Jonathan Jackson is one of those few Hollywood actors who embraced the Orthodox faith, being baptized in 2012 with his whole family. He began his career in Hollywood in 1993 at the age of eleven. Since then, he has worked non-stop on the film set, in movies and television series, for which he was nominated and won numerous awards, such as “Emmy Award”, “Young Artist Award”, “Young Star Award”, “Young Hollywood Award”. He is the soloist of the rock band “Enation”, composer, poet and writer.
We are happy to present him to you in an exclusive interview about the meaning and mission of art, but also about the problems of today’s man. One of his central ideas is that, especially in this period, when the realities we live in push us compulsively towards apocalyptic scenarios about the future, the greatest urgency is to worry about the “apocalypse of the soul”, which we will reach if we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the love of Christ and guided by it. (T.P.)
– Mr. Jonathan Jackson, you are the father of three children, you have a beatiful family. How do you manage to keep love alive in family life, in the relationship with your wife, with your children? How?
– It is a difficult time in the world, in this regard. Society is no longer supporting the family. We have lost the sacramental power and beauty of the family. C.S. Lewis said something very profound. He said, in essence: “We actually, unfortunately, want God to love us less”. On the surface, people would say, ”I want God to love me more. I want to believe in a God of Love”. But sadly, in truth, that is not what we really want. We want Him to love us less… and to be more like a Santa Claus figure. You know, less like a Heavenly Father but more like a Heavenly Grandfather, who swoops in and gives us gifts. C.S Lewis also says: “We are like Children playing in a sandbox and God is offering us an actual mansion and we say: “No, no, no! We want this little sandbox that we are making.”
When it comes to marriage, family life and romance—all of these sorts of things—that same dynamic is going on in the world. The world sees traditional family life as a kind of burden, yet the family is an image of the Kingdom of God, marriage is an image of the Kingdom of God. There is so much beauty within marriage. And yes, it is a sacrifice. There is a cross that exists within anything beautiful, within anything good. The cross exists but the joy, the joy that exists far outweighs the cross. The resurrection is always part of the cross. The world is only seeing the grave and not glimpsing the resurrection. I think that somehow in our own hearts and minds, and also with others, we have to somehow glimpse the Transfiguration. There has to be a Transfiguration experience around marriage, around parenting and family life. We’ve lost the whole essence of liturgical beauty. And so, we’re just individuals making sure that we are happy and avoid pain. Real beauty is so much more profound than the little sandbox that we are trying to create for ourselves.
“Let’s have a common-sense balance!”
– We see that technology is penetrating more and more into our lives and radically changing the relationships between people, perverting them, creating addictions. How do your children relate to these things? Do you manage to keep them present in real life or do they live more in the virtual?
– Yes, it is a huge problem and a huge challenge, certainly, for children but, certainly, for everyone, for society in general. Human beings are prone to addiction, it’s part of the spiritual dynamic that we find ourselves in, living in a fallen world. Having this kind of technological access, it’s thrown the balance off greatly. It happened so fast. The acceleration in the last 10 years, everyone is trying to catch up really. We are changing the way that humanity relates to one another, so rapidly.
We need some caution. In my family, we do try to monitor as much as we can with our children: how much time they are on their phones, how much entertainment they are watching. It is not easy. But that’s even harder now with lockdowns and the pandemic. It’s already isolating enough; now it’s even more difficult.
One of the things that amazed me, when speaking to various monastics is this emphasis on the royal path, which is to say, balance. Don’t go too far in one direction or another. The central miracle of Orthodoxy (and this comes from Divine Revelation, not human intellect) is the supernatural ability to not go too far in one direction or another. Human reasoning alone lacks this divine wisdom; it seeks ideologies and black and white answers to complex questions. If we go too far towards the direction of banning these things from our children’s lives, it can create resentment. This kind of fundamentalist religious upbringing has potential dangers; as soon as they are out of the house, they will rebel. But, also on the other side, it’s important not to have them exposed to things that can be damaging to them. It is important to have a common-sense balance, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
There are certain films that my wife and I feel are okay to watch with one child at a certain age. While another child, at the same age, may have a different temperament, a different sensitivity of soul and we may need to wait a little while. Knowing your children and having an open dialogue with them about technology is very important. I think that keeping children connected to music and playing a musical instrument is a very healthy thing. To have something other than watching screens is vital; and music, reading, painting, writing—all of these kinds of things are still fulfilling and entertaining, for a lack of a better word.
– You have your children in the homeschooling system. This gives you more freedom in training and guiding them. What are you trying to inspire them, what are you aiming for?
– I did a lot of homeschooling growing up myself because I was working at such a young age. I was being tutored on a set, a lot of the time or doing my schooling at home. I’m very familiar with the rhythm of it, because I went through it myself. We have to travel a lot for my work. So, we’ve always wanted to keep as much flexibility as possible so that the children could travel with us. So, that was one of the main motivations for wanting to homeschool.
In America, they have these co-ops, where the children can go to school once or twice a week and the rest of it they do at home. I think it’s a great balance. But now, living internationally and with the pandemic, it’s all online. It is a little more isolating than it used to be for us. There are some wonderful online Orthodox schools and academies that we have connected with. Saint Athanasius Academy for instance, is the current one that the kids are involved in and it’s been very helpful.
But to answer your question more directly. Yes, I think having our children at school 8-hours a day, when the schools are teaching things that we don’t necessarily agree with spiritually, it just makes more sense for us, right now, to have homeschooling; for our schedule with work and just for our lives as a family. There’s a lot of people that I know who are turning to homeschool more and more.
“A country with the seal of its Saints”
– Why did you choose to move with your family in Ireland?
– I’ve loved Ireland ever since I was very young. It’s a strange thing. Whenever I would see a photo or hear music from Ireland, it was as if my soul would come alive. Ireland has always interested me a great deal. Over the years, we started visiting Ireland, driving around the country and seeing these incredible holy sites from the first millennium. We honeymooned in Dublin and Wicklow. My favorite filmmakers and the majority of musical artists always came from either Ireland or the UK. There are connections with Ireland and Africa and the Middle East that also very fascinating. There are some deep and profound connections, certainly with Orthodoxy. Egyptian monks who travelled to Ireland, for instance. Even traditional Irish folk music has a bit of Byzantine flavor to it. That’s been very fascinating, studying the lives of the saints of Ireland, Saint Columba, Saint Brendan, Saint Bridget, Saint Patrick, so many incredible saints.
There is something in the land, this sort of undefinable grace from the saints from the first 4-to-500 years of Christianity in Ireland. This was when so many monasteries were being built and upholding the West, during a very difficult period. There’s just so much that I love about Ireland. The people are so kind. There is real goodness and joy in the Irish. There’s so much beauty in the language and I want to study it more. I was always fascinated with that as well.
The other reason, in terms of us actually moving here, is that the first Orthodox monastery in close to a thousand years was actually going to be built. So oddly enough, we were thinking and praying about this before we knew about it. I was reading so much about the early saints and the monasteries of Ireland and Scotland. It just became a very personal prayer that somehow, this would return to Ireland. So, when we learned that there was an Orthodox monastery starting up, we were very excited about that. Everything was lining up.
We also wanted to be closer to Greece, Russia, Italy and to be in Europe. My wife is Italian and she has family in Italy. We have so many wonderful friends in Russia, Greece and Romania. We have been travelling so much to these places from America. Now, it is amazing that we are only 3 or 4 hours away from Italy and Russia. So, God willing, once the pandemic is over and travel is back to normal, we are hoping to travel to all of these places. We have met so many wonderful people. Travelling with the family, it has changed our lives. To see so much of the world, it affects the soul in such a profound way. Pilgrimage is such a holy thing and we want to keep doing that whenever we can.
– The medical crisis we are experiencing is changing our life paradigm. We have imposed restrictions, isolation, and distancing. Real communication with others is less and less present in our lives. You have the feeling that you are witnessing a dissolution of the person and humanity. How can we maintain communion and unity with each other in these conditions?
– As we were talking about before, technology has distanced us so much, further moving us into isolation and individualism and it’s very troubling. Even just putting aside the controversy about wearing masks, just from a spiritual or symbolic perspective, it’s such a tragedy to cover the face. The face is an image of God and the way that we see each other. It’s a very tragic thing. That’s not to say people should not be wearing masks in various circumstances. Regardless, we are covering the face of our neighbour and ourselves. This has a psychological effect and a spiritual effect on people. I know that depression and suicide rates have skyrocketed, in these times. As a society we have lost the liturgical beauty of what it is to be human.
Unfortunately, the only forms of communal experience in society, are ideologically driven. Political zealotry is replacing the liturgical communal experience of society. So, it’s a difficult time and we have to be that much more aware of being good and compassionate towards one another. For instance, if two people are driving in their car and one person gets cut off, the other person starts yelling or making an obscene gesture, because they are in the ”safety” of their car and they don’t care.
“Face to face”
On social media, people say the most horrendous thing, but if that person were to stand in front of the person they were attacking, let’s say, on the street, I highly doubt they would speak to them like that. Because this is another human being and we have this natural respect and love for each other. This is being challenged greatly right now. So, whatever we can do to help, whether it’s as artists, we hope through music and stories to keep us connected, as teachers with educating young children. We have to fight against this by becoming more human in a Christ-like sense and be there for each other.
– Let’s go back to the artistic field! In your book ”The Mystery of Art”1, you are talking about the questions that Christ is addressing us and you present a whole list of such questions from the Gospels. We are usually waiting from Christ to answer our dilemmas, questions and requests, forgeting that He also, especially He, is waiting some answers from us. Please, tell us more about this matter!
– This is true, in my experience and working in the arts since I was very young. I was 11 years old when I started working professionally. All I had was questions and I did not have any answers. It was not theoretical for me. This is a glimpse of what Christ means. We have to have a sense of wonder. It takes humility to ask a question because you have to say, “I don’t know”. G.K Chesterton describes this as, “Entering your second childhood”. This is a beautiful way to describe this. Artists have to continually enter back into a child-like state, it is the beginning of any authentic spiritual journey. The humility of not having all the answers has to be there, also, in a healthy marriage. Certainly, for an artist, we have to be drawn back to the very beginning. The artistic reality is more about receiving something and then whatever is received comes out. You can’t receive something unless your hands are empty and open, the same goes for the heart. It is this constant process that goes back towards wonder and mystery. I was always fascinated by how many questions Christ asked.
I think that’s so beautiful because, if you look at a parent with their child, the parent might know the answer but will still ask the child. Because we want them to discover and to speak from their own freedom. So, Christ, the Incarnate God, the God-Man, He is not asking because He doesn’t know. He engages with us in our humanity, in such a beautiful, humble way. In fact, on the cross, Christ asks on our behalf: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Mt. 27: 46. He enters into our humility of not knowing. There is so much beauty to be found in just contemplating the questions that Christ asks us. It is very important for me as an artist to remember that.
– How do you see the way out of the current crisis? I saw that you address somehow this issue in your “Ultraviolet Empire” album.
– “Ultraviolet Empire” is the title-track of the album. That song was actually written about a lot of my experiences in Ireland. It was written before I ever knew we were going to move here. It’s kind of a litany of experiences visiting ancient holy sites. The title is “Ultraviolet Empire”, also, because we cannot see ultraviolet light with our natural eyes… but it exists. So, it was a metaphor for a kingdom or reality that we can’t see with our eyes but it does exist. So, the lyrics of the chorus are saying: “We are living in an ultraviolet empire.”
There is this beautiful place called the “Hill of Sláin”, where Saint Patrick lit the first Paschal fire in Ireland. The lyrics of the chorus in that song are: “I tried everything to kill the pain but only the fire on the Hill of Sláin, gave me back my name, we are living in an ultraviolet empire.”
Maybe these lyrics tell us something about the solution of the crisis.
1 Jonathan Jackson, The Mystery of Art: Becoming an Artist in the Image of God, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2018.