Jonathan Jackson answers questions of our world

My life, in the field of the Arts, began at 11 years old. Since then, I have managed to make a career in Hollywood, working in the field of film, television, stage, music, writing and directing. But I’m not only any one of those things. I’m not just an actor, although I play roles. I’m not just a musician, although I sing. I’m not just what I do. But I am a broken man – embraced by a loving God.”so confesses actor, musician, poet and writer, Jonathan Jackson, in one of his books.

We are talking to a completely atypical Hollywood star. For him, “God is the Absolute Artist and Poet”, prayer is “the highest art,” and the artist’s main goal is to become himself “a work of art,” working first and foremost for his own salvation. In this sense, every man is called to be an “artist”, regardless of his profession and background.  (Tatiana Petrache)

Mr. Jonathan Jackson, what has changed in your life by becoming Orthodox?

So much! It is a difficult question to summarize. Orthodoxy for me and for my family is a way of life and, really, it has to do with life, we don’t really look at it as a religion, but as a way of life. Everything with Christ is relational and personal: the revelation to Moses, with God saying “I am Who I am” Exodus 3:14, which is a very personal revelation, and then Christ saying: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” John 14:6. It is very profound, because it’s not a system, or a philosophy or an ideology, but it’s a relationship. And, as anyone who is married and in particular has children knows relationships are very complex and mysterious. And I would never be able to approach my marriage as an ideology and, in the same way, I can’t approach faith, my relationship with Christ, as an ideology or a religion. So, that means that Orthodoxy permeates everything, it permeates the way you see the world, the way you see others, the way you see the cosmic drama of our existence. So, it changed a lot. Practically speaking, it opened our eyes to the rest of the world, especially growing up in America oftentimes, there is a very limited view of the world. So Orthodoxy opened us up to a whole different history, a history of Christianity. It opened us up to understand Russia more, for instance, to understand Romania more. And we are continuously learning as much as we can, even understanding Ireland in a different way. Ireland was Orthodox also, until the Great Schism. That opened our eyes in a lot of different ways for sure. 

What change did you notice in your relationship with your co-workers and other circles? Did you help them somehow in opening their eyes to Orthodoxy?

One of the things that you could say is that American Christianity, if there is such a thing, it’s hard to define, or Protestant Christianity, in particular, has a certain feeling and ethos around evangelisation and proselytism, and it’s something that I never felt very comfortable with. There was something about it that always felt a bit violating and had a feeling of coercion and manipulation involved with it. I just didn’t feel comfortable with it. What I found in the Orthodox faith is a beautiful balance or just a great respect for other peoples’ freedom. So, I’ve never really wanted to press or push or influence people that I worked with or people that I know. Again, because our love for Christ is so personal, it does come up in conversations, but it’s never cheap. You don’t want to communicate this very beautiful, profound, delicate thing almost like commerce or a salesman or something like this. Wonderful conversations have happened with my friends and co-workers over the years. I think Orthodoxy can allow people in the West to have a second look at Christ, because many of them have rejected various forms of fundamentalism and a kind of more legalistic faith that has come out of the Roman Catholic Church and I think Orthodoxy can allow people to have another look, a fresh new look at Christ. And the amazing thing is that – Christ Who is in the Orthodox Church – is the original faith. It’s not something new that people are just making up. So that’s a fresh new look for people in the West and yet this is the original vision of Christ.

Christ is all and in all”

What were the reactions of your colleagues, when you expressed your gratitude to the monks of Mount Athos, at the “Emmy Award” ceremony, in 2012?

Of almost everyone that I knew, no one had ever heard of Mount Athos.  Thich is amazing, on one hand, because of how important the Holy Mountain is in the Orthodox world, but nobody really knew what I was talking about, and so there were a lot of questions: “Who are the monks of Mount Athos? What is this about?”. So, there was just a lot of curiosity, but these things in Hollywood are always a bit mixed whenever you speak about Christ or things like these. Hollywood is not the easiest place to speak about Christ. 

But, over the years, it did spark good conversations with people. I feel very comfortable speaking about Christ and my faith simply because one of the things that I focused on since I was young was a beautiful scripture that says “Christ is all and in all” Colossians 3:11. I believe this and everyone that I meet has this spark of divinity within them and Christ is within them, whether they know this or not. And also, because I really don’t feel the need to convince anyone and that’s a blessing again, within the Orthodox faith. But there is also another side, where people don’t share the Good News and the beauty that Christ is, and this is not good either. But, in America, it’s kind of been the other direction, where the more fundamentalist evangelization has taken place for many decades and it turned people away from wanting anything to do with Christianity. So, I think it’s important to tread lightly and respectfully when talking to people. And also remembering the perspective that we need each other in the journey of salvation. So, instead of going to someone else and having this mindset of “I want to save you!”, it’s more a feeling of  “You know, we can be saved together!”. 

Where do you find your greatest inspiration? I can’t see inspiration very often in our traditional Orthodox culture. 

Every culture has a different history and I worked in Romania for 3 ½ months, years ago, before we discovered Orthodoxy. So, I learned a little bit about the history there. I think there are still lasting psychological and spiritual effects there, even after coming out of communism. I think that takes a lot of time to get through. There is a lot of trauma that takes place. I think that it’s probably part of it. Also, there’s a great pressure of secularism and westernization and this perspective wants to make religion but especially, in Orthodox countries, it wants to make Orthodoxy look backwards, dead and oppressive. It’s a spiritual battle and, again, getting back to the faith and being very personal. I think that we can, unfortunately, reduce Orthodoxy to rituals and traditions, that don’t mean very much.  It becomes a cultural experience that really isn’t very transformative. But that’s not what really Orthodoxy is. So, it is a fight; it’s a personal fight that each of us has. Our faith can become very weak. I like the prayer of Saint Ephraim The Syrian, that we say during Lent, that begins “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk[…]”. Those are serious things that can easily come into our lives. This is why the modern saints are so important: Saint Porphyrios, Saint Paisios, Saint Silouan, Saint Sophrony of Essex, Saint Joseph the Hesychast. This is God’s grace in our times, giving us these luminaries to keep our inspiration strong. But we have our own responsibility. We can’t just leave it to the clergy or leave it to the priests or leave it to the monks or nuns. We have our own responsibility. I think we lose sight of this too much. 

God just is”

What does it mean to be an artist? 

I think there is a difference between making art and being an artist. I think some people are born with a certain temperament and a certain restlessness and maybe sensitivity or vulnerability. I think that to be an artist, you have to need to be an artist. It’s something that you are compelled towards, almost for survival sake. If you are a writer, then you have to write. If you are a painter, then you have to paint, there’s no getting around it. If you are a singer, then you have to sing. It’s hard to articulate these things, because they are so embedded in a person’s soul. In some sense, it’s like if you were to ask a mother what does it mean to be a mother? It’s a difficult thing to articulate, because it’s so powerful; things that are the closest to us are the hardest to see and the hardest to describe.  

That’s why, in the Church, there is the tradition of apophatic theology.  Because “God is” – He just “is”. He is more real than anything we see or touch.  Because He is so close to us, He is sometimes hard to see and, certainly, hard to articulate. In fact, He is impossible to fully articulate. And so, the realm of being an artist is very close to the nature of being and of God, in the sense that He is the ultimate Artist, He is the Creator. Why did He create? Why are we here? That’s why the title of my book is “The Mystery of Art”. Ultimately art transcends us. I think to be an artist is to search to express what can’t be expressed. I think it’s something close to this. 

You wrote in your book that: “real works of art are not the works of art as such, but the souls of the receivers, but also the soul of the artist that creates them…

This was very important to me, because we’ve seen so many examples of artists who have created beautiful works of art and yet, oftentimes, they’ve neglected their own souls. They neglected the ongoing creation and the formation of their own soul. And I don’t think that’s necessary; I don’t think that this divide is the way it’s meant to be. Christ has come to heal divisions. Saint Maximos talks about this. So, this was definitely something that I am very passionate about. That’s why in the book, I talked about holy madness, because too often we’ve seen the other version of artistic madness in the realm of something that is destructive and nihilistic. So, the Saints are a very good example of holy madness. 

Our history has witnessed many revolutions – social, political – and we’ve seen their result. Now we are the witnesses of another kind of revolution, a medical and digital one. In one of your songs you are talking about the “The Revolution of the Heart”. How can one start his own “revolution of the heart” and what is its aim? 

As I said before, we’ve studied a bit of Russian history. That song was coming from that perspective of looking at the Russian revolution and then, again, a lot of the revolutions throughout the world, as you mentioned. For me, it was this tension inside of myself saying that politics is not the answer. These kinds of revolutions, they don’t really lead to peace and certainly they don’t change our hearts. There is this tension, right now I feel like our world is obsessed with politics and obsessed with what Dr. Timothy Patitsas called in his book “political messianism”. And that’s really what’s happened. And obviously in the 20th century, there was a lot of this, but it is still with us, and we don’t know what’s around the corner. And it’s something natural when faith in God departs from culture, by and large, there is a vacuum and what’s going to replace it? Right now, it’s political ideologies. I am very worried about all of that, because we’ve seen throughout history where these kinds of things lead. That’s one of the reasons I love Dostoyevsky so much, because he, in his “madness”, prophesied what happened to Russia, if they continued down that road. 

Christ is very approachable” 

So, “The Revolution of the Heart” is saying that we need to focus less on political movements and more on the transformation of our own souls. Jordan Peterson has articulated this very profoundly. I completely agree with what he is saying, which is that it begins with the individual. It begins with one person. So, that’s really what that song is saying. I also wanted to introduce, in a rock song, just a glimpse of the story of the Russian Revolution because it really isn’t talked about much in the West. 

It’s dangerous when we are disconnected from history. Politics divides people so much, so, spiritually it weighs heavy on me because of how it divides people so strongly. I want people to believe in faith and in loyalty but this belongs to our Heavenly Father. I don’t want this transition towards an ideology. I think it’s a brutal, ugly dead end. The promises before revolutions and what happens after are so drastically different. That’s where “The Revolution of the Heart” came from. It’s looking more towards Mount Tabor. This is the kind of “revolution of the heart” that we need. Saint Seraphim of Sarov lived this kind of goodness and kindness and real intimacy with Christ. And it’s a little bit foolish, like you said, like Prince Mishkin in Dostoyevsky’s – “The Idiot”; it will look naive and foolish to the world. 

What about Saint Joseph the Hesychast? Was he a “revolutionary of the heart”?

Yes, Saint Joseph the Hesychast would be the perfect example for this “revolution of the heart”. And there are so many mysteries there, because he is someone who left the world, and went to the Holy Mountain and fasted, and prayed, and sought after God with everything he had and everything that he was. To the world’s eyes that could look strange and almost meaningless, but the incredible thing is how, when he departed from the world, he was in some sense exiled from the world and detached, but when the grace and unification happens inside of his soul, what manifests is love for the world and praying for the world. And that’s a great paradox and mystery that, when we have the remembrance of death, when we are approaching our spiritual lives seriously with repentance and compunction and detachment from the world, somehow, through the Holy Spirit, we become more connected to the world, we become more human. The more attached we are to the world, the less human we become. The more we become just like a number, we don’t treat each other with humanity. 

And on the Holy Mountain, as I’ve been blessed to be there a few times now, one of the things that was so powerful for me was the light in the countenance of the fathers. I’ve never seen faces and eyes this pure, this clear, this vibrant. And they were so full of humor and joy. So, it confirmed to me that children flocked to Christ. There’s no possible way that Christ could have been this cold, rigid, religious person. If children wanted to come to Him and be with Him, then He had to have been filled with such joy, such light; you can see this on the Holy Mountain. So, coming closer to Christ should make us more human, not less.  It should make us more approachable, not less. And I think that certainly, it is what the world needs to experience. Cold and dead religion that is just judgmental and concerned with its own piety in a selfish narcissistic way… I just think it’s an offense to God. I remember, when I was very young, somebody said something that always stuck with me. He said that Christ never said one harsh word to anyone who had a sense of need. He was harsh only to the self-righteous and that he would speak very harshly to them. Christ is very approachable, very approachable. The woman with the alabaster box, that’s a miraculous picture! So, that’s what we need to be for the world and not to sit in cold religious oppression, it’s not going to attract people to Beauty. And it is Beauty that saves the world. 

Maybe there’s something in this solitude”

In one of your interviews, you said that the message of Saint Joseph the Hesychast is very actual for us, who are experiencing this global pandemic. Could you explain?

Elder Joseph chose a way of life; he voluntarily chose to live in solitude and hesychasm and silence and prayer. For so many of us around the world our lives have become much more isolated and we’ve experienced a greater degree of solitude with this global pandemic. It wasn’t voluntary for us, but it can become voluntary. This is really a great mystery of the Cross and Christ telling us to take up our own cross. Regarding the things that come in our lives, we have a choice to accept it and allow it to transform us for the better, for suffering to be transformed and given meaning. This is the mystery of the Cross, that Christ voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of the world. I think that’s what I was coming from with Saint Joseph, voluntarily entering into solitude and prayer. And right now, because of what we’re going through in the world, we have an opportunity: we can resist, we can try to kick our cross and wish that things were different or we can voluntarily accept our cross and say: “Maybe there’s something in this solitude that my soul needs. Maybe there is something in the silence and in more prayer that my family needs”. And, yes, we have to be very careful because the other side can come in: depression, despair, isolation. So, we have to be very careful, but this can be purifying for us, if we accept it voluntarily and I think that Saint Joseph the Hesychast, and the timing of his canonization, was really miraculous. And I think his prayers and his life is something that the world needs right now. 

(to be continued)

Interviewed by

Tatiana Petrache