I don’t know what shocked me more: The fact that actor Rainn Wilson — best known for his role as Dwight Schrute on the hit TV show The Office — had written a book about religion and spirituality or that I was able to interview him.
I am a millennial and for many of us, “spirituality” means being “spiritual but not religious.” I’ve heard my peers say things like, “I’m looking for spiritual healing,” or “I’m trying to find God for myself,” or “I’m wanting to get in touch with my own divinity,” or “I contain multitudes.” Perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in some of those statements, but the thing that stands out to me is this: It kinda just comes off as individualism baptized in “holy” hyperbole.
What I appreciated about Wilson’s Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution is that it offered a gentle critique of this version of individualized spirituality. For Wilson, who is a member of the Baha’i faith, spirituality has a larger purpose beyond the self. Spirituality gives us eyes to imagine a society based on “justice, equity, love, and a reduction in unnecessary pain for the inhabitants of our beautiful planet. To build the kingdom of God on Earth,” as he writes in the book. So, from this perspective, seeking inner peace should not only lead to spiritual tranquility but also public tranquility. If this is what pure and undefiled spirituality might look like, then color me intrigued.
Wilson and I talked about topics ranging from cultural appropriation and Christian representation in the media, to communism and how religion is portrayed in The Office. Considering all the topics touched on in Soul Boom, it only seemed right to cast a wide net during our conversation.
Zachary Lee, an online editorial assistant at Sojourners, contributed to this interview. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: What is a controversial opinion that you are unwilling to recant?
Rainn Wilson: You’re going for the jugular. I love it. Recently, there was a big brouhaha because I tweeted that Hollywood had an anti-Christian bias. And I did this when I saw this episode of The Last of Us and it started off with this guy who was preaching to a post-apocalyptic kind of congregation. And this guy was reading to his flock from the Bible. It happened to be the Book of Revelation. But immediately — I mean it was like a quarter of a second — I was like, “He’s evil.”
And then sure enough, not only is he evil, he’s a pedophile-cannibal. I feel like it's become this trope in Hollywood of like, “Okay, we need someone evil and hypocritical and secret-agenda-filled, et cetera. So, we’re gonna make them a pastor.”
Have there been many Christian pastors that have been hypocritical over the years? Yeah, of course. But it just becomes lazy. It’s like everyone who saw it was like, “Oh, he’s evil.” And how few are the circumstances where someone is just painted as a regular Christian? I have a lot of Christian friends and they’re devout. In fact, many of them are on the TV show The Office, and they’re kind and they’re loving and they love the words of Jesus. They love the community of their church, and they want to serve the world. They're not filled with hell and damnation, fire and brimstone, or a judgment that ostracizes others. But you never see these sorts of Christians portrayed in Hollywood. Why not portray them occasionally?
It was interesting because I caught a lot of shit from “liberal media outlets” and I was put up on a pedestal by a lot of Right-wing media outlets that had been condemning me a month before for doing a stunt about climate change. So, I post about climate change and I am an idiotic Hollywood elite, a bullshit artist. But then I tweet about anti-Christian bias and I'm a hero! So, this is the state of our country.
As someone who is a Christian and proud to be a Christian, I'm not sure how much I actually care about Christian portrayals in the media. Or maybe another way to state it is that when I think of Christian portrayals in the media, one portrayal that comes to mind immediately is David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. I feel like it was well-received by Hollywood.
Yeah. Right on. Going back to Martin Luther King for a second. Here’s another controversial opinion: So, I’m politically independent and I really try to stay out of partisan politics. And I feel like, because most of my interactions are with the political left in secular blue state America, I do feel like King’s Christianity is oftentimes downplayed to the point of being non-existent. But his inspiration came completely from two places: The Bible and Gandhi.
I’d also add the Black church in there, too.
Right. Three places. But the idea that he started a social justice movement in a secular mode is just preposterous. You just have to read about his life. And it's all about the church.
So, the next question I want to ask you is a question that you ask yourself rhetorically in your book: “Why the hell is the actor who played Dwight in The Office writing a book about spirituality?”
Good question. I've spoken a lot about being a member of the Baha’i faith and I've spoken about spirituality here and there. But writing an entire book about spirituality was a big swing for me. Does it have humor in it? Yes, hopefully you chuckle along the way.
Yes. I can confirm.
Okay, good. The humor makes it go down easier. But I’ll give three answers to that: Number one: I grew up a member of the Baha’i Faith, and in the Baha’i faith we accept the foundational truth of most all of the world's religions and their teachers at the center of those religions. When “Born Agains” would knock on the door, we would invite them in and cook them pancakes and have conversations about the Bible.
This was the milieu I grew up in. We were adherents to the Baha’i faith growing up, but it was much more about having kind of a catholic — and I mean that in the broadest sense of the word — worldview, about spiritual ideas. That is, what connects the world’s religions? We talk a lot in the world about what divides them and what differences there are, but what connects them, what universalities are there between Islam and Buddhism? So, that was part one of why I wrote this.
Part two: For me the spiritual path has a lot to do with suffering from some mental health issues and addiction issues. Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way, which is one of the great books on being an artist, she said, “I come to spirituality not out of virtue, but out of necessity.” And I feel the same holds for me. I’m not some virtuous guy. I’m a struggling guy. I’m impatient. I lose my temper. I can be judgmental. I can be a jerk. I wrestle with my ego. But I love spirituality and I need a spiritual path in my life to help keep me sane, grounded, and focused on what's really important.
The final reason I wrote this book is because I think that this topic is the most important topic on planet Earth right now. Humanity is at a turning point; it is on a precipice; it is on the verge of all kinds of destruction. And I think there are spiritual solutions for much of what humanity is going through.
You’ve been influenced by a smorgasbord of cultures and religions outside of your own culture and your own religion. What do you think is the difference between appropriating something and being influenced by something?
Um, I have no idea. To me, appropriation feels like — when you're talking about like cultural appropriation, it's like doing something for show. I remember back in the day when Paris Hilton wore a Native American headdress to like a, a rave or Burning Man or something like that. Not only is it a cultural dress, that’s one thing. But if you're taking something that literally has a sacred meaning and only certain people get to wear this, and when they get to wear it, they’re speaking for the gods — that’s a whole other level. So, to me, that’s an appropriation. It’s kind of superficial and for show.
What’s the difference between spirituality and religion?
A lot of people conflate the two. So, first let’s start with spirituality. My favorite quote of all time is from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” So, as soon as I hear that quote, I go, “Oh, right, I’m a spiritual being. That’s my reality. I just get 80 or 90 years in this meat suit if I’m lucky. And then the meat suit falls away and I’m gonna continue my journey.” That’s spirituality. We are spiritual beings, we are souls. We’re having a human, physical, tangible experience on this plane.
And there’s more to it than that: What are your spiritual beliefs and how do they manifest? How do you remind yourself that you're spiritual? How do you get in touch with that [spirituality]? How do you find spiritual serenity?
So, to me, a religion is an organization of those spiritual principles. I think it just has to have an organization of spiritual ideas.
So, one of the things I do in the book, which was a hell of a lot of fun, was I created a religion called “Soul Boom," trademarked, which is explained further in the chapter titled “Hey Kids, Let’s Build a New Religion.” I took a bunch of universalities from the world's religions and kind of put them into a jambalaya. And I thought, “Oh, this, this will be a fun way to look at religion.” Because ultimately, I’m trying to just open people’s minds to a new way of thinking about spirituality.
What are your thoughts? Do you have a more distinctive definition of the difference between spirituality and religion?
Some of the dualism between body and spirit, really bothers me. When I think about spirituality, I think about your inner life, or your psyche. Are you going to therapy? Are you spending time in meditation? But I think all of that connects very much so to this material plane. I think one of the things that you said that resonates is that religion is this organizing principle. I take my inspiration from James when defining religion: Pure and undefiled religion before God is helping the orphans and the widows (James 1:27). I think that there is too often a bifurcation between religion and spirituality. But the way I think about it is you have to have a healthy inner life in order for justice and righteousness to overflow from your actions.
I think that both of these paths are really important and we're on both of these paths. We have our inner path, and humanity has its spiritual path to walk as well.
One of the things you write about extremely well was how our spirituality cannot stay private; it has to manifest itself in the real world, and I think in service.
Actions and deeds. “Faith without works is dead,” to quote James!
From my perspective, revival movements rarely bring about societal change so I’m ultimately skeptical of “spiritual revolutions.” How do you imagine people getting more in tune with the “spiritual” side of things will eventually translate to a more just society?
There’s no easy answers to that. Nonetheless, what I try and break down, especially in the later chapters, is how the systems, the current systems of humanity, are all really broken. I have a chapter called “The Broken Blue Marble,” and [I argue that] any system you can think of is fundamentally broken at its foundation, health care, education, policing, governing, climate, agriculture — you name it.
Yeah, capitalism. Although, I’m a little bit loath to kind of just lump capitalism [in as an] evil in and of itself because there’s I think there’s always gonna be capital. That’s a whole other topic. But capitalism certainly is kerosene on all of these broken systems.
But it doesn't matter what fixes we put on it, it’s just never gonna work because it’s always gonna be about people tearing each other down and fighting and it’s gonna lead to conflict and disunity. So, we have to think about a religious revival in terms of systems. And I’m guessing it’s not gonna start on a really large system. It’s gotta start at the grassroots. Sometimes there are revivals that are just about, “Hey, it feels really good to get together with like-minded people and sing songs and put our arms around each other and cry and share and be vulnerable” — and that's wonderful.
I’m in 12-step programs. That’s a lot of what Twelve Steps are about, but that’s not enough. It has to move into action, and not only does it need to move into action, it has to have a systematic practice.
One of Sojourner's columnists, Amar Peterman, wanted me to ask you this question: How do you think The Office contributed to making religion a more popular and accessible topic for TV?
I don’t know that it did. Do you feel like it has?
I mean, when I think back to it, I don’t know of a TV show that was willing to explore religion in the kind of uncomfortable, awkward ways that The Office did.
I hadn’t thought of it specifically in terms of religion. Funny thing about The Office is the majority of the cast are regular religious folk. So, people like the right-wingers especially like to point their finger at “godless Hollywood” and, you know, part of me doesn’t blame ‘em, but that’s not the reality on the ground.
I think too, there is a warm, forgiving heart at the center of The Office that is about this community. It’s about community, it’s about family. They just happen to work together. And there’s a reason why the show has become so popular and people are watching it 20 and 30 times.
It soothes anxiety and it’s healing. And, I think [the reason for that is] ultimately because The Office loves its characters. Every character has some kind of redemption and there’s moments of love and connection in the awkwardness.
So, I would say more on that level — the psychological-social level — The Office has opened people’s hearts to other ways of thinking.
You’ve read theologian David Bentley Hart and you even acknowledged him at the end of your book. He wrote a piece in 2016 for Commonweal Magazine titled “Christ’s Rabble” where he makes the case that the early Christians were “communists” because of their opposition to wealth and private property. What do you see as the connection between faith and wealth?
Yeah, I mean if you’re following Christ’s example, you’re giving up what you own materially and putting that into service for those who need it. I think the difference between that and communism is this: Communism is an authoritarian government telling you what you need to give away and also telling you what occupation you should be working.
In the Baha’i faith, one solution to eliminating the extremes of wealth and poverty, which is one of the central evils of the planet, is simply for the rich to give away their money to the poor. Ideally, if you are a rich person, you couldn’t sleep at night knowing that there were people hungry.
That’s not the only way, but it is super important to move humanity forward. I’m all for a far more communal way of living and an economic system based on communalism, whatever that means.
The next question is two parts: Do you feel you're becoming a joyful person day-by-day?
Um, no, I don’t. I want to head in that direction. I have a lot of work to do and, you know, I can talk a good game and write a good game about these issues. But it’s a little harder for me to put it into practice; it’s a lot harder for me to put it into practice. But in the Bahai faith, ‘Abdu'l-Baha says, “Joy gives us wings.” It’s a superpower and it’s also a service. I think it’s important for me to think about joy as a service.
If I can give joy to others, then I’m doing a service.
Part two. One of the greatest spiritual questions of our time was asked by the late Mr. Fred Rogers: “What do you do with the mad you feel?”
I think too often, on spiritual paths, anger is negated. From the recovery work I’ve done, and the therapy work that I’ve done, if you have anger and if you have rage, you have to feel it. You have to let it out. You have to experience it and just own it. You can’t get anything done unless you own your anger and your rage, and there’s plenty to be angry about and rageful about in the world.
So, then do you take it out on someone, do you hit someone? Do you spread it online? Do you toxify it? Do you try and get other people to feel the same rage you do? But I think that's when we are called to our better angels to say, “Okay, I’m outraged over police brutality,” or “I’m outraged over income inequality or the climate. So how do we build something?”
Don’t just protest. Build something. It’s way harder to build something. You’ve gotta collaborate with people and consult with them, and everyone’s got their ideas and everyone’s got a different path to take and it’s really hard work.