Discussion Guide for the Film "First Reformed"

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Paul Schrader's film, First Reformed, is being released on DVD and streaming on August 21, 2018. Here are some questions to guide small group conversations about the film.

1.  “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” This question echoes in Paul Schrader’s film, First Reformed. The film, in many ways, serves as Schrader’s commentary on the Church. Where do you recognize the church or denomination that you have been part of in First Reformed?

2.  The film centers around Rev. Ernst Toller, a pastor bearing wounds from the recent losses of his son and his marriage. When asked to counsel Michael, who is anxious about the impending birth of his first child, Rev. Toller tells him, “Courage is the solution to despair...holding these two ideas [hope and despair] is life itself.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

3.  Rev. Toller navigates spaces between despair and hope, spending most of his time dwelling in the former, which results in a stark contrast between Toller’s inner life and how he treats others. What broken connections and relationships can you identify between Rev. Toller and other people in the film?

4.  The most striking character in the film may be one whose presence is seemingly absent: God. While God is consistently referred to in the film, God presence is illusive. As marked by images of empty offering plates, quiet church buildings, and harsh landscapes. Did you see God in First Reformed? If so, where?

5.  First Reformed paints images of two churches--Abundant Life and First Reformed. Abundant Life is large, diverse and operates like a business. In contrast, First Reformed is small, empty and functioning more like a museum than a community of faith. In what ways are the lines between the two churches blurred? What parallels can you identify between the struggles of these churches?

6.  The integrity of Abundant Life and First Reformed is compromised by their reliance on wealthy benefactor, Ed Balq. When discussing the upcoming celebration at First Reformed that Balq is funding, Balq says to Revs. Jeffries and Toller, “There won’t be anything political, will there?” Why do you think people in the Church are reluctant to bring politics into church life? What is the wisdom in that, and how might the lack of getting political harm the witness of the Church?

7.  At one point in the film, Rev. Jeffers admonishes Rev. Toller for his lonely lifestyle. “You are always in the garden,” he says to him. “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden on his knees sweating blood.” Why do you think Rev. Toller retreats to solitude?

8.  At another point in the film, Rev. Toller, while wearing a suicide vest, says, “Every act of preservation is an act of creation. It’s how we participate in creation.” What do you make of the seeming contrast between what he is saying and what he is planning in that scene?

9.  The film, First Reformed, offers some glimmers of hope. We see hope in the young, bright-eyed, expectant mother, Mary. We see hope in Rev. Toller’s interaction with the children who visit the church to learn about the underground railroad. Where else do you see hope in the film?

10.  The words from Acts 2:45-47 are printed on the wall in the cafeteria of Abundant Life Church, and can be seen in the background during a couple of scenes in the film. Why do you think Schrader included this in the film? What might these words be contributing to the film's larger narrative?

11.  Music plays a role of its own in First Reformed. From the Neil Young song sung at Michael’s funeral to the familiar echoes of “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” at the film’s conclusion. What did you notice about the role that music played in the film?

12.  In a conversation with Rev. Jeffers, Rev. Toller asks, “And what about creation? I think this is an issue where the church can lead but we say nothing.” Other church leaders have said similar things in recent years, including Rev. Najla Kassab, the current president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. “It embarasses me when human rights organizations talk more about injustice than the Church,” said Rev. Kassab. How can church communities address political issues without falling into divisive partisanship?

13.  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” When should the Church be compelled to speak up about injustice?

14.  The film’s ending is jarring to some viewers. What do you make of the film’s final scene? What message is Schrader sending through this conclusion?

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