By Jacob Wampfler
There are times when you run across something so moving, so beautiful that you are left utterly speechless. You know as you are experiencing it that you will never forget it for the rest of your life. This began, for me, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed and noticed a plug for a TV show called Broken. My interest was automatically piqued when I saw Sean Bean’s name attached to the lead role. It’s also on the BBC for which I have much love following my repeated viewings of Luther starring Idris Elba. The mention came from an Australian theologian, Michael Frost, and he also linked to a Bible study that could be used with the show throughout the church season of Lent. As a pastor, I’m always looking for these moments. A TV show, a book, a film that might challenge me or help me grow in my ministry. I am always searching for ways to be a better pastor and serve my people and community better and more fully. I had no idea that Broken would rip my heart out yet make it whole again in the span of six episodes. I never expected this show to convict me in my calling and remind me precisely why I began my reluctant journey towards ministry many years ago.
I don’t want to be specific about Broken in this review. What I will say, however, is that this series builds on a growing filmic tradition of examining faith in the midst of doubt. The Christian church throughout time has a difficult history to say the least. It would be exceedingly simple to highlight all of its flaws – of which there are thousands. In this respect, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary and Martin Scorsese’s Silence immediately came to mind as I watched Broken. These films do not ignore the problems within the church and the faith of those who belong to it. They are complicated, messy, just like the characters they show on-screen. They ask more questions than they set out to answer. They don’t spoon-feed the viewer, but rather send you away moved, changed. In my heart of hearts, I hope that Paul Schrader’s upcoming First Reformed follows suit. These are stories that need to be told about faith. People are broken as are the pastors and priests who serve them. As such the series is aptly named. My own brokenness was laid bare by these characters and their stories, and I believe I will be a better pastor as a result.
Broken sets out to share it’s complicated stories over the course of six episodes with a run time of roughly six hours. It’s grueling to be completely honest. But that’s the point. Writer and showrunner Jimmy McGovern did not design Broken to be easy viewing. Where other shows or films would cut away, McGovern’s gaze stays fixed. It’s in this darkness, this crushing misery, where we also find hope. I once heard a pastor of a predominantly African-American church in my community preach on the story of Joseph. Abandoned and thrown into a pit by his own brothers, Joseph had every reason to despair, to give up. The pastor’s overwhelming point, however, was this: you have to go through it. Whatever darkness you’re experiencing, whatever “pit” you’ve been thrown into – you have to live through it to get to the hope on the other side. Broken takes you to the lowest of lows imaginable. Yet it leaves you with a hope for humanity that will make you smile amidst the tears.
This show specifically speaks to me due to its uncanny accuracy of real-life ministry. I have seen some criticisms of the series that point out the coincidence of one priest encountering such a plethora of systemic issues in the span of weeks. Those concerns aren’t necessarily overblown, but speaking personally, a pastor can run the entire gamut of the human experience in a matter of days. I have performed funerals, weddings, and baptisms all in the span of 48 hours. I have held the hand of a dying man and driven down the street to the church school only to be greeted by the joyful faces of children. I have sinned deeply yet am called upon to consecrate the bread and wine for communion, knowing full well my own unworthiness and shame. My mentor and friend writes about this in one of his books. He calls it secondary traumatic stress, a term used elsewhere in the mental health arena. These events on their own may seem negligible or insignificant. But when they begin to compound on each other, they become a burden that no pastor or priest can bear on his or her own. Sarah Hughes of The Guardian put it best when she said, “Throughout it all Bean slowly, carefully builds up a portrait of a man who is both a part of this community and yet somehow apart from it, who gives freely of himself yet sits alone at the local bar, donning his sadness just as he puts on his chasuble for mass. As a study of loneliness it is thoughtful, subtle and ultimately mesmerising: a picture of a man on the verge of breakdown who is holding himself together through sheer faith and a desperate desire to atone.” I nearly wept when I read this description because of its brutal yet honest truth. Thankfully, Bean’s Father Michael Kerrigan is not utterly alone in Broken. He has a mentor and confessor, another priest with whom he can share his burdens. I am blessed to have such a relationship as well. Without that release, I would have quit nearly as soon as I started my ministry.
I’ll leave you with this. No matter what you believe, no matter who you are – watch Broken. It’s the story of a man who, with his entire being, wants to make his little corner of the world a better place. It’s about people who are yearning, desperate for connection and love from other human beings. It’s about faith in the midst of doubt and how despair only triumphs when we let it. And ultimately, it’s about me. It’s about the brokenness that I carry with me every day even though I try very hard not to show it. Broken is about all of us, and it has changed this young pastor’s life forever.