Pastoral Care on the Screen and on the Ground

The only film I remember seeing in a seminary classroom was The Green Mile in a graduate hermeneutics class, dealing with how we interpret the facts we have and why we do so. There are probably films that could be shown in order to coalesce the themes of a class. More likely, certain scenes could illustrate a point or a theme (e.g., the confession scene from The Godfather, Part III).

But if I were teaching a class on pastoral theology and practice, the film I might choose to show in its entirety would be Eugene Richards’s Thy Kingdom Come ((2018; streaming on Mubi, or for rent elsewhere). The footage was shot for Terrence Malick’s 2012 film To the Wonder (also on Mubi), but except for one or two moments, none of it made it into that film. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) plays a supporting character in that film, although an essential one, as the parallel between love of God and love of other people (or its dissolution) forms the central theme.

In Thy Kingdom Come, we do not see (or hear) directly, as we do in To the Wonder, Father Quintana’s inward spiritual struggles. What we get primarily is a documentary-style blending of truth and fiction, focused on actual residents of Bartlesville, Oklahoma and other nearby places, like the Osage County Jail in Pawhuska.

At the beginning, we hear Bardem’s voice saying, “Is this a true story? Yes, I would say so. Is the priest a real priest? No. But it’s as if they were waiting for him.” It is a fascinating premise: everyone knows that the man in the clerical collar is Javier Bardem, not an actual priest called Father Quintana. But, at least as far as we can tell, they treat him as an actual priest. Their sometimes initial hesitation to open up, their confessions, the way they reveal their own spiritual doubts and certainties; all of this feels real.

Documentaries already blur the lines between vulnerable revelation and performance. If there were no cameras, would the people say the same things and act in the same ways? (The double implication of “act” may tell us something.) We have no way of telling. But here the ambiguity is built into what we actually see on the screen: real people interacting with a fictional character. It would be one thing (an unethical thing) if the people did not know that Bardem was playing a character. It is another since they know. Could their openness be connected to the mere existence of the collar?

Apart from those questions, the value for pastoral education is in listening to what the people say to Quintana/Bardem. Thy Kingdom Come works as a case study in real-world pastoral presence. Bardem says very little. He mostly listens, which is a necessary skill in itself. But there is something else, something deeper. Fresh and new pastors, rightly confident in their theological education (at least of the kind I received), want to give some kind of answer to people in need, especially those who are desperately in need. There are often, of course, answers in the Scriptures—or, rather, there is an Answer in the one who is the Truth. But what takes time is understanding that the Answer who is Jesus is not the same as answers to problems and difficulties.

More than that, there are very few, if any, answers that would solve the problems that some of the people have in Thy Kingdom Come. The pastor can’t “solve” terminal cancer, or sins that have deeply impacted multiple lives. And not everyone in the film has a problem that needs solving, or even that needs advice. Some of them are simply talking about their lives, and human lives are not reducible to “problems” and “solutions,” or “questions” and “answers,” even if the “answers” and “solutions” are true.

Eugene Richards, via Terrence Malick’s cutting room floor, has given us access to an aspect of pastoral care that, for the most part, goes necessarily unseen and unknown. Seminarians and pastors could do far worse than to meditate on these episodes that dwell on the border between fiction and fact, but that nevertheless remain firmly on the side of the true.