer in innocence is going to be impervious to the biblical message about Sin” (p.196).  In their fear of driving the kids away, the message has been corrupted, and the church leaders seem not to realize that, although the kids are still present, they’ve been lost to the culture around them for a long time. Indeed, they were never given an alternative.

At First Reformed, the congregation is too small to show us where they stand theologically, although their services are liturgical enough to keep the general teachings safe. Beyond Mary and Michael, Toller’s primary ministering is to passing tour groups. If these are any indication, though, the same currents are present among the adults in the area, like the dad who just can’t resist the urge to rib Toller with a dirty joke. Recent history has given us far too many examples of adults who have similarly put far too much of their faith in politics as well. But the culture of the congregants is not the only corrupting influence at Abundant Life.

Predators and the Pollution of Plenty

“Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain

   is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.” –Prov. 25:26

Eutrophication is too much of a good thing. It occurs when water becomes enriched with excessive nutrients, often caused by fertilizer runoff from fields near the body of water and its tributaries. Organisms in the water need nutrients to thrive, but the imbalance caused by this overabundance leads to the proliferation of algal blooms, which use up the oxygen in the water (killing the fish and other animals) and block sunlight from reaching the bottom (killing the other aquatic vegetation). This is the cause of the massive “dead zones” that plague the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

There is a lot of wealth in Abundant Life, and this can provide the potential for a lot of good. When Mary asks Toller to counsel Michael, he first suggests they check out the Abundant Life counseling programs. Their numerous youth programs, however lacking in robustness they may be, imply that corresponding groups for adults are likely available, too. With First Reformed’s 250-year reconsecration ceremony approaching, it’s the Abundant Life sanctuary that will serve as the overflow seating while the service is simulcast on their numerous screens. Despite Toller’s reluctance at taking advantage of these resources, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have someone able to pull some strings and get the broken organ repaired in time.

Reverend Jeffers never seems to flaunt his institution’s wealth, but the poison of this excess manifests in a different way. Abundant Life’s very abundance is a particularly American form of wealth, one that influences the thought of many in a nation both richer and more wasteful than any the world has ever known. Despite the opportunities offered by these plentiful resources, the primary orientation of this wealth is its own preservation, more concerned with maintaining security and comfort than seeking any common good. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his sermon on Luke 12:20, notes:

“The rich man was a fool because he permitted the ends for which he lived to become confused with the means by which he lived… There is always a danger that we will permit the means by which we live to replace the ends for which we live, the internal to become lost in the external. The rich man was a fool because he failed to keep a line of distinction between means and ends.”

Victorian art critic John Ruskin thought this type of aimless accumulation was better referred to as illth. In his essay on Ruskin’s notion of illth, Micah Meadowcroft ties these earthly orientations to their ultimate ends: life and death, much like the book of Proverbs describes the two paths of orientation to God. The essay’s title paraphrases the same Kierkegaard work on despair as Toller references to Michael, seeing this desultory affluence as “riches unto death.” Can there be any mistaking America’s current despair, despite what might be called material prosperity?

Just as the unguided desires of the church youth subtly infiltrate the church’s teachings, so too does the presence of such wealth act as a non-point source of pollution, gradually modulating the message of Christ crucified into a stagnant safeguard of the status quo. Much as Paul warned Timothy, Abundant Life’s comprehension of suffering is constrained by twin impediments: a congregation with no ears to hear hard teachings, and a church that has become an enterprise. Mary and Michael think it seems “more like a company than a church.” One can hardly fault Jeffers for seeing a need to responsibly steward the resources with which he has been entrusted. But in this metaphorical case of eutrophication, the very abundance of these resources has left a dead zone in the church’s understanding of Christian doctrine. This distortion leads Jeffers and his church into a weakened position of vulnerability.

But there are more than internal weaknesses. Vulnerability in an organism can be taken advantage of by predators, and we live in an environment rife with them. In the New York county of First Reformed, the predator in question is Edward Balq.

Balq is a local industrialist, the head of an energy company called BALQ Industries. Like Michael, he appears in only one scene, but it communicates much about him. Dropped off by a personal driver (his carriage: a shiny black Suburban, naturally), he meets with Jeffers and Toller at a sterile-looking diner to discuss the approaching reconsecration ceremony, which he is funding.

He seems gregarious at first, belying the obvious caution with which Jeffers regards him. As he presents the sleek, newly-printed reconscreation programs and orders a slice of all-American apple pie (Shrader perhaps displays too much disregard for subtlety here), he offhandedly asks for their promise that the ceremony won’t be “political.” The source of his concern is Toller’s involvement with Michael’s funeral, described by local media as a protest act at the Superfund site nearby. Jeffers nearly stumbles over himself to convey his assurances, his fear of Balq paralyzing his power of discernment. Toller awkwardly tries to defend himself, bemused perhaps that Jeffers is trying to downplay his role or cognizance of the funeral’s political overtones. He also tries to defend Michael’s environmentalist cause; he has been reading Michael’s research on the laptop he took from Mary and has the overconfidence of a new convert. Balq’s affable casualness turns frigid as he icily reminds Toller that Michael committed suicide only after Toller’s counseling. Jeffers musters no defense, only a sense of relief that everything seems resolved after Balq’s comments leave Toller silent.

Late-night perusal of Michael’s laptop soon reveals more about the predator. Finding a list of Balq’s top charitable contributions, Toller sees that Abundant Life is near the top. The presence of Edward Balq in the film is clarifying, as is Jeffers’ apparent fear of him. Where wealth and power are present, particularly in the inherently disordered capacity discussed above, so is fear: fear of losing what (as Juvenal observed earlier) one cannot keep. Again we see that wealth ordered towards its own preservation is a path of death – deeper down, the fear that one will lose one’s wealth is tied up with the fear that one is going to one day die. Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes that “fear and power end up being two sides of the same coin,” and in a country where money counts as speech, there can be no mistaking that wealth and power are synonymous. Returning to the book of Proverbs, we see that the rich replace the eternal security of God with the imaginary wall of wealth (Prov. 18:10-11). Blinded by the pollution of plenty, the despairing illthy will believe anyone pledging to preserve their position. Jeffers makes a deal many others have made, from ancient Hebrew poetry to New Testament teachings to world literature to modern politics, but at what cost?

Toller, himself vulnerable for reasons we will examine shortly, is so insignificant to Balq as to only be worth injuring for mere sport, or perhaps as collateral damage. Abundant Life presents a bigger catch; viewed through our previous lens, Balq is the most obvious point source of their theological pollution. But Balq’s predatory reaches go farther than the simple local prey that counts as a marketing opportunity or a tax deduction. BALQ Industries also appears on a list on Michael’s computer, one of top polluters.

Beyond spiritual point sources, his company manages many literal ones. Pollution is not an adequate lens with which to view Balq, though; pollution typically doesn’t create itself, and to relegate him in this way would deny his malignant agency. He is a predator, and the biggest prey is the world. Balq, however, for all his malice, is not the apex predator, the one at the top of its food chain, like a lion or crocodile. The apex predator of First Reformed and of our world is a bigger Enemy, who wants to destroy us more surely than any Balq-type can. This Enemy has preyed on Michael, through his despair and suicide. He is preying on Balq in his craven ambition and on Jeffers in his clinging to status and comfort. And he is hunting Ernst Toller.

The Folly of Isolation

“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;

   he breaks out against all sound judgment.” –Prov. 18:1

Ernst Toller is in despair. The church’s organ is still broken, and there’s nothing he can do about it. Here is the same handful of lonely people lined up to receive bread and wine. Here is another pour of Drano in a clogged toilet, another regrettable thought in the journal. What kind of soul is being recorded in these pages? Will God forgive Ernst Toller?

Despite being the film’s main character, Reverend Toller has remained on the periphery of this essay thus far. This is how he would likely prefer it, as most of his contact with the other characters is emotionally buffered and fleeting. Toller prefers to retreat to the fortress of his mind, ruminating on his days’ events, his flawed reactions, his guilt over his flaws. He is isolated, and though his sparse, monk-like solitude might imply renunciation of all worldly things, there is disorder in Toller’s desires that drives him into darkness.

As mentioned above, Toller has experienced the death of a child and the loss of a spouse through divorce. Despite this, he seems cool and collected when confronted with Michael’s anguish for the future. But at the movie’s opening, we see Toller’s inner turmoil more clearly through the words of his journal, narrating his days with alternating shades of honesty, irony, and juxtaposition. Early on, his honesty is brutal, self-critical and full of regret at ill-chosen words and the recording of thoughts that may have better been left unexpressed. When the juxtapositions between action and narration become more jarring, the ironies bitterly intensifying, we grow inquisitive about the trajectory of Toller’s path.

The book of Proverbs posits two paths for man: the ways of life and of death. This binary construction is overlaid with other corollary paths: righteousness and wickedness, diligence and sloth, and, perhaps the most consistently, wisdom and folly. Throughout the first 9 chapters of Proverbs, wisdom and folly are personified as two women, each pursuing mankind in hopes of reorienting every one of us onto their respective pathways. Toller’s path also has two women on it. Mary, Michael’s widow, becomes more of a fixture in his life as he cares for her after Michael’s suicide, and she becomes the closest thing he has to a friend as he helps her store Michael’s things or bicycles with her around a local park. Meanwhile, Esther, the Abundant Life choir director, constantly reaches out to Toller, imploring him to find connection, go to the doctor, take care of himself. Her concerns are colored by an ambiguous past relationship (romantic? sexual?) between the two of them.

She is right to be concerned. Toller has an immediately apparent point source of pollution: he is a whiskey drinker, and not one with moderation. His cough, his various lavatory difficulties, even his sleep each raises red flags about his health, and Esther sees the evidence. “A healthy mind in a healthy body…” Toller is flagrant in his disregard for the latter. As Wendell Berry points out, the two cannot be separated: “The concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole.” His drinking is not a trivial overindulgence, but evidence of the health of his mind: with no one to hold him accountable, his drinking only increases throughout the film. In his isolation, he breaks out against all sound judgement.

To follow Berry’s argument further, one’s environment must also be included in any assessment of health, and there are indeed numerous non-point sources of pollution in Toller’s world. His physical location contributes to his isolation: he lives alone, and as far as we see, the majority of his congregants are not particularly engaged in his life. And his position in a changing culture is lonely as well: an old-fashioned man of the cloth, he is visually and intellectually incongruous in the youth group circle, or even the corporate cafeteria of Abundant Life.

Cultural difference is surely no automatic evil, but like Michael’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, Toller’s reaction to an environment he cannot change allows the pollution in. Again, a greater Enemy than a different culture is the true source of this pollution. Toller shows as his character progresses that his heart is not oriented toward a path of life and hope for the culture he’s found himself a part of; as he drives around late at night, examining the glamour, grime, and greed of his small town, he ends up stalking menacingly through the Superfund site where Michael’s ashes were scattered. He is not wrong to connect the two polluted environments, but the attitude he adopts towards them is revealing.

The mind, body, and environment still do not complete an entirely holistic picture of health; there is the spiritual landscape, as well. Here, Toller has more in common with the other characters than he would likely admit. The words of Dr. King showed the foolishness of the congregation that puts its trust in wealth. By the judgement of the book of Proverbs, Michael was also pursuing the path of folly and death. Without even knowing, he had turned to the “forbidden woman,” away from hope in a future life (Prov. 2:16-19; 5:5-6; 7:21-27; 9:13-18). Perhaps he would have justified his suicide vest as giving his life for a greater cause, but its true root is revealed by his eventual suicide in the snowy solitude: it was always more about the death. But Toller, too, is a fool.

Kevin McLenithan observes on the Seeing & Believing podcast that throughout the film, Toller implicitly approaches Michael’s question – “Will God forgive us?” – from the viewpoint of someone who assumes the answer is “no.” King’s sermon continues: “Jesus called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God.” Psalm 14:1 defines a fool as one who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Viewing Toller through this lens clarifies his path: it is the way of folly and death.

Toller seethes with superiority as we look back on him. His condescension towards Jeffers and even Balq reveal his heart, deadened by eutrophication. The over-abundant nutrient for Toller is his monk-like pietism; he thinks himself a 21st-century Thomas Merton, but rather than drawing him closer to God, it curves him inward. It becomes obvious that he looks down on the youth group and its pastor, sneering in his journal-voiceover afterwards, “How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed!” But Toller himself struggles to pray, as he has already revealed to us; the silence of God looms over him, and after Michael comes into – and abruptly exits – his life, he is no longer able to be still in this silence. He occasionally considers the desire to pray – or even the discipline of journaling itself – a form of prayer in his spiritually barren state, but for whatever goods these may be, they are ineffectual for Toller’s soul. Mary asks him to pray with her after Michael’s death, saying with genuine humility that the words won’t come for her. He begins a rote prayer with her, but his voiceover breaks in again, quoting Matthew 12:37 in ominous King James cadence: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” No further commentary is offered or needed; Toller no longer sees his prayers as efficacious.

Mary, though, seems to be the healthiest relationship Toller has. She is the only person in the film who draws Toller out of himself, whether through his feeling of obligation after finding Michael’s corpse, or later, as she actively seeks him out for help or companionship. Her obvious need in a time of grief provides a rare opportunity for him to truly act as a minister; unlike the judgemental glare of his solitary nighttime drive, Toller’s bike ride in the park with Mary allows him to see the glory of Creation.

Ironically, a presence like hers is precisely what Esther has been recommending to him, but her words have fallen on stubborn ears. The woman of wisdom says that fools will despise her instruction, and turning away from reproof is a recurring theme throughout the Proverbs. Toller was also quite reluctant to hear Esther’s pleas for him to visit the doctor. When he finally gives in, he learns that he likely has stomach cancer. But again, his isolation elevates his disordered desires; he ignores the doctor’s orders and drinks still more. “He breaks out against all sound judgement.”

Seeing Toller’s path more clearly sheds a different light on his interactions with Jeffers. The pollution in his church is real, to be sure, but Jeffers does seem to care for Toller, reminding him, “Even a pastor needs a pastor.” A later debate between them is revealing on both sides. Jeffers’ pushback on Toller’s newfound environmental concerns have more to do with maintaining Balq’s patronage than advancing an actual position, and his theology is diminished as a result of this. Toller offers up a quote from Psalm 19:1, and argues that God is present in all of His Creation, to which Jeffers pithily responds with Romans 8:22, proudly citing the reference as though it authoritatively ends the argument. But Toller fights back with frustration, pleading with Jeffers that surely we shouldn’t keep destroying the earth just so God can remake it. Unlike Jeffers, he makes no appeal to scriptural references, even for the psalm he quotes, despite the fact that the gist of his arguments are framed in Romans 1:20 and 6:1-2. Here we have one pastor using scripture as a cudgel to defend himself from having to understand its implications, and another who is steeped in the imperatives of the Christian faith but seems to have forgotten their very source.

The reality of death at its most literal for Toller in the conversation he has with his doctor. Disordered desires and discipleship notwithstanding, certainly nothing makes one reflect on their mortality than the news of likely cancer. But the memento mori  stimulus might be on occasion for true Christian hope, and it is Toller’s reaction to the news that finalizes his path. When Esther asks with care how his appointment went, Toller snaps: “I despise you… you are a stumbling block.” Any incursion of light is rejected, lest he be forced to confront his reality.

His journaling immediately afterwards is clearer still: it is the first time he lies to himself in the voiceover, making no note of the verbal evisceration of Esther or his appointment, claiming to feel much better even as he pours a swirl of Pepto-Bismol into his glass of whiskey. Previously, he had refused even to erase a regretted word; later, he admits to having torn pages out. Like biomagnification increasing pollution’s concentration, Toller’s despair has magnified and is made manifest. When he talked to Michael, he may have thought that his demons of grief had dissipated, but they have returned sevenfold. It is just after focusing in on Toller’s glass, pink sludge and amber liquor vilely roiling together, that we see Toller staring at Michael’s explosive vest, laying on his bed. He never got rid of it.

For all the health and hope Mary represents – as if her name weren’t clear enough, the plot is put in motion by her pregnancy – we must remember that art does not always function as clearly as Aslan in Narnia, with neat allegorical correspondences lining up like a math equation. Mary is perhaps the most innocent character, but for Toller, she might be the woman of folly, the personification of death. Disordered goods can function as pollution, and one’s reactions can show their orientation on the path of death or life. When Mary comes to Toller’s parsonage late one night, her actions can be attributed to grief; after they talk a bit about her own despair, she asks to lay on top of Toller, staring into one another’s eyes as her and Michael used to do.

Though her motives seem merely naive, he should know that this is clearly a foolish breach, particularly with someone so vulnerable. But, his heart isolated (and mind already drunk), he agrees. The surreal sequence that follows shows that this film, if not Toller, is open to the transcendent, but even as their levitating bodies soar through space, the backdrops of Creation’s majesty switch to nightmares of environmental degradation as Toller’s inner darkness buffers him from glory. It is not necessary for Toller’s temptation to be sexual for it to be explicit that he has again broken out against all sound judgement. Toller later tells a bemused Mary that he thinks Michael’s suicide took place “on holy ground,” given the justness of his cause. Who could say this to a new widow but one whose view of death had lost its proper place?

Indeed, death is now Toller’s desire. He mediates on Revelation 11:18 as he removes a barbed-wire fence from the churchyard, moodily intoning the promise of God’s coming judgement, “destroying the destroyers of the earth.” Guiding a group of school children through a tour, he talks about the role of First Reformed as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The suicide vest stored in his closet has been finished. Does he think that the reconsecration of First Reformed might play a modernized role in a new movement of urgent justice? Who will be the vessel of this righteous judgement? As he considers taking the most drastic of actions, he announces: “I have found a new form of prayer.”

Despite her protests, Toller has already instructed Mary not to come to the ceremony. That morning he dresses, the military shades of the suicide vest snug within his vestments, showing, finally, which is closer to his heart. He writes a final page in his journal, unheard and unseen. He pours out the last of his whiskey; he no longer needs it. The church is filling up as he prepares. And then he sees her, Mary, walking up the stairs and inside.

As the crowd in First Reformed grows antsy, Toller is in a panic, frantically tearing off his vestments, his vest. The hour is at hand, and this would-be sacrifice is not prepared. Pastor Jeffers, growing impatient, rises from his pew and tries Toller’s door; it is locked. Toller is bare-chested inside, filling his empty whiskey glass with Drano, struggling with the coil of barbed wire he gathered earlier, wrapping it around himself, rending his flesh and creating a gruesome, makeshift cilice. Jeffers, back in the church, makes the call to start the service. Esther ascends to the podium and begins to sing. Calling those gathered to “fellowship” and “joy divine,” she is again that woman of wisdom, in fact, the Church itself, the eight symmetrical buttons on her stark dress mirroring the front doors of First Reformed, the cross on the wall seeming to sprout straight from her head as a steeple. “Leaning, leaning…”

And Toller is dressed again in his room, wearing the white robe of communion, only it’s his own blood, not Christ’s, that it’s washed in, and the glass of Drano is in his hand. Like Michael, his devotion to his cause was only an excuse; a meaningless, solitary suicide will do just fine. “Leaning on the everlasting arms…” And suddenly Mary is there with him, in the room, and they run to each other, and he doesn’t need to drink the toxic chemicals for us to know that his walking of the path of death is complete; as the typically static camera whirls wildly around them, he embraces the woman of folly and they kiss deeply. Toller is no longer reliant on the everlasting arms, and Esther’s voice is cut off mid-word.

Streams in the Superfund Site

“He turns a desert into pools of water,

   a parched land into springs of water.” –Ps. 107:35

Except that isn’t the only way to read the end of the film. Shrader, in a move maddening as it is brilliant, deliberately cut the ending scene to be ambiguous. How else can we read the final scene? It is an inbreaking of grace. As shown above, Toller’s actions and trajectory clearly shows him to be heading down the path of death, but Mary’s do not. In this alternate reading, all her pregnant hope is fulfilled in her miraculous entry, passing like Christ effortlessly through an obviously locked door to save Toller’ life. His barbed-wire cilice is not an act of masochism, but contrition. Mary appears, and where she had previously only addressed him as “Reverend,” she now calls him by name: “Ernst.” He drops the glass of Drano without drinking. Rather than a rejection of Esther’s song, now Toller truly is, perhaps for the first time, deeply embraced by the everlasting arms. By his own merit, Toller has not earned salvation, but we worship a God who died for us while we were still sinners. From this view, he is saved like the thief on the cross.

So we return to our earlier question: Will God forgive Ernst Toller? We are not given a clear answer at the end, but the rich ambiguity offers plenty of food for thought. In this conclusion, we will try to understand this radical inbreaking of grace in contrast with the toxic environments examined previously, with an eye toward the implications for the environments in our churches and our hearts. What import there may be for Reverend Toller has further significance for Michael’s original question: Will God forgive us?

Israel’s renewal of the covenant in Deuteronomy 29 includes a serious admonishment about God’s forgiveness worth quoting at length:

Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. (Deut. 29:18-20, emphasis added)

This is the old covenant, to be sure, but the judgements on Israel may teach us something about the way God’s judgement manifests in the new covenant people of God. With the toxic environments we see in First Reformed and in the modern Church, it can be little surprise that our roots are bearing some poisonous fruit. What are the curses that final verse mentions? They are listed in Deuteronomy 28, and include confusion and frustration (28:20), a pestilent environment (28:21-24), defeats national (28:25, 52) and personal (28:30), and the worship of other gods (28:36, 64).

Are American Christians living through a time of judgement? Numerous cultural commentators have referred to our current political and ecclesial predicament as God’s judgement or apocalyptic. Deuteronomy 28 predicts extreme poverty as a result of national defeats, and surely this exists. In a society as rich as America, though, some of the predictions take on more absurd forms; the afterbirth-eating of 28:56-57 has spawned its own pseudoscientific industry, and the worship of a nation’s false gods is as ridiculous and brazen as it’s ever been. (The reader can draw their own metaphor from the infertility and sex changes in fish as a result of endocrine disrupting pollution in our waterways.)

More seriously, there is a multi-faceted crisis of discipleship in the American church. We shouldn’t need the doomsday predictions of a tribulation timeline to be able to interpret the signs of the times (Matt. 16:3); it should not surprise us to see a nation’s judgement beginning at the house of God (1 Pet 4:17). The idea that God would give up His people to the worship of other gods is jarring, but Romans 9:18-24 reminds us that we have no standing to question His sovereignty. In this light, Toller’s response to Michael – “Who can know the mind of God?” – seems somewhat more appropriate.

It can be uncomfortable to bear the tension of that uncertainty – remember the unwillingness of the Abundant Life teens to hear any hard teaching. The questions raised by First Reformed are challenging; one reviewer pushes back against Toller’s response by saying, “Um, we can.” Toller’s words are drawn loosely from Romans 11:34, but scriptural touchstones notwithstanding, the sentiment he expresses has some merit. To reject it simply because it admits that our understanding is not fully clear in this world is to fall like the teens into the trap of sentimentality.

Moreover, to assume God’s forgiveness is what Aquinas calls the sin of presumption, a vice borne of the excess of hope. Though presumption is “less grave than despair,” it is “false that He grants forgiveness to those who persevere in their sins,” and the context of Michael’s question is clearly humanity’s wanton desecration of God’s world. While we who place our faith in Christ have confidence in his saving work, we are still told that the appropriate response to salvation is obedience with fear and trembling.

Toller tells Michael (paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aristotle) that wisdom requires one to hold two conflicting ideas in tension. Later, his journal-voiceover ruminates on Thomas Merton’s claim that discernment is characteristic of mature Christianity (as he comically plunges the parsonage toilet). The challenge we must address is whether the American Church has the courage to look at the pollution of our current cultural moment and acknowledge its poison in full, rather than choosing to see only the pollutants our political priors would most delight in eliminating.

Toller’s talk is confident, but we see him descend into drinking and despair in the face of his probable cancer diagnosis; however, a sentimental cheeriness that ignored the seriousness would serve him no better. It will only be when we are able to look at the darkness and know that even there, God is presenteven in the anguish of cancer – that we will be able to rightly rebuild our broken environments. We must know that even as we hope and obey in fear and trembling, it is God who is working.

Our environments play a major role in determining the path of our faith. Michael’s nihilism, Abundant Life’s trivial and greedy surrounding culture, and Toller’s stubborn solitude make them each inhospitable to spiritual growth. Consider also the heartbreaking reflection of Kichijiro in Shusaku Endo’s Silence, lamenting the faith his weak soul might have had, had he not lived under the Japanese persecution.

Or – more germane to the questions of suicide in First Reformed – think of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The River,” in which a boy’s babysitter takes him to a riverside revival, where he is baptized by a travelling preacher. After being returned to his abusively negligent parents and surveying his environment, with its empty refrigerator and full ashtrays, he returns to the river and – remembering with hope the promises of his baptism, but lacking any discipling hand to guide and protect him – drowns himself to be with God. Desperation and isolation are not fertile grounds for faith or obedience.

How, then, can we proceed to repair these spiritual wastelands? With the understanding that we trust in the power of the Spirit who renews the face of the earth (Ps. 104:30), a few more metaphors appropriated from ecology offer some final suggestions.

First, we must identify the limiting factors in a given environment. If an organism needs, for instance, phosphorus and nitrogen to grow, whichever of the two is less prevalent is the limiting factor, setting the limit on how abundant the organism can be. Certainly unrecognized or unrepentant sin sets a limit on one’s spiritual growth. Toller’s sneering sense of superiority is pride, and it keeps him from seeing in Abundant Life any of the opportunities for help he so desperately needs. We should be on guard, too, against the absence of difficulty, which grows our faith and points us to our ultimate hope (Rom. 5:3-5). If we are too focused on avoiding persecution or even the barest friction in our Christian walk, it should not be surprising if we no longer value our faith as more precious than gold. Insufficient discipleship is another limiting factor, depriving people of fellowship and guidance. Discipling relationships grow us in our knowledge of God and of each other, breaking down our atomizing barriers by teaching us to bring our problems to our brothers and sisters and ultimately, to God Himself. When we resort to gas-station evangelism with no plan of discipleship, we are not properly tending the soil where we’ve planted God’s seeds.

Additionally, disordered goods can just as easily fill the role of sin, and may limit our faith when too high a concentration is present. So we must beware of every possible idol, such as the accumulation of wealth. This is not just a call to gain massive wealth as long as it’s used wisely, but a warning to intentionally limit our affluence. What constitutes moderation is challenging to discern in any age, but an era and culture in which technology and ideology construct the illusion of having transcended all limits, it is especially difficult.

Because of this, we should also put in place intentional limiting factors through the formation of virtue, which is traditionally found as the mean between two extremes of vice. Proverbs 30:8-9 shows how moderation between poverty and abundance are as important a virtue as honesty; the soil in the parable of the sower was poisoned as much by the deceitfulness of riches as it was through trials and persecution. This call to virtue in Juvenal’s poem describes the “path that leads to a tranquil life,” but Christian virtue is distinct from his vision of Stoic acceptance tempered with ironic distance. It a supplement to our foundation of faith, undertaken not as a guarantee of tranquility but as a safeguard against sin and stagnation, and ordered toward the love of God and neighbor (2 Pet. 1:3-8). We must also practice this virtuous moderation with our political causes and alliances, even our habits and our hobbies, remembering the risk of being given over to the gods of this land.

The next example is from the world of agriculture. A monoculture is a practice in which a single type of crop is cultivated exclusively in a given area. Over time, this depletes nutrients in the soil that are usually replenished by other plant species, results in erosion of topsoil, and requires massive chemical inputs to maintain the health of the crop (runoff of these chemicals leads to eutrophication, dead zones, and other serious problems).

Reverend Toller represents a one-man monoculture; he has cultivated his isolation to the point that few other organisms come near him, and he relies heavily on his chemical input of choice. In America, we have physically constructed our society in such a way that each household is effectively a monoculture; smartphones and social media further disconnect us through their promise of constant connection. Approaching the metaphor from a different angle, while the Abundant Life congregation has a refreshing level of racial diversity, their church’s teachings are so indistinguishable from the surrounding culture that they are effectively homogenous with it.

In contrast, a healthy ecosystem thrives from biodiversity. For those households or persons atomized by suburbanization or seclusion, we must call them into relationship, through discipleship as above, and through ministries of hospitality. They need the diversity of human beings from outside of their house or head to nourish them. Churches that blend in too well with the surrounding culture, whether sharing their affluent comforts or progressive ideals, must remember that they are to be exiles. The Church must form a cultural alternative to the ways of the world, while remembering that the moderation of virtue and love of our neighbors compels us to engage and not withdraw. An appropriately countercultural church should serve as fertilizer to the culture around it.

Furthermore, churches and individuals must not overlook the great value of the variety of races and cultures (Rev. 5:9-10; 7:9-10). Just as discipling relationships draw us out of ourselves, cross-cultural relationships expose and confront the willful blind spots of our home cultures and theological comfort zones. American Christians must unsentimentally acknowledge how structural sin has weakened our understanding of God’s image, our love for brothers and sisters of other races, and our witness to the world. These historic injustices must be rectified with an eye not just to retribution but on building up God’s Kingdom, as His Spirit battles against the powers and principalities in us and in the world.

Finally, let us return to the Superfund site where Michael’s ashes were scattered. Like the analogy of fertilizer above, the Church should act as the Superfund program was intended, identifying sites of pollution – in its congregants and in society – and stewarding them well, creating plans to handle the toxicity safely, and remediating the land and water into something that could again sustain life. This is the task of God’s fellow workers, laboring in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. It is this work that we are assured is not in vain, for which Creation waits with eager longing. But it may seem that there is a problem.

As we’ve seen above, as we see each day, every individual, institution, cause, and culture is itself a Superfund site, deeply polluted, distorting the image it should reflect, including us in the Church, and the Church itself. We despair when we cannot see a path to divine restoration, and we try to create our own justice, which is necessarily imperfect in its means and its ends; moreover, it is necessarily accompanied by what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” to ensure we ourselves are spared from our own contrived judgements. The Bible describes this sort of spiritual wasteland as a desert. In Proverbs 30:15-16, we see that such a landscape is impossibly parched, and a parallel is drawn between this infinite need and three familiar images: an infertile perspective like a barren womb, the unquenchable fire of judgement, the path of death. If this is our common condition, how can we restore our broken lands and selves?

Toller’s hero, Thomas Merton, provides our way forward. He writes in The Seven Storey Mountain of emerging from “the Red Sea of baptism” and “entering into a desert,” but he sees it as “a terribly easy and convenient desert, with all the trials tempered to my weakness – where I would have the chance to give God great glory by simply trusting and obeying Him, and walking in the way that was not according to my own nature and my own judgement” (p.248). This is our great hope in the face of despair – that our work is God’s work in and through us, and our imperative is the proclamation of his accomplishment. Merton continues: “And it would lead me to a land I could not imagine or understand… where God would direct all things… It was for this that I had been created.”

Returning to Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, the Pope Emeritus discusses how our time of judgement can provide “a setting for learning and practicing hope,” which is the remedy to environments so polluted with despair. Benedict writes: “The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope… The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace.

The God who created the universe and all that is in it is creating it and us anew. N.T. Wright reminds us that our individual purification and growth in virtue is “designed… to be a sign and foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire cosmos” (p.200). Our God makes water flow in the desert; He can make the waters run clean in our Superfund sites. A desert parched unto death can only be satisfied by receiving the living water; a poisoned root in polluted soil must be replaced by a root more glorious, the true vine growing spiritual fruit.

As Fleming Rutledge writes, “The voice of the Son of God is able to call life into being where there was death, obedience where there was disobedience, faith where there was disbelief. The power of God to call into existence the things that do not exist is one of the foundational truths about God” (p.456, emphasis hers). All our work in cleaning the world’s toxic environments is an announcement that our Creator and King has inaugurated this new Creation, will complete it, and is renewing it, even now.  

This understanding finally reframes our questions: Will God forgive Ernst Toller? Will God forgive us? Michael’s question, which becomes Toller’s, and is often our own, is the wrong one – we do need forgiveness, for we have witnessed the awful depths of our pollution, but our hope refuses to ascribe the greater power to that desecration. This may be how our vistas appear, viewing them with despair from the path of death, but there is another path. We must, like First Reformed, be reconsecrated, renewed in our conviction that there are everlasting arms to lean on, driving out the pollution and providing a new land. And we may find Toller’s response corrected and reframed as well, closer to its original context, as we marvel with the saints at the mysteries of God’s mercy: “Who has known the mind of God?”

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Zack Holbrook

Zachary Holbrook lives in West Baltimore, where he and his wife are members of New Song Community Church (PCA), and is currently pursuing an MA in Theology at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute. He does not tweet very much at @zzzholbrook.