Faith and Celebrity
January 13, 2013 Length: 1:38:12
Kevin talks with five-time Emmy Award-winning actor Jonathan Jackson—who can currently be seen on the ABC primetime drama Nashville—about his faith journey to the Eastern Orthodox Church, how he balances his faith life with his daytime job, and why he gave a public "shout out" to the monks of Holy Mount Athos when he received his recent Emmy Award!
Kevin Allen: Welcome to Ancient Faith Today. We’re Orthodox Media’s live listener call-in program on contemporary issues through the lens of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Her holy Tradition. We’re streaming live right now and will be taking calls. The lines are open, and the call-in number is 1-855-AF-RADIO. That’s 1-855-237-2346. Our chat room is now open at ancientfaith.com/ancientfaithtoday. You can also in the future check us out on Facebook, and while you’re there give us a “like”; we appreciate that.
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Our topic tonight is “Faith, Celebrity, and Orthodox Christianity.” I first heard of my guest, Emmy Award-winning actor—actually, five time Emmy Award-winning actor—and recent Orthodox Christian convert, Jonathan Jackson, about a year ago, when receiving his fifth Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, he thanked the monks of Mount Athos for their prayers for the life of the world. I said to myself, “Man, I’ve got to talk to this young guy. Very interesting.” I wondered why he made that shout-out, and the rest is somewhat history.
Shortly thereafter, I read a transcript of an excellent interview he did with Fr. Andrew Damick which you can hear—his journey story in greater detail—on Roads to Emmaus which is posted on AFR, and this is shortly before Pascha in 2012 when Jonathan, his wife, former General Hospital actress Lisa Vultaggio, and their three children were baptized into the Orthodox Church at the OCA cathedral in Los Angeles. So that’s kind of a preface of how we got here tonight.
Jonathan is a multi-talented actor, musician, and writer, perhaps best known to some for his role as Lucky Spencer on the perennial soap-opera hit, General Hospital. He’s also appeared on the TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles. He’s been in many films that have taken him on location all over the world. In 2012 and currently he took on the role as singer and songwriter Avery Barkley in the new ABC drama and hit show Nashville. He and his family now live in the Nashville area and attend a wonderful Antiochian church there.
In addition to acting, Jonathan plays guitar, sings in a band called “Enation” with his brother and fellow actor Richard Jackson, and they’ve released several albums and had a top-ten hit on the iTunes national rock charts. Jonathan also writes prose and poetry. We were just chatting about that right before we came on. One of his poems was recently featured in the St. Katherine Review, published by St. Katherine College. By the way, if you’re interested in his music and his poetry, they’re online. You can check them out at enationmusic.com. Tonight we’re going to be speaking about Hollywood, the film and TV industry, and later in the show about Jonathan’s journey to the Orthodox Church. So give us a call for a question or comment for Jonathan Jackson. The number is 1-855-AF-RADIO; 1-855-237-2346. Now to my guest, Jonathan Jackson. Great to have you on Ancient Faith Today.
Jonathan Jackson: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure to have you. Sorry for that way-long introduction. Let’s start out with some background, because I want to introduce you to our audience from the ground up. You became a working child actor at eight years old, again, playing, as I mentioned, Lucky Spencer on General Hospital, and you’ve also done feature films as mentioned. As I said off-air, for most of us, that’s like talking to somebody who lives on Mars, because your life experience in the film and TV industry and the way you grew up in that business is so different. Were you aware that your life was somewhat unusual as a kid, working at that age in front of cameras, being on stage, wardrobe, make-up, and all that?
Mr. Jackson: Not really. I think in general most people would agree that you know what you, and however you grow up, it’s your life. It just felt like life for me. I got interested in acting when I was around eight or nine, like you said, and I actually started working on General Hospital when I was eleven, so I was very young, but also very fortunate to be surrounded by the people that I was—Anthony Geary, and Genie Francis in particular, who played my parents on the show were just some of the most, not only incredible actors, but some of the most incredible people as well. So I was very blessed to be put with them at such a young age.
Mr. Allen: What about your education? I’m speaking with Jonathan Jackson from the hit ABC drama series Nashville. Jonathan, where’d you get your education, being on set most days of the working week and so on? Did you have a tutor, private schools? How’d that work?
Mr. Jackson: Most of the time I was on the set, working, either on General Hospital or films. Yeah, there would be a tutor that would come to the set. They’re required to have a certain amount of hours put towards the schooling. I kind of had a full-time job from the age of eleven on, and school. That was difficult at times. I’d have 20 pages of memorizing to do, and then I’d have to finish those scenes and come down and start working on algebra or whatever. Sometimes it was a little pressing, but fortunately, by God’s grace, I made it through.
Mr. Allen: What about social interaction? Did you have friends in your neighborhood? I think you lived in San Fernando Valley. Did you have neighborhood friends? Did you hang out with fellow actors, kids from church?
Mr. Jackson: It’s interesting. At that point in time, I wasn’t really going to a particular church. I didn’t really have any acquaintances from a church. I was very committed to my faith, but we just didn’t really have a church that we belonged to, so it was through reading books and things like that. The social life, for me, was great. It was basically people that I worked with on the set. I was working in an adult environment from that young age. I learned pretty quickly how to get along with people of all ages, and I’ve always appreciated that. Like I said, Anthony Geary and Genie Francis: one of the thing that was so brilliant about them was that they didn’t treat me like a child actor. They treated me like an actor. So, in the right ways, they protected me like a child, but there was nothing condescending or anything like that. I was in the scene, and they treated me like a fellow actor, and that was a really beautiful thing.
Mr. Allen: Did you get acting direction? Well, obviously you got acting direction, but did you go to acting school when you were a young child, or did you learn on the job?
Mr. Jackson: It was both. I took some acting classes in Portland, Oregon, before we moved to Los Angeles, for about a year. Then in Los Angeles, I took classes from a wonderful teacher named Richard Brander, and I did that for a few years, but I was already working on General Hospital at the time. The majority of it has been on-the-job training, but I’ve definitely benefited from all the different classes that I took at a younger age.
Mr. Allen: I read you were at least partially formed, spiritually or in your religious formation, as a Seventh Day Adventist. For those who don’t know, that’s a denomination of Evangelicalism. You mentioned that you weren’t really connected to a church home. I also remember seeing somewhere, Jonathan, that your sense of Christianity was kind of anti-institutional.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, definitely. We were raised in the Seventh [Day] Adventist Church, but when I was pretty young, as a family we moved away from that. After leaving that particular church, we didn’t really have a church that we belonged to, and that’s why, when we were in Los Angeles, there wasn’t a church that we were connected with.
What happened was: when I was eleven or twelve, I was listening to some audio tapes of sermons that my dad would get for myself and my brother. I would listen to these tapes almost every night. One of them in particular was by an evangelical theologian named Dr. Desmond Ford. He’s a very brilliant teacher and preacher and is just an amazing person. The sermon happened to be on pride and the holiness of God and just how impossible it is to impress God with our supposed righteousness. I don’t know what it was—I was only twelve at the time—but something about that sermon just cut me to the heart, and for the first time in my life I really realized how prideful I was and how far away from God I really was and how much judgment was in my heart towards other people and how critical I was of others. I really wasn’t aware of it, and at that point something really broke; something shifted in me, and that set me on a new course from that point on. I think I was probably around twelve at the time.
Mr. Allen: Which is really unusual, because it seems from everything that I’ve read—and you’re kind of confirming it for me—that you were as a young kid, what I would describe as “spiritually minded.”
Mr. Jackson: Right. Yeah.
Mr. Allen: I’m wondering what was behind this interest in things not of this world or behind this world, given the access you had to things that most people only dream of: the Hollywood, the looks, the access, that sort of stuff.
Mr. Jackson: Well, as a kid I was just fascinated with acting and the art of acting. I wasn’t particularly interested in fame or all the other stuff that goes along with it. I was just curious, and I don’t think… I was so young, I had no way to think about doing this as a career for the next twenty years. I was just fascinated by the whole process of acting. I think there was an innocence there and a grace to get into it from a place of not really worrying about all the exterior things that go along with acting.
I guess I would have to say, in answer to your question, that my parents are really wonderful people who have a very deep faith. I was witness to that, growing up, so I’m sure that that laid a foundation. Having said that, I think, as a lot of people know who either grew up around faith or perhaps have raised children, even if your parents have a strong faith, their faith is only going to last so long, and at some point as you’re growing up, it’s either going to become personal or it’s not, and for me—and I don’t really know how and I don’t know why—but for some reason, when I was twelve years old, it became life-and-death extremely personal to me, and it always has been since.
Mr. Allen: Interesting. I’ve got a call. We’ve got Lisa from Arkansas. Good evening, Lisa. How are you? ... Is Lisa on the line?
Mr. Jackson: Is she there?
Lisa: I’m here. Can you hear me? Hello?
Mr. Jackson: Yes.
Mr. Allen: We can. Go ahead.
Lisa: I have a question. When you have a scene that compromises your faith, and you can’t get past your convictions on that, how do you deal with that?
Mr. Jackson: That’s a great question. I think it’s a complex question in many ways, and it kind of leads into some broader questions that we might get into throughout the talk here. For the most part, over the course of my career, if there are projects or scripts that, for whatever reason, I’m not comfortable with, then I’ve just politely declined to do it.
It’s a different situation if you’re on the job and they put you in a situation that you’re not comfortable with. That’s different, because then you’re already a part of the project. Then it becomes a process of communicating to people. I will say that, in my experience, for the most part, people who work in the business are very respectful, and there’s always a sort of camaraderie in the creative process. There have been many instances where I’ve been able to talk to [whomever] it is, whether it’s the producer of the show or the director or the writers or whatever, and they’re very respectful. There have been a couple of instances over the years where it’s been a little bit of a conflict, but most of the time that stuff is worked out before you say yes to doing a project.
Definitely there are those moments where it becomes difficult, but for the most part, I think people are very respectful. They also know that I’m coming at it from a perspective that has nothing to do with being judgmental towards them or towards the project or anything; it’s from a place of what I’m personally comfortable with. That’s kind of how I try to approach it for the most part.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for your call, Lisa. Appreciate it. Jonathan, I don’t mean to get gender-oriented here, but is that the same for female actors as well as male actors. You hear about the casting couch and all that. Is that just stereotypes, or do people have that option to communicate in the same way that you’re talking about, if they’re male and female?
Mr. Jackson: You mean, is there a double standard around that?
Mr. Allen: Yeah, that’s what I’m asking.
Mr. Jackson: I would say, yeah. I mean, if I’m being honest. I think it’s better than it used to be, probably, but I think that’s… That’s not a Hollywood problem. That’s a society problem. My wife was an actress for fifteen years. I have a lot of compassion for what actresses go through, because there is a lot of pressure around that kind of stuff. I think, in general, people are becoming more and more aware of treating actresses and actors equally. I would say that, yeah, there is more difficulty for actresses, but I’m an actor, and I can only speak from my wife’s experiences and what I’ve observed.
Mr. Allen: We have, many of us, Christians and non-, but especially Christians, I think, who are not privy to the Hollywood life and scene, various stereotypical impressions of Hollywood life as we’ve been discussing to some extent, often negative. What overall has your experience of Hollywood life been like as a young Christian and now Orthodox actor? And as a follow-up to that—you can keep both of these in mind—what was and is the spiritual climate in the working world of Hollywood like?
Mr. Jackson: My experience, like I’ve said, started out very young. One of the things I’m extremely grateful for in growing up in the entertainment industry and in Hollywood in particular is: it really allowed me to think about some big questions early on in my life and make some decisions about the kind of person that I wanted to be. It’s a kind of a polarizing atmosphere in many ways, or it can be. At an early age, I just made a decision that this is the kind of life I wanted to live, this is the kind of person I wanted to be, and being in the environment of Hollywood for me has been a great blessing.
One of the reasons for that is because it taught me from an early age how to live and work and love everybody no matter what their background is, no matter what they believe, politically, spiritually, or whatever. That was so important, because I think there’s a lot of parts of Christianity, you could say, that maybe comes from a more Puritanical or fundamentalist background where there’s so much judgment. For whatever reason, my relationship with Christ from an early age has really been rooted in my own repentance, for my own self-righteousness and my own pride, and not throwing judgment on other people.
Working in Hollywood has allowed me to live that out, because for the most part everybody moved to Los Angeles from somewhere else; there’s not very many people from L.A., so people are coming from so many different backgrounds. I just love, for instance, in the Orthodox tradition, the prayer to the Holy Spirit:
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings, and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
The beautiful thing about that prayer for me is it affirms the fact that the Holy Spirit is present everywhere and that Christ is all and in all. For me, it doesn’t matter [whom] I’m speaking with. It doesn’t matter if they’re into New Age or Buddhism or if they come from a Jewish background or they’re agnostic. From my perspective, the Holy Spirit is all and in all, and Christ is in them whether they know it or not. From that place, there’s this beautiful… There’s no place for condemnation or judgment. That’s the blessing of growing up in Hollywood in that kind of environment for me. It’s refined me and taught me how to love people no matter where they come from, with no judgment. That’s been a real blessing.
Mr. Allen: And an Orthodox viewpoint, which I appreciate you clarifying there. Are there normal Christians working in Hollywood, Jonathan Jackson? Actors and others in the industry? And I also want to tie onto this one as a follow-up: in film and TV production, it seems that every time we see a Christian portrayed on film or television, the character portrayed seems a hypocrite, a nut-case, or something like that. That’s why I’m asking.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, there absolutely are many Christians in the industry. Kind of continuing with the theme here a little bit, I guess for me working in the industry I don’t really consciously try to approach things from “Who’s a Christian and who isn’t,” because if we really get down to it, as Christ says in the Scriptures, he says, “Many people say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not enter the kingdom of heaven.” So I think, again, it’s easy to make an external judgment and say, “This person’s a Christian and this person’s a Christian, therefore I’m going to identify with them and connect with them, and so-and-so’s not a Christian, so I don’t have anything in common with them.”
I don’t see the world like that. I think that Christ is our common humanity, and whether people are consciously aware of his presence in their life or not is really between them and the Holy Spirit. My role and my job is to focus on love and being genuine and being honest. I love connecting with people as artists and directors and producers and actors and all of that. Where they are in their religious life is such a mystery, and there’s such a holiness—there’s like the fear of God around that—that I want to be open to everybody that I’m working with, without subconsciously segregating people, because, again, I think the beauty of Christ in his incarnation is that he’s united us all, and his prayer is that we would all be one. So if I’m walking around segregating people in my heart, and saying, “Well, this person’s not this, and this person’s not that,” then I’m completely in essence coming against the power of…
Mr. Allen: You’re shutting them off.
Mr. Jackson: Yeah.
Mr. Allen: And as St. Seraphim famously said—I know you know this line—“Acquire the Holy Spirit and ten thousand around you will be saved.”
Mr. Jackson: That is one of the most beautiful quotes.
Mr. Allen: It is, and what I love about the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox faith is that it takes the pressure off of us that many of us felt as evangelicals, to feel like our job was to sell Christianity, to promote Christianity. You’re always judging where someone was, so you can kind of position your faith discussion. As Orthodox, we just have to love them and be real, which is wonderful. By the way, I’ve got a call coming in… Oh, go ahead, please.
Mr. Jackson: Before we go to that call, the other part of your question was when Christians are portrayed in film and television, they’re often portrayed as hypocrites and that all kind of stuff. I think that we have a long ways to go for the industry to really encounter genuine Christians and genuine Christianity. So, yes, it is a stereotype, and it’s unfortunate that that stereotype is put out there all the time, but there is some truth in it. There is a lot of Christians and parts of Christianity that are like that, and I think that people in Hollywood are very sensitive towards feeling judged, and, like you just expressed, that, say, they meet a Christian, and they feel like all this Christian wants to find is an angle to try to get them saved or whatever. That’s a dehumanizing interaction with people. Although the stereotype is unfortunate, there is some truth to it, and I think our job as Orthodox Christians is, in the spirit of St. Seraphim, is to just acquire the Holy Spirit and trust the grace and mercy of God to do his work mystically around us, and to be ready to give a defense for our faith, as St. Peter says in the Scriptures. Sorry; go ahead, get to the call there.
Mr. Allen: No, no, not at all. By the way, I’m speaking with Jonathan Jackson, five-time Emmy Award-winning actor and current star in the ABC hit series Nashville about his faith journey and about Hollywood life and various and other things we’ll be discussing about the film and TV industry and how he relates to all that. Before we take our break, we’ve got a call coming in from Bruce from Orange County. Bruce, are you there?
Bruce: I am. How are you, Kevin?
Mr. Allen: Doing very well. Good evening.
Bruce: Good evening. Richard, pleasure to talk to you.
Mr. Allen: Actually, it’s Jonathan. His brother is Richard.
Bruce: Love the things that are coming out of your mouth and the spirit to which you’re carrying your Christianity. It’s good to hear someone espouse these kinds of things and be a representative of Christianity to those in Hollywood. I’ll tell you my question that I have for you. I know that you studied with Richard Brander. I was curious about him. I grew up in Orange County, and a guy that was my same age whom I know studied with him for a while is one of my favorite actors, that being Kevin Costner. So my question for you, Jonathan, was: in your time with Richard Brander—because I didn’t know this—what the age was or perhaps it was a long period of time that you studied with him—and as Orthodox Christians we don’t talk about who is saved, who’s a Christian, and who’s not, but did Richard Brander have any impact on you spiritually at all? That’s what I was curious about.
Mr. Jackson: Cool, yeah, thanks for that.
Mr. Allen: Thanks, Bruce.
Mr. Allen: I worked with Richard Brander when I was very young, maybe the ages eleven to fourteen, probably. He had a great impact on me. He was just so present and supportive, and at that young age you’re very… You’re a sponge and you’re ready to pick up on things. I was so thankful that I was put into his sphere. There wasn’t a lot of overt talk of what I guess you could say spirituality within the context of acting, but it was there. I do remember going out to dinner with him years later, my brother and I, and he definitely made some comments.
I remember one of the things that we talked about was Jim Caviezel’s performance in The Count of Monte Cristo and the powerful themes in that film. He said something to the effect that something has to be very alive in the heart in a spiritual capacity to perform on that level. Again, Jim Caviezel happens to be a very conscious Christian, a Roman Catholic, and he lives his faith very devoutly, but there are other people who might not call themselves Christians. Fr. Thomas Hopko has said this brilliantly, that there are people who participate in the Holy Spirit and in the grace of God, and they might not know, they might not be consciously Christians, and then there are other people who call themselves Christians and in reality they’re anything but in terms of how they live their life and how they talk about people and relate to people.
So there is a great mystery there, but I think what Richard Brander was saying is true, and I think he has observed it as an acting coach for quite a while, that the deeper one goes in their life in relationship with God, the deeper the performances end up being, because, again, Christ draws us into humanity. Any perspective of so-called Christianity that throws out judgment on others to me is completely the opposite of Christ’s unifying us in his incarnation.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for that call, Bruce. We’re going to take a break and come back. We have two callers that are patiently waiting. Please hold. We’ll get you on with my guest, Jonathan Jackson, when we come back in just about a minute.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for joining me on Ancient Faith Today. It is January 13, and my special guest is Jonathan Jackson, five-time Emmy-winner and currently a star on the ABC hit show drama Nashville. We have a call from Gregory from Santa Rosa, California. He’s been patiently waiting. Thanks for waiting, Gregory. What’s your question for Jonathan Jackson.
Gregory: Thank you for taking my call, Kevin.
Mr. Allen: A pleasure.
Gregory: Jonathan, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your book. I’m an acting student in college right now, and we’ve studied various methods of acting. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit. I had heard you were writing a book sort of about acting from an Orthodox perspective, and I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that.
Mr. Jackson: Thank you for the question. Yeah, I’ve been working on a book for a year and a half or two years now. It originally was specifically about acting and faith and how those things connect. Over the last year or so, I’ve sort of broadened it to the arts in general. The book really applies to every artist, whether it’s someone who writes poetry or a director, a dancer, any of those things, and even beyond that. I will say that I really believe that everyone is an artist. As we are all created in the image of God, and God is the ultimate Artist, and therefore whatever our vocation is—whether we’re a lawyer or an accountant—we’re all artists in the way that we let each other, in the way that we pray for each other, and the way that we live our lives.
The themes of the book apply to anyone, but particularly to people who are interested in the arts. I guess the overarching themes are just “What is the nature of art?” and “How does that relate to faith?” I’ve struggled with these questions ever since I was eleven or twelve years old, and I have fought to bring my faith into whatever I’m doing, whether it’s writing music and singing and performing or acting or writing books and screenplays and things like this. The more that I’ve done that, over the years, and then especially encountering and becoming an Orthodox Christian, the more I’ve seen that art in the truest sense is a sacrament. For those listeners who might not know what a sacrament is, a sacrament is basically a uniting of the physical world with the spiritual realm of God. The Orthodox Church teaches that the whole world is a sacrament. There is a beauty and a power in that reality, because everything that we do, whether it’s, again, writing a song, acting in a scene, all of those things become a sacramental act, an offering to God.
One of the other main things I talk about in the book is ceaseless prayer and how, when the Apostle Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing,” in the Orthodox Church there is this incredible prayer called the Jesus Prayer. It’s also called the Prayer of the Heart. It’s very short and small. For those who don’t know it, it’s: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer has a very long tradition and history, and it helps us to pray without ceasing. One of the themes in the book is how to bring one’s prayer life into whatever performance or work of art they happen to be working on. To not set your faith down or push God aside and then go perform your singing and then later on in the day start praying again, but how to actually walk into the scene in this place of ceaseless prayer and abiding with the Holy Spirit, because ultimately the true artist within everyone is the Holy Spirit. Those are some of the themes in the book. It’s just approaching art from a place of making everything we do an offering to God and a sacrament.
Mr. Allen: Thanks very much for the call, Gregory. Appreciate it. It gave us a chance to talk about something I would not necessarily have asked. Thanks.
Mr. Jackson: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: We have a caller now from Virginia. Kathleen, are you on the line? ... Is Kathleen on the line?
Mr. Jackson: Are you there, Kathleen?
Kathleen: Yes, I am.
Mr. Jackson: Hi there.
Mr. Allen: Hi, Catherine. What’s your question?
Kathleen: Hi, this is Kathleen from Portsmouth, Virginia. I want to know if you had converted to Orthodoxy prior to writing The Flame of Love.
Mr. Jackson: No, actually. I wrote The Flame of Love over the course of quite a few years. There were some rewrites that I made on the book before we published it as I was studying Christian history, and I think my faith was in the process of being reshaped by the ancient Church, by the Orthodox Church. There are a lot of things in the book that I would say are very Orthodox, but if I were to rewrite it now, I would definitely change some things, particularly, I think that there’s an emphasis on individualism that I think comes through in The Flame of Love that I would change now, because particularly in that realm my faith has been reshaped to see that individualism really has no place in the body of Christ, that we really are the body of Christ, that we’re connected to each other.
One of the things my priest from Los Angeles would say, Fr. John Strickland, he said, “There’s only one thing that we can do alone, and that is to be lost, but we’re all saved together.” There’s this beautiful, deep, mystical truth in the Orthodox faith of humanity truly being bound, not only to God but to each other in some mysterious way. I think I would probably change some of the individualism that comes through in the pages. That was not necessarily meant to be there, but that’s just where my faith and exposure was when I wrote it. The new book that I’m working on about the arts and faith will be definitely more in the scope of the Orthodox tradition.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for the call, Kathleen. Appreciate it. I want to slip one in here for you, Jonathan. We have two callers on the line. Please hold; we’ll get right to you. The emphasis in the entertainment industry is talent-related, as we’ve been discussing, but a significant component of that involves physical appearance, obviously, and that’s clearly in contrast with the ethos of our faith that you’ve adopted, which de-emphasizes physical appearance, self-importance, self-interest really. As you know, as a radical example of this, monks and nuns don’t even have mirrors. So my question is, Jonathan Jackson, how does that work for you? You obviously have to maintain a look, be in shape in order to work in TV and film. You were named—I don’t want to embarrass you—one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People magazine in ‘99. How do you maintain all that without becoming obsessed with self and physical appearance?
Mr. Jackson: I think that that question, Kevin, which is a great question, gets to the heart of what is humility. It’s a funny place to be in, talking about humility, because I think C.S. Lewis may have said this, but there’s no humble way to do it. I think that the Orthodox tradition for me has helped that desire to experience genuine humility. It’s helped, for instance: the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.—if you’re praying that with your heart, it makes it more difficult to be in a delusion of pride, because you’re truly asking Christ to have mercy on you.
The Church’s honesty towards the human condition is one of the things that drew me to become Orthodox. It’s not trying to sell itself to the world. It’s not trying to have flashy billboards and getting people to come in. It has its own perspective, and it’s honest about the human condition. I think it was St. Isaac who said this. Somebody asked him, “What is our purpose in being here on this earth?” And his answer was incredible. For me, it was very unexpected. He said, “To repent.” I thought, “We’re here to repent.” What that means for me is before Holy Communion, during the Divine Liturgy, our beautiful Church teaches us to pray:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
“Of whom I am chief.” So for me, it is one of the most beautiful things about the Church: it’s constantly, through the hymnography, through the prayers and the saints and the monastics, they are constantly reminding us that humility is the way of Christ. Humility is the way: to joy, to peace, and to eternal life. I think the world in general is opposed to that, whether it’s Hollywood or Wall Street or take any sort of industry in the world.
Here’s the other thing, and I learned this early on from C.S. Lewis, whom I love, and I think that the monks and saints as well that I’ve read would definitely confirm this, is that the most dangerous of all sins is spiritual pride, is self-righteousness. Vanity is really sort of the most innocent of the forms of pride, because [with] vanity you still care what other people think of you. Spiritual pride is very, very dangerous: when you actually think that you’re better than somebody else in a spiritual way, that you’re closer to God than someone else. That is the real danger.
Those are some of the things that I think about in the course of my life, but to answer your question, I am a prideful person living in repentance of that pride. I’m not a humble person. I’m a very prideful person living in repentance of that pride. That’s all I can say, really. I wouldn’t really know how to speak about humility.
Mr. Allen: Aren’t we all, in our own ways? You’re just in the center of it, and you have a career that connects you with that temptation more than maybe some of us. We’re going to talk a little bit more about that. I’ve got a few more questions I’d like to ask, but I have Amanda from Mount Stirling, Illinois, who’s been very patiently waiting to ask you a question. Let’s go ahead and put Amanda on. Hi, Amanda. Good evening.
Amanda: Hi. Good evening. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to start off real quick saying I’m a huge supporter of Jonathan and I miss you on GH and I only watch Nashville because of you.
Mr. Jackson: That’s very kind of you.
Amanda: My question kind of got taken by the first caller, but I’m just going to elaborate on that a little. How do you talk with… I’m just going to say pretty much talk with God or your wife or your support team. How exactly do you come about to what you’re comfortable with taking on as an actor, with the betrayals and the lies and the adultery and the affairs that you had to deal with on both General Hospital and Nashville?
Mr. Jackson: Again, that is a really great question. There’s lots of things. Definitely try to remain in prayer about those things all the time. My wife and I do talk about those themes a lot. As an Orthodox Christian, I have a good relationship with my priest and confessor, so I’m able to talk about those things with him either in confession or in counseling sessions and such. I’d kind of like to answer that in a broader sense, because what that does is it brings up these themes about the nature of art.
It’s interesting, because as a Christian, there is an apparent contradiction in a lot of people’s minds in portraying a character who’s engaging in behavior that you might not engage in in your own life as a Christian. It really gets down to the nature of art: Are we allowed to portray fiction or are we not? And then, if we are allowed to portray fiction, what is the purpose of it, what are the lines of it, and all that kind of stuff? I know for me, I was really drawn to Dostoyevsky as a teenager, because I had played a suicidal character, a serial killer, an abusive boyfriend, a heroin addict—I’ve done a lot of dark roles. I was drawn to Dostoyevsky, because his novels are pretty dark, and a lot of the characters are very dark as well, and yet he is a very serious and thoughtful believer. I wanted to expose myself to his writings and see if I could learn something from them.
The other thing is I looked at the Scriptures themselves, and I realized that one of the main ways that Christ taught was through parables, and that’s storytelling. Christ was basically making films in some sense. If he were to put the prodigal son as a film, then there would be some things in there that a lot of people would object to, who maybe come from a Christian background. The Bible itself is not rated G. It’s very honest in how it depicts humanity and the troubles that we all go through. Then I looked at Christ, how he would constantly hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors, and the religious people of that day just couldn’t understand. They said, “How can you be around these people?” He said, “I didn’t come to heal those who are well; I came to heal the sick.”
All of that together, for me, just helped me realize that God loves stories. He must love stories. The Son of God came on this earth and constantly told stories. Then he must love stories, and he’s completely honest. I really don’t believe God is a prude, and I think that he is able to be the light in dark places. I think that, at least for me, my job as an artist is to be as honest as I can be with whatever I’m given and pray that through that honesty, the Holy Spirit will do whatever he wants to within that. Like I said, it’s a beautiful question, and it’s something that I think about often.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for your call. Appreciate it. Great question.
Mr. Jackson: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: Let me follow up with that. Jonathan Jackson, my guest this evening. In your interview with Fr. Andrew Damick, you talked a bit about getting into roles that involved immoral behavior. We’ve been discussing that on the last question. In order to do your job well, I’m assuming, never having been an actor, that you have to get into the skin, so to speak, of your character. My question is: let’s not worry so much right now about how that affects the culture—I do want to get to that also—but how does that affect you and other actors as human beings with the image of God in us to basically portray wickedness of various sorts?
Mr. Jackson: Yeah, that’s another great question, and one that I’ve wrestled with ever since I was very young. One of the chapters in the book that I’ve been working on deals with this specifically, and it’s the chapter on prayer, and specifically a certain kind of prayer that many refer to as intercessory prayer, intercession.
There are many instances in the Scripture, for instance, in the Book of Job, it says that Job prayed for his friends and God heard his prayer and had mercy on his friends. That’s a prayer of intercession, where Job goes before the Lord and says, in essence, “Lord, please, don’t judge these friends that I have. Please have mercy on them.” And because of Job’s prayer, not because of the friends—they weren’t praying to God—God had mercy on these people.
Again and again throughout the Scriptures, you see this relationship between God and humanity. Moses would stand before God and say, “Please don’t act in your wrath or your anger against these people. Please have mercy on them.” An d the ultimate act of intercession was Christ on the Cross, crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” on behalf of all humanity.
The Orthodox artist would approach portraying the darkness of humanity from a place of intercession, from a place of not participating in the darkness in order to portray it, but participating in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of humanity, which the Scriptures talk about: suffering with Christ so that we can be with him in glory.
For instance, when I played a heroin addict years ago, I was not only portraying a heroin addict as an actor, but part of that process was constantly praying for anybody who has gone through this terrible tragedy, praying for the mothers and fathers of children who were addicted to heroin, praying for people that maybe they were thinking about experimenting with some of these drugs. Within my performance, I’m actually praying that it’s not just entertainment, but that it actually has some reality that’s of a greater purpose than whatever the ratings might end up being. In that way, as I said, whether it’s playing someone who’s battling with suicidal thoughts or even playing something as dark as a serial killer, it’s praying for the life of the world and crying out to God.
That’s art as a sacrament and as intercession for the life of the world. I think that that’s a powerful way that God uses art, whether it’s music or acting or poetry or whatever, it’s a mirror so we can see ourselves, and the Holy Spirit has access to do with it what he wills, and everybody has free will, but that would be my humble offering in whatever I’m doing, is that it’s not simply a performance for entertainment, but it’s connected to my own prayers of repentance and my own life for the life of the world.
Mr. Allen: I asked that question in the context of a blog review of the film, Les Mis that I read. He wrote:
The art that is most harmful to Christians is not the art that has scenes with bad language or uncomfortable depiction of evil acts. It is, instead, the art that has us almost involuntarily sympathizing with the wicked.
Mr. Jackson: I would agree with that in the sense that one of the things that I’ve tried to steer clear from throughout my career is: I don’t have a problem playing dark roles, but if it’s glorifying violence, if it’s glorifying sleeping around and things like that, I don’t think that that is healthy, and I don’t think that it’s very profitable. There’s a lot of that in our culture and in our society that’s making it look “cool,” but if there’s consequence, if there’s regret, if there’s a sense of conscience involved, then that actually can become very healthy for people to see that, because then they can reflect on their own lives and go: “Wow.” Going out and doing this or that, maybe they get to actually think about the aftermath of some of those choices. I think that art in general can be very helpful in that regard.
Mr. Allen: I have a caller who has been patiently waiting from Akron, Ohio. Wesley? If we could put Wesley on, that would be great.
Mr. Allen: Good evening, Wesley. Thanks for being patient and thanks for your call.
Wesley: No problem.
Mr. Allen: What’s your question for Jonathan Jackson?
Wesley: I was just wondering if you were going to go back to General Hospital.
Mr. Jackson: Well, you know, I am in Nashville, and I’m working on the show Nashville, which has been just a wonderful experience, so that’s where I am right now, so I don’t really have any plans beyond this show that I’m currently on right now. I love General Hospital. It’s meant a lot to me in my life. I always say, “Who knows?” in terms of what the future might bring, but I’m just having a wonderful time working on Nashville right now. I try to stay in the moment and be focused on what’s in front of me.
Mr. Allen: Thanks, Wesley. Thanks for the question. Thanks for being patient with us.
Mr. Jackson: Hey, Kevin, if I could, can I jump in, because I wanted to say one more thing real quick about art and films and that blog that you mentioned. I think that the other dangerous thing for Christians, when it comes to art and filmmaking in particular, is not only glorifying violence or things like that, but it’s also portraying life in a sort of white-washed, cookie-cutter absence of sin and honesty, and I think that a lot of movies that have been made that are so-called Christian films, they tend to almost portray humanity as not really… They seem to be afraid to really show sin and really show the depths of suffering, and that’s one of the things I loved about Dostoyevsky, and I think that’s probably particularly because of his Orthodox background.
I think there is a danger in Christianity and different parts of Christianity in particular, where they think that filmmakers and artists are just supposed to not show anything dark and not show anything real honest or gritty, and there’s a danger there, too, because it creates a false relationship to reality, because life is difficult. Life is, at times, tragic, and there are serious choices and consequences. I think the world—and by that term I mean people who aren’t necessarily consciously Christian—if they’re making honest films, they’re actually more Christian, those films, and more Orthodox, than the so-called Christian film that isn’t actually being honest about the human condition.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for that, and we’re going to take a break. When I come back, we will take a call from Alexia from Seattle who’s been patiently waiting. We’ll be back in just about a minute with Jonathan Jackson, five-time Emmy Award-winning actor and now Orthodox Christian.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for staying with us and/or for joining us on Ancient Faith Today on the thirteenth of January. My guest is five-time Emmy Award-winning actor, writer, musician, and pretty deep thinker for what you would think, stereotypically, from an actor from Hollywood—Jonathan Jackson is my guest. Jonathan, I have a call for you. I think I misspoke her name. It’s Alexia from Seattle. Can we put Alexia on, please?
Alexia: Hi. Can you hear me?
Mr. Allen: We can hear you just fine. Thanks, Alexia.
Alexia: My question’s pretty much been answered, but another question came up that I don’t think you’ve addressed at all, so I’m going to ask that one instead. When you accepted your award, and I’ve seen how you crossed yourself, and you said, “Thank the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” then, of course, with the shout-out to Mount Athos, I was wondering have your fans and co-workers been curious and asking questions about Orthodoxy, because that’s an unusual thing to see, is actors cross themselves. You hear a lot of actors saying, “Thanks to God,” but Mount Athos, all these things… Have you had that experience?
Mr. Jackson: Thank you for that question. The response in particular to the last Emmy that I won was really amazing for myself and for my wife. We go through all these things together. There were so many beautiful emails that I received and comments on YouTube and different places from Orthodox Christians around the world. So many from Greece that we got, priests, just saying that they would be praying for me and my family during the Liturgy. It was put on different online magazines that millions of Russian Orthodox people read, and I think they did a Greek translation, subtitled, of the acceptance speech online, and there were over 100,000 views between the Greek one and the English one over the next few months. We just weren’t expecting that. We were so overwhelmed.
It’s a difficult journey, to come from any background into the Orthodox faith, because there’s so much about it that’s unknown to American society. I’d been on a five-year journey, and I wasn’t thinking there was going to be much of a response to this. I was just trying to be present in the moment with the Lord. Then the response that we got was so overwhelming and so beautiful. We really felt embraced by our brothers and sisters around the world, as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It was pretty beautiful.
There have been many friends and co-stars and different people that are very curious and interested in learning more about the Orthodox Church. It’s remarkable to me. I spent three years reading Christian history before I ever really stumbled on the Orthodox Church. I read so many books that were focused on either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, because most of these history books were written by Western historians. It’s amazing to me how the Orthodox Church, which has been the original Church from the beginning, as 2,000 years old, how so many people just don’t know it exists, really. So that particular acceptance speech was a door that opened up some conversations with people. Thank you for that question.
Mr. Allen: Thanks, Alexia. I appreciate that. Can we put on the pre-recorded question, number 15, because it’s really connected with that question. We can use that as a follow-up.
Kimberly: Hello. My name is Kimberly, and I’m calling from Los Angeles, California. I come from a Protestant background and converted to Orthodoxy at a young age. When I tell people I’m Orthodox, I’m usually asked if I’m Christian, or sometimes the response I get implies I’m in a cult, and the rest just assume I’m Jewish. I wondered if you’ve had any similar responses from your friends or family, and if so, have you ever been able to successfully change an opinion about Orthodoxy? Thank you.
Mr. Allen: That question kind of ties right in there, so go ahead, Jonathan.
Mr. Jackson: It’s a great question. It is funny. A lot of different people I’ve talked to who have become Orthodox, some priests that I’ve known, they usually when they say, “No, I’m an Orthodox priest,” they get those similar responses, not really knowing what that means. I think we pretty much got every reaction that she just described from various people. I really think it’s mainly rooted in [that] there’s no exposure or knowledge of what the historic Church is, and I think in general people tend to be pretty hesitant toward things that they don’t know. In terms of—I don’t know how to put it—maybe convincing people or something like that, I love talking about my faith. I love talking about the history of the Church.
I love that stuff, but I really believe that it’s impossible to convince people of anything, and not only is it impossible, but it can actually be counterproductive at times. I do love talking to people about the Orthodox Church, but at the same time, I know that it’s such a mystery. Certain people that I would have assumed would be very, very open to the Orthodox Church have been more hesitant, and other people that I would have thought, “Oh, there’s no way they’d be open to this,” are just like: “Tell me more. What can I read?” and all this kind of stuff. That, again, is humbling, because it’s such a mystery, how God works and his timing and the way he moves on people’s hearts. I really appreciate the question; thank you.
Mr. Allen: Which leads me, Jonathan, at this point in the program, as we’re starting to descend a bit towards the close—but I do have several questions, and I have one more pre-recorded question coming from Romania; maybe we’ll go a few minutes long—I’d like to start talking a little bit about the factors which led you to the historic Church and eventually to Eastern Orthodoxy. If you could be brief, I know your story has been covered in the interview with Fr. Andrew Damick, so I don’t want to cover the exact same ground, but what were some of the factors that got you from running a charismatic home fellowship group with other actors in the L.A. area to shouting out [to] the monks on Mount Athos on the Emmys?
Mr. Jackson: It was quite the journey. We were exposed to the Orthodox Church in Romania. I was shooting a film there for three and a half months. My wife is Italian, and we decided to go to Rome when I had a week off of work, and in Rome we experienced the power of the presence of the martyrs and the reality that the Christian faith is not an idea. It’s not an abstract philosophy or concept, but it’s an actual historic reality. An event took place. Somebody was born in a cave who grew up and did these miracles and spoke these things and was crucified and all of these witnesses saw that he had risen from the dead. This is a historic reality. Being in Rome, I think for the first time, my wife and I really felt the reality of that, and it hit me so strongly that I needed to read the history of my faith. I had never done that.
There was a huge gap after the year 100 to 1517, or whenever that was, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a Roman Catholic church. I didn’t know anything about the history of Christianity, and I would say that most Protestants and Evangelical Christians don’t either. It was reading the history of the Church: I was challenged with my own faith in that context. Some of the things that drew me to it were: there was such a humility in the theology of the Orthodox Church and in the tradition.
There’s an emphasis on beauty, as Dostoyevsky has been quoted as saying that beauty will save the world. I believe in Christianity because I believe that Christianity is that beauty. In the Orthodox Church, you see that beauty. You see it in the icons. You see it in the church itself, in the architecture, in the hymns and the music. It all points us towards what is beautiful and what’s true and what is good.
I was confronted with the letters of St. Ignatius, not just reading modern historians writing about the history of the Church, but actually reading the history. St. Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian of Carthage. A lot of that stuff I was reading was pre-Constantine, meaning it was before Christianity became a legalized religion of the Roman Empire. I had been taught that when Constantine became a Christian, that the Church became corrupt in that moment, and then it took another however many hundreds and hundreds of years until Martin Luther came for the Reformation…
But what I learned in actually reading the history—the writings of the apostles of the Apostles—is that the modern version of church that we have in our Western world, you could say, especially in America, that modern expression of church and theology is not the fullness of the original proclamation of Christianity. That is a hard saying for a lot of people. For me, it took a long time of reading and praying and trying to be as open as I could be to the truth.
I realized that I wanted my faith to be in connection with the original faith of the Apostles, as opposed to holding on to my own preferences and such. The Orthodox Church was not my preference at first. I wasn’t used to worshiping in the form of liturgy. I came from a charismatic background where they had rock music and guitars and everything. To stand up in an Orthodox Liturgy for an hour and a half or two hours, depending on what day it was, and pray like that was not my preference at first. It was an intense transition. But what kept me there was that I was utterly convicted in my heart that it was true. I knew that, following Christ, that there would be a blessing and a beauty that would sometimes be on the other side of discomfort, and I can tell you that that’s happened every single time. Everything that’s been difficult, on the other side of that discomfort is just this incredible depth of beauty and mystery and joy and the communion of saints and all of those things. But it is a journey.
Mr. Allen: No doubt about it. Studying Christian history is, of course, what led so many of us here. We shared that path as John Cardinal Newman, the Catholic cardinal wrote or said—I’m not sure if he wrote it, but he’s known to have quoted this—“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I think that that’s in a nutshell it for me. My question, too, is did you consider Catholicism along the way? You were in Rome, you had a bit of an epiphany, your wife was raised Catholic. What happened there? Not to be critical, but just how did you turn East, not West?
Mr. Jackson: There was a period where I was considering becoming Roman Catholic, mainly because, like I said, for three years I was reading about the history of the Church, but it was always in the context of Roman Catholicism, so I thought Rome was the historic Church. I was faced with that, and to think, well, if this is the historic Church, then perhaps I’m going to become Catholic. But there were some particular things that I struggled with: papal infallibility was one of them, a doctrine where the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on theological matters and such; the Immaculate Conception, and particularly how late these things became dogmas. I think they were in the late 1800s.
That just didn’t quite fit what I was reading in the actual history of the Church. I never saw the first thousand years of Christianity as having the Pope of Rome function in the way that the modern Catholic Church was claiming. There was just a discrepancy there. Also, there was a sort of a more legalistic view of God’s relationship with humanity and salvation. At times I felt God was portrayed as being more punitive and reactionary and almost, maybe not vindictive, but there were elements of that I felt didn’t ring true, at least in my own experiences in life and the Scriptures themselves.
Having said all that, I do want to say that I have a lot of appreciation for the Catholic Church. There was a lot of beauty. There is a lot of beauty in the Catholic Church, and I learned a lot about God. The parts in the Roman Catholic Church that still have… Obviously, it came from one Church, so there’s a lot of Orthodoxy within the Catholic Church. I have some really good friends of mine who are just beautiful, phenomenal Christians who are Roman Catholic. I think there’s a lot to be said for having loving dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholic believers, but for me at the end of the day, there was no question.
As soon as I studied the Great Schism, which, for those who don’t know what that is, it’s when the Roman Catholic Church broke away from what is now known as the Orthodox Church around 1054—as soon as I discovered that the Orthodox Church existed, and started to read about it and read about its history and its theology and everything, I knew that all of the things in Roman Catholicism that I loved were in the Orthodox Church, and the things that I couldn’t reconcile in my heart in the Roman Catholic Church were not in the Orthodox Church…
Mr. Allen: Well said. I didn’t mean to interrupt; keep going.
Mr. Jackson: I think that’s pretty much it. I’m so thankful for the time that I spent going to Roman Catholic churches. I read probably 16 books of Pope Benedict and John Paul II. These people and their writings are very, very beautiful and very deep. I don’t think it’s profitable for any of us to try to paint someone else’s faith with a broad brushstroke. There’s a lot of beauty there, and there’s a lot in common there. The same with Evangelical traditions and Protestantism. There’s a lot there that we have in common.
The way that I like to say it, and many Orthodox Christians as well, is that the Orthodox Church—and I say this humbly, not with a sense of triumphalism or judgment, but humbly—the Orthodox Church is the fullness of the faith. It’s the original proclamation of Christ and his Apostles. It’s a 2,000-year-old Church with the continuity of the original faith. If you become Orthodox, you’re not going to have to give up anything that’s true. It’ll just be certain things that were not a part of the original proclamation of the faith, but the beauty of it is continually drawing closer to Christ. I hope that was communicated properly.
Mr. Allen: Yes. No, no, very well said. As a follow-up to that, now that you’ve been an Orthodox Christian going on a year this Pascha, maybe you could share with our listeners, Jonathan Jackson, what some of the major differences are that you see in your spiritual life, the emphases of your spiritual life and/or family life after having been Orthodox for just a fairly brief period of time, but being on this journey, as you say, for five years prior.
Mr. Jackson: It is a little bit difficult to articulate some of that, because the life of the Church and the grace that is in the Church is such a mystery. One of the things that I love about the Orthodox faith is it’s not rooted in pure rationalism or pure emotionalism. What I mean by that is if you’re at a church service, a Divine Liturgy, and you don’t feel anything emotionally happening to you that particular Sunday, it doesn’t mean that the sanctification and healing isn’t taking place. I’ve experienced so much beauty and transformation and healing in the Orthodox Church, but it’s so mysterious and so mystical, I hesitate to try to explain it too much, because it really puts you into this place of silence and awe at the beauty and mystery of God.
I remember one particular moment. Maybe the best way to explain it is to mention a story or an event. I was at a particular point. I think was a catechumen, on my way to becoming baptized, and I was going through a really difficult time, an extremely difficult, heart-wrenching time. I was on my knees, weeping in my living room, and just crying out to God, and feeling in some ways like my life was falling apart. There was a Liturgy that morning, a 9:00 a.m. Liturgy in the middle of the week at the church, so I decided to go. While I was there, I can’t even describe the experience of just being in the presence of the prayers. My soul was weeping for almost an hour, and these inarticulate prayers to God were coming out. It was just this gratitude of thanking God for making me a son of the Church.
The communion of saints is a mystery that I never knew I was missing, not living in the conscious awareness of the communion of saints, but there is a beauty to embracing the fullness of the faith. The mother of God is another one of those mysteries. There are moments when my rational mind battles the veneration of Mary because of the years and years and years of being raised in a Protestant environment, and then there are those moments of innocence, when I’m praying like a child, and all of a sudden, the prayers of the mother of God somehow enter into my heart, and I feel like I could weep for days because of the beauty and the love that exists within the Theotokos and the gentleness that’s there, and that she’s not only Christ’s mother and the mother of God, but because of that grace, she’s my mother as well. There’s a fear of God around that and a beauty there.
I think it’s brought my wife and [me] closer together, because the Church sees marriage as a sacrament. I just read this incredible book called The Sacrament of Love by Paul Evdokimov, and it is one of the most phenomenal books I’ve read. I say that over and over again to my friends, because there’s so many of these books that I read from the Orthodox saints or authors, and they’re just so profound, but this one in particular, The Sacrament of Love, just talks about marriage and love in the Orthodox tradition, and what it means. I would have to stop every ten pages, put the book down, and just… I felt like things in my heart were being healed and put back together. Again, words fail to describe these things, but it’s seeing everywhere Holy Communion or Confession or baptism. I could go for hours about the beauty and the mystery that exist within these things. You can’t explain it rationally to people. It’s truly an encounter. It’s a timeless faith that you’re joining with the saints in heaven and the angels in heaven into the life of the Trinity. It’s a beautiful and humbling thing.
Mr. Allen: Yes, and it is something, as you say, that needs to be experienced, and not just coming to an Orthodox church once, but reading, studying, and, I think, encountering God as you so well put it, directly yourself. Jonathan, as we come to a close of what’s been just a beautiful conversation—I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me and our listeners—now that you’ve done a shout-out to the monks of Mount Athos, are there any definitive plans to visit the Holy Mountain here in the near future.
Mr. Jackson: Absolutely. That is probably at the top of my list right now, is wanting to visit Mount Athos. After the acceptance speech at the Emmys, I got some wonderful invitations from different people in Greece who either have relatives who live on the Holy Mountain or know people there who’ve said they’d love to take me there sometime. That would be quite a humbling experience. So, yeah, I would love to be able to do that.
Mr. Allen: Nice. And that’s the way to go, by the way, with a Greek-speaker and someone that knows his way around. I’ve been there twice: once guided and once unguided. The guided visit was much more fruitful. As we close, I’d forgotten, but I’ve just been reminded that we have a call, a pre-recorded call from a priest in Romania that I’d like to end with.
Mr. Jackson: Oh, wow.
Mr. Allen: So if we could play that question for my guest Jonathan Jackson, we’ll close on that one.
Fr. Anania: Hi, Kevin. Hi, Jonathan. I’m Fr. Anania from Romania. First of all, congratulations for your show, Kevin, and congratulations for everybody at Ancient Faith Radio for all your efforts. May God reward you all. I’d like to address Jonathan a question that I think he could answer from his own life experience. How do you think that a young person who needs to listen to music or even to sing, but at the same time wants to remain close to God, how could he do all these things together? Thanks, and have a nice evening and a blessed one.
Mr. Jackson: Thank you, Father, for that question. Kevin, if you could hear that a little better, because I only caught half of that. Can you relay that question to me one more time?
Mr. Allen: Sure. The question really was for a young person who wants to love God and serve God and be close to God, but also loves to sing and things like that—I’m assuming in a non-liturgical setting—how do you keep all that together?
Mr. Jackson: That’s a beautiful question. The book that I’m writing right now touches on these things a lot. It’s really that question of not just relating to art in a liturgical context, whether it’s icons or hymns and things like that, and it really gets back to [the fact that] Orthodoxy embraces that the whole world is a sacrament. What that does is that it takes away the schizophrenia that can happen for Christians oftentimes, where they think that, “When I’m in the church, in the building, then I’m a holy, sacred place, but when I’m out in the world, I’m in a secular, ‘profane’ place.” I think that that is very damaging to the fullness of the faith.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann has talked about this in his book, For the Life of the World. He says that one of the greatest tragedies in Christianity is when people separate these things and they say that this is sacred and this is profane. The proclamation of Christ is a uniting of all of these things. I think that as an Orthodox artist who loves to sing and who loves to write music and things like that, one of the first steps would be to realize that if that person is approaching their craft and their art from a place of humility, as an offering to God, then everything they do becomes sacred, becomes a sacrament.
You no longer approach it from this place of “Well, I’m just doing this thing in the world. I’m just singing a song.” It’s much more than that. It is a holy moment and a holy atmosphere that happens. Every baptized Orthodox Christian has the full grace of the Holy Spirit in them, and at that point, they get to the guitar that they hold in their hand is no longer just a piece of wood with strings that makes certain sounds, but it’s a sacred vessel, a sacred instrument, a mystery, where they can participate in glorifying God.
I think there is some work to do, particularly in the Orthodox Church, for the laity in particular, to not abdicate the royal priesthood that belongs to everyone and think, “Well, the priests and the monastics, they’re going to be doing all the real heavy-lifting holy work, and us laity, we can just scoot by and show up once in a while.” No. We are the body of Christ. Everybody has a calling. Everybody is called to a life of repentance and mercy and love and sacrifice. I think that when particularly the laity in the Orthodox Church remember—because it is a remembering; the Fathers of the Church teach this—everybody is called to that sanctification, theosis, deification. Everybody’s called to become united to Christ in this way. So if you’re singing a song with a guitar in a cafe, don’t think that what you’re doing is inconsequential or trivial. It is a prayer.
Mr. Allen: Or disconnected from your faith.
Mr. Jackson: Yes. Or disconnected from what’s happening in the church. One of the reasons I thank the monks of Mount Athos is because when I, going about my life, know that their prayers are impacting my world, that their prayers on that holy mountain that have been ceaselessly going on, twenty-four hours a day for over a thousand years, I know that it’s impacting my world and the world around me. That’s exactly what you said: it’s a beautiful way to put it. It’s not disconnected. It’s all connected, so when we’re worshiping in the church and praying, we take the grace that we receive there with us. Each person becomes the temple of God and we’re all united to each other, and there is a mystery there and a power there. The more that each Christian, that each person walks out into the world with the joy of the Resurrection in their heart and lives their faith in humility and the joy of the Resurrection, then I think that it will continue to impact the world and transform the world around us simply by, as St. Seraphim of Sarov beautifully said, acquiring the Holy Spirit, thousands around us will find salvation, not by beating people over the head with a Bible or trying to convince them or proselytize, but simply through love and actually living a life of repentance and being with God and with each other. At that point, that person sings that song, and it becomes a sacrament.
Mr. Allen: I think we do need to do work in that. If you take a group like early U2, their music was very Christian, and yet it was not traditionally Orthodox or traditionally Catholic. I’m waiting for somebody to start putting out some really good popular music that does communicate Orthodox ethos. I’ve spoken to some musicians here in L.A. about that that are newly converted, and my challenge would be for them or maybe for Enation to do that as well.
Jonathan, it’s been really a great pleasure and privilege to have you on the program tonight. Thank you so much for being my guest and for being so open and honest tonight.
Mr. Jackson: Thank you, Kevin. I really appreciate it. It’s an honor to have the discussion with you. Thank you.
Please join me on January 27. My guests will be Chris Holland and Andrew Gusty on what will be a probing discussion of Orthodoxy and Mormonism. You can leave us a prerecorded question, as you’ve heard several guests do tonight. Just go to the Ancient Faith Today page on Ancient Faith Radio. It’ll take you there, you’ll see the tab on the right, and you can leave a prerecorded message that will play on that program on the 27th of January.
Many thanks as always to our great production crew this evening. To our engineer, John; the program’s producer, Bobby; our call-screener, Troy; our chat room moderator, Fr. John; and my ever-loyal and great production assistant, Jennifer.
Please tune in next week at the same time for Orthodoxy Live! with Fr. Evan Armatas. Thanks for listening. Blessings. Have a great week.