Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. (Baltimore Catechism)
Q. What is thy only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. (Heidelberg Catechism)
For countless Catholics of a certain age, whether practicing or lapsed, the first question and answer above, instilled in them in CCD classes or parochial school, are as much a part of them as their own names, or more so. For Paul Schrader, as for me, my father and his father before him, the second question and answer have similarly deep roots.
First Reformed is not the first Schrader film to quote these opening lines of the Calvinist Heidelberg Catechism. They also appear in his 1979 film Hardcore, which is largely set in Los Angeles, but is 100% about the Dutch Reformed mecca of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Schrader grew up, and where my father, a Dutch Reformed pastor in my youth, went to college and seminary.
In Hardcore, George C. Scott tried to explain the TULIP acrostic for Calvinism’s “Five Points” to an amiably baffled sex worker. Forty years on, First Reformed finds its protagonist, Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Toller, facing a world in which his theological tradition seems if anything even more incomprehensible. The words of the catechesis of his youth will always be with Toller, as with Schrader, but what comfort or assurance do such words offer today?
Toller’s post — a small Dutch Colonial clapboard church in upper New York state, built by 18th-century Dutch emigrants — is significant historically, but scarcely in any other way.
Toller guides more tourists on weekdays than congregants Sunday morning, explaining the church’s ties to the Underground Railroad, pointing out historic graves in the church cemetery, and selling souvenirs in the gift shop.
The church’s upcoming 250th anniversary is a big deal. The celebratory “reconsecration service” (less euphemistically, a kind of last hurrah) will be packed with dignitaries, most of whom have never darkened the church’s door and will never return. A metaphorical shot of Toller laboriously raising a toppled headstone encapsulates his function at First Reformed Church: He is propping up a monument.
It would be easy, if premature, to view this hollow shell of a church as representative of American or Western Christendom. Actually, Christianity is alive and well, after a fashion, at nearby Abundant Life — a megachurch that resembles (as megachurches are wont to do) a mashup of mall and convention center, which might suggest a different sort of a hollow shell.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.