By Tony Rossi
It’s not that unusual for an actor to thank God when winning an award. It was a first, however, when Jonathan Jackson thanked “the monks of Mount Athos for ceaselessly praying for the life of the world” while accepting his fifth Daytime Emmy for his role as Lucky Spencer on “General Hospital.”
What was even more unusual was the fact that Jonathan, whose nondenominational Christian background had taught him that “organized religion was oppressive and evil,” had recently joined the Eastern Orthodox Church with his wife and three children.
Known for his work on “General Hospital” since he was 11, as well as movies like “Tuck Everlasting” and “Insomnia,” Jonathan’s latest career move has been to the new ABC TV series “Nashville” on which he portrays aspiring singer/songwriter Avery Barkley. It’s a part he understands well due to his years leading the indie rock band, Enation. His spiritual evolution in recent years has been just as interesting as his career.
Jonathan acknowledged to me on “Christopher Closeup” that for most of his life, he had believed religion was
“contrary to the freedom of the gospel… The historical narrative that I was raised in was [that] the early church with the apostles was sort of a free flowing thing where people gathered in homes…and [they] were completely spontaneous. There was very little leadership and oversight. Everyone was flowing with spirit and that kind of a thing. And then, 300 years into it, when Constantine took over, it became corrupt. From then on, it was corrupt [until] Martin Luther came and saved the day.”
Despite that belief, Jonathan never avoided or pre-judged people who belonged to different religions. I first met him about 10 years ago due to his friendship with Msgr. Jim Lisante who was hosting The Christophers’ TV show at the time.
When I asked Jonathan where his openness to people with different belief systems came from, he credited the grace of God, his parents, and Hollywood. Yes, Hollywood.
“A lot of Christians look at Hollywood as the ultimate evil. But what it did for me is it sharpened my ability to love people and appreciate people, no matter where they’re at in their lives. I’ve always been someone who’s believed in truth. I believe truth exists. I don’t believe in relativism, a ‘your truth, my truth’ kind of a thing. However, I also believe that the truth must always be spoken in love – and that grace and truth are found in Jesus Christ. So I think in Hollywood, at a young age, I was thrown into an atmosphere and an environment where people were Jewish, atheists, Catholics, different denominations of Protestantism. It helped me to try to find Christ within all of these people, regardless of where they were or what they believed in.”
In 2007, Jonathan and his family took a vacation to Rome while he was shooting a movie in Romania. Being in the presence of the history of the church, the apostles and martyrs awakened in Jonathan a desire to learn more about church history, something he had never done. The more books he read, the more he realized his beliefs about the early church were completely wrong. Though he explored Catholicism as well – reading books by Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, and G.K. Chesterton – and respects the Catholic Church greatly, Jonathan felt drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church. He and his family were baptized into it earlier this year.
One of the profound differences with which Jonathan has come to terms is how liturgical church services are compared to what he was used to. He said,
“I would have days where I would go to church on a Sunday and…it would feel so foreign and so strange. I would have all those thoughts of ‘Wow, this is everything we’re not supposed to do, according to what I was raised to believe.’ But I think what anchored my journey was reading the history of the church. To know that from the beginning, this is how Christians gathered, that Holy Communion and the Eucharist were a central part of the Christian gathering – and believing it was the body and blood of Christ and that these were Jewish people that believed in the Messiah. So their worship was liturgical, it was coming out of that tradition. Reading St. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and the apostles of the apostles, [I saw] that it wasn’t something that developed after Constantine.”
Another area in which Jonathan’s faith has evolved is his perception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the difference between worshiping her and venerating her. He says,
“It took me years of reading and talking to Catholics and Orthodox people and exposing myself to a different perspective… I consistently went back to the Scriptures [like] Luke: ‘Rejoice O Mary, full of grace. Blessed art thou among women.’ And then, she herself said that ‘all generations will call me blessed.’ I noticed that in Protestantism, they’re not doing that…It’s like a loud silence surrounding Mary…. This is the woman who was chosen to give birth to the Son of God. If you just spend five minutes contemplating that reality, there’s no way you’re not going to venerate her and say ‘Blessed are you among women.’ And I will join that chorus of all generations.”
When I asked Jonathan why he thanked the monks of Mount Athos while accepting his Daytime Emmy, he explained that he’d never been to “the Holy Mountain,” as it’s called in Greece. Yet he saw documentaries about it and was impressed by the fact that the monks in all the monasteries there have been praying around the clock for 1,000 years:
“These people [are] dedicating their lives to prayer, and not just praying for themselves, but truly praying for all of us. And then the thought kind of crossed my mind: with all the destruction, chaos and insanity that goes on in this world, if their prayers weren’t happening, what would this world be like? I felt personally like I just wanted to thank them because I really believe that their prayers mean a lot.”
Though joining the Orthodox Church has been a spiritual journey, it will also impact Jonathan’s professional life because of the sacramental theology he now takes part in, a theology that engages the senses in connecting human beings with the divine. He says,
“One of the books that I read that had a huge impact on me along those lines was called ‘For the Life of the World’ by Alexander Schmemann, a Russian priest… You realize that the whole world really is a sacrament…that everything in creation was coming from that place where the physical world was infused with the Holy Spirit – and that we who are in Christ…participate in that redemption… This had a huge impact on me as an artist…The incense and the icons and Holy Communion, all the senses are active. As an artist, that’s so important because it’s a physical medium that is also spiritual…I’ve been writing a book for the last couple of years about the arts and how it relates to the spiritual life. And I have a couple of chapters in there about creating the sacraments and how those things sort of connect. So yeah, that’s had a huge, huge impact on me.”
To hear the full interview with Jonathan Jackson, listen to this podcast:
Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guest: Jonathan Jackson