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Hope and Despair in First Reformed

*Disclaimer: The following post contains spoilers. As with all art, there is no one interpretation of this film. What we see individually and communally is part of the fabric of our life together. Take my reading with a grain of salt and by all means let the story work on you as only it can.

Film has resonance for creatures like us: resilient, transformative, comprised of embodied stories. Much like poetry, cinema leads us into our robust questions using the medium of the familiar. The combination of image and language creates a third thing that makes film alive with possible consonant and dissonant meanings. Film has long been a place where I feel a deep integration of the intellectual, spiritual, and literary elements within me.

As we anticipate the Oscars tonight, this award season gave us films rich with full-bodied questions. Some pieces I found most captivating were: Blackkklansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, If Beale Street Could Talk, RBG, Roma, Sorry to Bother You, First Reformed, Vice, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? One film particularly compelled me to return to it again and again, wrestling with a theme I engage with frequently: the nature of hope.

Final Questions

In spring, I’m an assistant instructor for a first-year graduate class that delves into the nature and interplay of faith, hope, and love as it pertains to human development. Everything from our neurobiology to narratives suggest that we are made for and within relationships. Human beings are fascinating in the way our interconnectedness goes both right and awry. As a class we seek to read story deeply. We discern the edges of vulnerability in seeing and being seen. We enter into the therapeutic realm of presence, asking what it means to heal in the midst of another who is a kaleidoscopic churn of past, present, and future.

For the final exam it is tradition to incorporate a film clip for a question. This year I chose First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader. The essay question asked students to consider the dialogue between Rev. Toller and Michael as they answered a.) How do you understand the relationship between hope and despair? b.) As we bear witness to both beauty and suffering, how do we honor what is true while holding space for what could be?

If the film has a thesis, perhaps it is a line Rev. Toller says early in the film, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously. Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

The dialogue provoked in me further questions about the nature of trauma and how we respond to suffering in ourselves, one another, and the life of the earth. What does it look like to hold hope and despair together, to bear the angst of awareness while not losing sight of the possible?

The Dance of Despair and Hope in First Reformed

Schrader uses two key characters to embody the exchange between hope and despair in a story that weaves between the realms of deep reality and the surreal. Mary, an aptly named young woman baring an unborn child, embodies hope while Rev. Toller becomes a figure who progressively embodies despair. Their encounters with one another throughout the film develop the thesis and examine this existential dance between these seeming opposites.

Tragedy catapults Rev. Toller into awareness of climate change and the impact of human behavior on the planet. The loss of Michael opens Toller to witnessing Michael’s cause and his despair. As the film progresses, Toller’s own body acts as a symbolic mirror of the cancerous pollution and fate the earth endures. The image of Toller’s whiskey with Pepto-Bismol’s sludgy pink billows is evocative of ingesting pollutants and lacking attentive care. The primary thematic response to trauma and suffering is to ignore: Rev. Toller ignores his cancer and heavy drinking; the larger church ignores global climate change as a spiritual issue; big corporations ignore their role in systemic degradation of ecosystems impacting people and place.

Mary, on the other hand, is a character who is aware of the same ecological statistics, holds the same beliefs, but responds to the future out of desire to live and have a child. Her character, in the midst of unspeakable loss, finds a way to exist by reaching out for human connection. Perhaps her most significant scene is the bewildering and entrancing ending. Rev. Toller has reached a desperate level of despair and is prepared to use a suicide vest. He is unable to go through with it when he sees Mary in the crowd. I understood the final scene to place us back into the surreal subconscious realms to display the interruptive nature of hope. The presence of hope foils our impulse to destruction. Though despair has led him to an action, Rev. Toller is not able to kill hope. The final scene suggests it is possible for hope to move through locked doors, utter our first name, and intimately kiss us in the very place where we were ready to end life.

Deciphering Despair and Lament

To suggest life itself is comprised of holding together both hope and despair may seem contradictory. Despair tends to be defined as the very absence of hope. As I read Schrader’s concept of despair, I return to the word lament. You see, lament is predicated on the capacity to see reality for what it is. In other words, when we lament, we refuse to deny suffering. Denial says, “There is no injury; there is no loss; nothing needs to change; everything is fine.” When we lament, we acknowledge reality and tell the truth about it. To paraphrase psychotherapist Bessel van der Kolk, in order to tell our stories we have to know what we know and to feel what we feel.

Lament in many ways makes available to us parts of our histories and our stories where betrayal and harm were not properly acknowledged and grieved over. This might occur at an individual level, but also certainly at a communal, socio-political, and ecological level. Lament begins as a labor of seeing. When we refuse to see, we run the risk of participating in fantasy and erasure. Lament takes us beyond grief and leads into the active possibilities of bearing witness, enacting protest and resistance against injustice, and finding new forms for truth-telling to make the invisible visible. Rev. Toller’s counterintuitive line returns to me here, “A life without despair is a life without hope.” I understand this to mean that we lament, because we are not indifferent to the suffering within us, within others, and within the earth. If we do not ache for the restoration of something, we are not fully living. The danger then of unhinging lament from hope is that we may become mired in only what is before us.

Hope and Imagination

To incorporate hope with despair or lament, we must work with a robust understanding of it. It is tempting to conflate hope with mere optimism or positivity, or to think that it is something of a comfort or a reprieve to us. It is not. Hope is much more closely aligned with the nature of healing, which is to say that it is sometimes painful to be invited into that much life. In its broadest sense hope is concerned with how we see, our reading of reality, both in its actuality (what is) and its possibility (what could be). Hope asks, can a new thing happen here?

Hope is the possibility for newness out beyond the prevailing evidence, which is to say that it is an act of the imagination. When we enter into lamentation, we are essentially committed to saying I See; we acknowledge and tell the truth about the current state of things. When we engage our imagination, we are committed to saying, I See and I See Otherwise; we hold onto a vision of what is and a vision of potential, of what could be. To paraphrase the work of theologian Walter Brueggemann, the reclaiming of the imagination is part of the healing process and the cultivation of hope precisely because this faculty gives us another reading of reality shaped not by oppressive powers of empire, but the promises of the living God.

Art therapist Stephen K. Levine suggests that among the wounds that contribute to suffering is a wound to our imagination. In other words, deep hopelessness consists of a kind of progressive cataract that prevents us from seeing out beyond where we are. We read current reality as the only possible reality. This kind of hope deferred has some very dark logic that sounds something like, “What you see is all there is. This is the world and nothing is going to change. What you’re experiencing now is going to happen in perpetuity.” This kind of hopelessness is the result of a closed down world where nothing new can happen. What hope requires of us is to be what writer Ursula K. Le Guin might call, “realists of a larger reality.”

To bear in our bodies a vision of goodness we were made for puts us at odds with the present reality. This tension of hope asks us to wager ourselves working toward liberation. Lament is a cornerstone of hope because it leads us into an active place of protest where we say hell no to systemic harm and injustice. For me, the theologian Jürgen Moltmann helps get me here with his work, Theology of Hope:

Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man [humankind]. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with the reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope.

In an age of deep ecological suffering, Schrader’s film poignantly portrays the sometimes dance sometimes wrestling between hope and despair, imagination and lament. To be present to our reality while responding out of a vision for restorative healing will take nothing short of acts of faith, hope, and love.

I pose the questions to you:

a.) How do you understand the relationship between hope and despair?

b.) As we bear witness to both beauty and suffering, how do we honor what is true while holding space for what could be?

Reference and Further Reading Suggestions:

Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014).

Stephen K. Levine, Poiesis: The Language of Psychology and the Speech of the Soul (Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1992), 33, 41-42.

Sally McFague. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1993).

Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 21-22.


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