Let's Talk About Sex (And God) With Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus

Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus is a feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. She talks with host Lee Hale about the complicated aftermath of being taught God has strict rules for your sex life. Plus, the ‘Woodstock’ moment she sparked by carving out space for feminists of faith.


Show Notes:

  • The Joy of Text, a podcast about the intersection of Judaism and sexuality co-hosted by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus

  • The Orthodox Sex Guru, a New York Times’ piece about Marcus and her work.


Bat Sheva Marcus I think most people would think it's funny that it's way harder for me to talk about my upbringing and my faith than it is for me to talk about sex.

Lee Hale Is it?

Bat Sheva Marcus Much harder. But I'm happy to certainly try.

Lee Hale From KUER and PRX, this is Preach. I'm Lee Hale. And in this show we dive into the messiness of faith. 

I'm a religion reporter who's worked myself into a bit of a faith crisis and now I interview people who've gone through something similar. 

As a reporter covering the Mormon Church, my own church, I realized something a few years back. Sex therapists are really fun to talk to. They see people at their most vulnerable. It gives them insight into not just the hangs up people have with sex and intimacy, which there are plenty of, but often all of that is tangled up with how they view their faith in God too. 

And sex therapists tend to be really blunt. Which I love. It's almost like if you can talk openly about sex you can be honest about anything. 

So when I heard about Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus. I said yes. I want to talk to her. Bat Sheva is a feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. Say that three times fast. She's based in New York City where she leads the Maze Women's Sexual Health Center. 

And Bat Sheva is not shy when talking about sex, which we will do in this episode. That's your warning in case there are sensitive years around. I gotta say even I, listening back, was surprised at how much we talked about masturbation. I mean it connects to theology. I promise. But it's in there. 

Also an apology to everyone's ears. I had a cold when we did this interview. So I sound a little bit funny. 

OK. First things first. How does a woman who grew up in a strict Orthodox home end up working as a sex therapist?

Bat Sheva Marcus So I grew up in a Modern Orthodox family. 

And my father wasn't working as a rabbi but he was a rabbi. He was a very difficult parent but very thoughtful about the way he talked about religion. And I think that had a huge impact on me. And my family did not talk about sex at all. 

I was in fifth grade. So how old does that make me, like twelve? And our ... teacher, our Bible teacher was talking about somebody who had a baby. And she said 'and we all know how babies are created, right?' or something. And I said yes. You pray to God. That's how you have a baby. Because that's what I had been told. 

And this 12 year old behind me starts giggling. It was so humiliating. And she was like 'Oh my God that's not how you have a baby!' And so then during recess she gave me information about intercourse and that was like the first I had heard about it. 

So the funny thing about the story is that 30 years later I'm telling the story at the dinner table. And my daughter, who at the time was maybe 11 or 12 hears the story. And I said you know, I still remember the name that girl who told me. Her name was Myra Brodsky. And my daughter, she looks I me and she starts to laugh. She said 'I think I just Myra Brodsky-ed somebody else. 

I really grew up with no information but was really curious. 

My father was very ahead of his time in terms of teaching girls Talmud which nobody was doing at the time. They would separate out the boys at my school and they would learn Talmud and they'd take the girls and we would learn, I don't know what, folk dancing. I don't even know. But my father was adamant that we would learn. And so he would study with us. 

And I think being able to feel comfortable with Jewish sources and being from a family that was curious kind of propelled me to look for answers about things that I didn't know. And I was really interested in sex. And so I just did a lot of research on my own. Both in books and in real life.

Lee Hale Yeah. It's so interesting when you're saying that I had the thought that like, you know, as a child sex is as mysterious as God. It's just one of those big unknowable things. And I remember specifically where I was when my brother told me what was going on.

Bat Sheva Marcus How old were you?

Lee Hale Definite elementary school age. But yeah, I remember we were next to the garage. And all I remember is he just said like 'you go in' and I was like I know what that means now. I think I get it.

Bat Sheva Marcus I feel like that analogy is not a bad analogy for life in general, right? Like, sex and God? Those are like huge things to be thinking about. From so many different directions, and how they affect us and how they affect our lives.

Lee Hale Right. One thing I get excited about is when people tell me about their first existential crisis. Were you the kind of child that would ask existential questions?

Bat Sheva Marcus My questions that were the most challenging I think probably had more to do with women's place in the Orthodox community, right? I was growing up, you know, in the 70s when feminism was kind of just on the rise. 

And I was less struggling with like, is God good. And much more of like, what does God want from us to do and what's the meaning of these precepts that we are given to do.

Lee Hale I was told that I had to have like almost a spiritual confirmation of everything I was doing to ensure I knew why I was living that way. (Yes.) 

The law of chastity, for instance, what we refer to as, you know, abstaining from sex and masturbation. I was supposed to do that but I should also look for a personal confirmation that God wanted me to do that, right? And that was important for almost everything that I did.

Bat Sheva Marcus This is going to sound so sound weird for me to say this but I don't feel like God was that present.

I remember once I was working somewhere and the administrative assistant was like trying to nail something to the wall and she said 'Please God don't let me hit my finger with the nail'. And I looked at her and I was like 'Oh, that's why we have wars. Because God is busy helping you with your finger and nail.' 

And I was laughing at the time but I remember feeling a little bit jealous because that kind of personal relationship with God is not one that I was given or experienced. And I think it would have been very loving and very comforting had I had that.

Lee Hale Then where did God live?

Bat Sheva Marcus God was this sort of large ineffable being that set the world in motion and that wanted us to live a certain way. But you know, what we did was much more important than what we thought. 

Faith either was a total given or it was just not that critical. But keeping the stringency of the laws and being thoughtful about how you were doing the specific laws (was important).

And then sometimes there were questions about like, well why was that set of laws given to us? Like, can we kind of figure out what positive movement in the world we're supposed to be creating because of this set of laws? 

But I feel like that was pretty sophisticated thinking that most of my friends didn't have.

Lee Hale What did God want you to do? What was your understanding about that as a child. What did God want you specifically to do?

Bat Sheva Marcus Really however sort of pathetic it almost sounds God just wanted me to keep the laws. God wanted me not to eat things that were not kosher. God definitely didn't want anything be homosexual. That wasn't even talked about at all. God wanted me to dress modestly. God wanted me to talk modestly. There's a lot of emphasis on modesty as a girl. 

In my house, I think there was also this God really wants you to learn the sources and be able to talk intelligently about the Bible and the Talmud. God wants you to live a certain life. There wasn't really a bigger emphasis on making the world a better place. It's a little sad as I'm actually expressing this to you. 

Like, I feel like there didn't feel like there was a greater purpose other than somehow there was this unstated that if you really follow the laws the way God wants you to, then somehow redemption will be brought to the world. 

Lee Hale It was kind of radical, like you said before, that you were encouraged to study this out as a woman growing up, right?

Bat Sheva Marcus Oh my God. It was so radical. Like in the fifth grade when they started teaching the boys Talmud and they weren't teaching the girls Talmud, my father started a class for the fathers of the boys to teach the same material. And I was in that class. (Wow.) Right. 

So it really opened up a world to me. I mean it becomes a little bit of a Pandora's box because all of the power in Orthodox Judaism is held in the texts, right? Like when you can approach those texts and read them and understand them and know what they say, then you have the ability to sort of argue a point.

Like if somebody says to you X, and you can say well that's not what I learned. And that's not what the text says. As opposed to if those texts are behind this black box somewhere. And for years and years and years those primary texts were not open to girls at all. And when I was starting to learn there was probably a handful of women who at that point were learning Talmud. 

It was mind boggling that my father was like saying I'll be damned if, like, my boys can articulate and are knowledgeable Jews and my daughter is not. Like, that is not going to happen. And so that is how he approached it both with me and my sister. And I think it just put us in a different place and different kind of mindset.

Lee Hale Bat Sheva explained that all these laws were passed down orally and then collected in what's called the Mishna: rules for marriage tithing repaying someone, all that stuff. And then there's the Talmud: 20 enormous volumes of rabbis writing through the generations interpreting and adding onto Jewish law.

And then there are countless additional volumes written as commentary on all of these books. Because as time went on many of these laws needed updates. But these interpretations often conflict with each other.

Bat Sheva Marcus For example, if somebody says, like, can I use artificial insemination, right? So clearly artificial insemination wasn't around the time the Bible. But then people were going to go back and look at the rabbinic text and say, well, what's the most similar thing to that that we can find? And what are the precedents that have been set? 

And that is how Jewish law is then created. And what happens is that you come in with your own identity and you can approach it in very different ways. So when you're talking about sex, which is the one I tend to know about, you can say, well, I'm going to take these sources which are much more sort of fundamentalist. Or I could take these sources which are equally legitimate but much more progressive. And let's kind of figure out, like, what the right thing to do is. And two people or ten people can come to different conclusions, right? 

And so Orthodox Jews are usually part of a community where they ascribe to one or maybe more than one of these perspectives.

Lee Hale Here's a dumb question.

Bat Sheva Marcus No, no dumb questions.

Lee Hale When did the text stop being written?

Lee Hale So the Talmud was compiled in the fourth century. That was the Yerushalmi, the part of the Talmud that was written in Jerusalem and then the Babylonian Talmud was compiled around the year 500 although it continued to be edited. 

So but then after that there have been generations and generations of rabbis -- until this point pretty much all male -- writing answers to newer questions based on the Talmud.

Lee Hale It's kind of exciting because it seems like modern interpretation matters. Is it in a way that God can speak through modern interpretation?

Bat Sheva Marcus Totally.

Lee Hale I mean Mormons would say modern revelation and we believe in that.

Bat Sheva Marcus Totally. So it is very exciting. The question then becomes, like, who has the power and the control in those situations, right? Like if it's all men you may come up with different response than if some women were writing. 

Now the men may say that's absurd. That you're not going to come up with different responsa because this is the truth. Whatever that means. (Right) But, you know, it's gonna be very dependent on what your values are.

Lee Hale In a moment, Bat Sheva wrestles with a pain point for her in the community that she loves: the role of women.


Lee Hale So as Bat Sheva explained, Jewish texts are a collection of laws and interpretations of those laws. A lot of interpretation. Which means opportunity for people to disagree with each other.

Bat Sheva Marcus What became a sort of clear to me is how complicated these texts got because of the person who is writing the text. I became very very active in the Orthodox feminist community because I realized that so many of the things that I thought were wrong at the time, like women becoming rabbis, were really just social norm issues. And nobody could really make a coherent case to me as to why that would be wrong from a religious standpoint.

Lee Hale It's interesting how some people may even think that there is a feminist Orthodox Jewish community, right?

Bat Sheva Marcus Yes, there is a significant feminist Orthodox community and as you can imagine it certainly hasn't been popular over the years. 

Twenty five years ago I started an organization with an amazing woman Blu Greenberg which was the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
And you know I remember our first conference. When we first had plans to run this conference we thought maybe we'd get 300 people into a room. And then we had so many women coming. We were so oversubscribed. We were at a hotel. We were sitting on the floors. We were sitting on the windowsill. And I remember meeting up with friends in the hall and we were crying. It was a sense of like, we felt like it was like Woodstock. I don't know how else to explain it. 

It just felt like the world was turning. Like all of a sudden you realize there were all these people who felt the same way you did. 

There is now actually an Orthodox women's rabbinical school. As you can imagine it's like not accepted by a large swath,I would say 90 percent or 95 percent of the Orthodox community, but it's there. And you know that's how change happens in a lot of religious communities.

Lee Hale There comes a point where some feminists feel like it's just too flawed. Like the machine is too flawed to save. And they leave. And I feel like that must be tempting sometimes, right? When you are bumping up against things that just feel constrictive and painful. (Totally) But at the same time, it's who you are, right? Like you are born into this culture.

Bat Sheva Marcus You're 100 percent right. I think when we ran that first conference I remember the New York Times kind of saying like these women, these Jewish Orthodox women who are also feminists, they kind of make us think of Republican women who are pro-choice. 

Because you think to yourself why are you staying in the Republican Party? You could just cross the street and join the Democratic Party and there being pro-choice makes sense. But these women are saying 'no, I want to stay in the Republican Party. But I do think that women have the right to choose'. 

So that's, you know, that was the analogy that they gave at the time about like Jewish Orthodox feminists. 

You feel like if you're part of this community and this life that you love that has really beautiful parts to it -- you know the Sabbath and the holidays and sort of the intrinsic value to life and the aim to try to make the world a better place, which is kind of how I see it -- then you don't want to give up the whole religious life because you feel like sociologically things have gotten kind of off track. And that maybe you just need to give it a nudge to get it back on track.

Lee Hale I'm straight but I empathize deeply with LGBTQ Mormons, like, for instance. It's just like you feel the pain of not fitting into this ideal. And the question is, like, what's going to be more painful? To have to choose one identity over the other seems cruel. 

Bat Sheva Marcus Yeah, so I can only speak that in the Orthodox community in New York. There has recently become a fairly active religious LGBTQ community and it's sort of mind boggling and makes me so happy. Because there are young men and women who feel like 'my religion is really important to me, but I am gay and just because I'm gay doesn't mean I can't be an Orthodox Jew'. Now I know that they're probably segments, large swaths of the Orthodox community that would really laugh at that and say that's not possible. How is that humanly possible. But it makes me so happy to know that a niche is being created and that people feel like you can be in the Orthodox community even if you don't fit the mold with everything else. So I don't know if that's ever gonna happen in the Mormon community but it's happening now in the Orthodox community.

Lee Hale It's slow and painful, but it's happening. 

I'm curious. I have a hunch that I could talk from a Mormon mindset and I think a lot of what I might ask would be similar to the Orthodox Jewish community. And where there's a disconnect we can point that out. 

But mainly, the big principle is that God cares, right? God cares deeply about your sex life. And that how you live your sex life affects you spiritually. But I'm just curious. I think a lot about how sex was communicated to me in reference to God growing up really impacted the way I see sex today. 

And so you as a therapist, are there pros and cons of mixing sexuality and your faith at such an early age?

Bat Sheva Marcus It's less about sex as an act itself and sort of more about what sex can do in the world, right? How it makes you feel about yourself. And how it makes you feel about your partner. And how it makes you feel about your family life. 

So let me separate a few things. I know I'm having trouble here, it's because there's myself as a professional and there's myself as a, you know, religious Orthodox mother talking to her kids about sex. 

And one of the things that I always tell parents and I feel very strongly about is that sex is not something you should relegate to the schools to talk about. 

You need to communicate with your children because it's the only way for you to pass along your personal values, right? Your values may be very different than your neighbors, or somebody in the other town's values. And so you need to pass it along.

And so for sure, with my children I hope that whenever we talked about sex it was given in a context of mutual respect, understanding that there's two people involved in the equation. 

Family is incredibly important. Loving your partner and being supportive and sustaining of your partner is incredibly important. And that those are major values. And sex is a part of that.

Lee Hale You know, without the cultural weight of having to answer this for any religious community I just am curious about what your instinct is. Is masturbation healthy?

Bat Sheva Marcus Yes. That is an easy one.

Lee Hale I say that because, like, I don't know it is for Orthodox Jews, but that was talked about as like...

Bat Sheva Marcus The Mortal Sin.

Lee Hale So sinful. So sinful.

Bat Sheva Marcus Yes, yes. The truth is, the irony a little bit is, that it's considered sinful in the Orthodox community but it's considered sinful for the boys. It's never even discussed for the girls.

Lee Hale Right. Well it doesn't exist for girls, right? That's like not even a concept.

Bat Sheva Marcus Exactly. So, that's a really complicated one. And one where I would argue that I'm hoping that over this generation I think things are changing and the Orthodox community will understand that maybe what they think of as the ban on masturbation is maybe the ban on over focusing on masturbation or over emphasizing masturbation. 

But yes, I feel very strongly that masturbation is critically important for boys and for girls.

Lee Hale I feel like definitely the Mormon community, the leadership for instance, they don't want to give an inch. Like moderation is not a concept talked about.

Bat Sheva Marcus Why do you think that is?

Lee Hale I can tell you what it felt like as a kid to be taught this way. It felt like masturbating, and especially pornography, it fell like a stain. You were like becoming damaged goods. The attempt was to scare us like the attempt was that we hope you are so afraid.

Bat Sheva Marcus But the question is kind of why? Like was there ultimately a fear that if people were happy sexually by themselves they wouldn't get into a relationship?

Lee Hale I mean honestly the way it was taught to me was that this was Satan. Satan's tool against you. That he was going to give you false expectations. He was going to trap you in an addiction. That this was going to lead to an unhealthy marriage and an unhealthy relationship. 

And it was really dark and really scary. And so the idea of like finding a healthy middle ground that included any masturbation or any pornography? Which is just the world we live in, right? Nobody is just perfectly pure like I was taught was a goal. It was so daunting. And I think everyone felt they were failing.

Bat Sheva Marcus The more fundamentalist Orthodox communities for sure I still have that. I think the modern Orthodox community has kind of tried very hard to at least not actively promote that as a concept. I think sometimes still those messages are still given all the time unintentionally. 

But one of the things that you're talking about, and I see it all the time, is that what happens then is if you put up the standard that's not even doable. And then you have a kid who can't sustain that? Then they're wracked with guilt and or they just chuck the whole enterprise. (Yep) 

Like, well I'm masturbating so therefore I may as well, you know, desecrate the Sabbath in 12 other ways because this is the biggie and I've done that already. So I feel like it's unhelpful. 

Honestly, I'm always thinking about this because I feel like ,what is the freakin big deal about, like, what is it that scares people so much about masturbating? And I wonder if there's this fear that if you could masturbate then you're not going to be interested in outside relationships. And then the whole family structure will fall down. I can't really think of ... I'm very practical as you can tell. Like, what is it? Like what's the real fear under it?

Lee Hale When it comes practicality, for a long time I was in denial about what reality is. I was in denial about what a healthy life looked like sexually. And that's why I thought I was one of the bad ones, right? (Of course.) That I was like, I was doing it wrong. 

And what you mentioned there is so pivotal because I think what happens when someone realizes 'Oh the world isn't quite the way we were told.' Right? People do masturbate. People do look at pornography. People have sex before marriage. That happens.

You have one of two things. One, you can think that, OK, I see things a little more nuanced and I'm going to try to figure out how to have a more practical approach to my faith. Or like you said, you just throw it all out. I know I see friends who because they're experimenting a little bit then they like completely throughout their whole spiritual relationship with God because they're walking on this new path. 

And you as a therapist, the idea of completely making a huge dynamic lifestyle shift, and then experimenting without the structure you've had, like that to me seems like that could be pretty damaging.

Bat Sheva Marcus Yep it is. And it's sad. And then also you see people doing things that, like, 'I masturbated, so therefore I may as well just go hook up with every, you know, random stranger that I meet in the next month. And it just leads people to make really bad decisions because they can't think rationally about any of their behavior.

Lee Hale I love talking to sex therapists of all faiths because I feel like you don't want to be lied to, right? You don't want to have a perceived reality of what people are going through. You need to know exactly what they're going through. Or else you can't help them. Half truths don't do you no good, right? If you're trying to help someone in that world.

Bat Sheva Marcus Totally. And I hope that both me and the therapists that work in my place work very hard at making it clear that this is a completely judgment free zone. 

It's very hard to be helpful if people aren't telling us the truth. I feel like it feels better to people to finally talk. If they really trust that you don't care. You have no investment in any religious aspect of this. Then I feel like it's almost like the light switch goes on. Like they're like 'Oh my God. So I can tell you these things and I'm not going to feel terrible about it. I can tell you about my crazy fantasies. I can tell you about the porn that I watched. And I, you know, I can tell you about the affairs that I've had. And you're gonna just be with me and listen. And then help me figure out what I want to do that works well with my life. 

The truth is that that works on both ways though. That means that you know the people who get aggravated because I'm helping this lesbian figure out how to keep her life together with her husband? That's her choice. 

You know, I'd be just as behind her if she decided to leave and create a new life. But in the end she has to choose what values are most important to her. And then I need to help her figure out how to make that happen.

Lee Hale You mentioned, I think you said that you don't believe that guilt and shame are all bad. That, you know, sometimes it's tempting to say that like you shouldn't feel any guilt or any shame when it comes to your sexuality. But you do believe they can play a role?

Bat Sheva Marcus I think a little bit of guilt and a little bit of shame is what makes us God's creatures. A little bit. 

You know, if you're committed to a monogamous relationship and you want to stay in that relationship then the fact that you would feel terribly guilty having an affair may be a good thing. 

Guilt is, I think, a monitor to let us know that maybe we should be looking and examining what we're doing and make a decision based on our thought process as opposed to just what we feel like doing at the moment. 

But we shouldn't be wracked with guilt when we do normal human things.

Lee Hale I asked you originally about, you know, your view of what God expected of you when you were a child. I'm curious now, especially with this work that you do which your religion is very connected to, like what do you think God expects of you now?

Bat Sheva Marcus It's a hard question to talk about without crying. 

I think God wants us to make the world a better place and that each of us have our own mission that we need to do, that we need to accomplish. I feel less constrained by communal values as I get older. I feel less constrained by rules and I feel like if I can leave the world better in a number of ways either through my amazing children or through the work that I do then I have done God's work. 

And it's much less dependent on whether or not I'm keeping this restrictions of the Sabbath. Although I do try to do that as well. But I feel like that has kind of become less important to me than kind of the overall idea of leaving an imprint on the world that leaves the world in a slightly better place than when I started.

Lee Hale Thanks for listening to Preach. 

If you're interested in learning more about the intersection of Judiasm and sexuality, Bat Sheva hosts a podcast all about it called The Joy of Text,  so check it out. 

This show is a production of KUER and PRX. We have a newsletter which you should read. Sign up at preachpod.org. And check us out on Facebook. 

This show is produced by me Lee Hale along with Tim Slover. 

Tricia Bobeda is our editor. 

And this episode was mixed by Anya Grzesik. 

Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton. 

And our executive producer is Joel Meyer. 

Also, if you're loving the show please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Here's a review from Young Liver Lover. They said they're excited to see how this podcast grows and develops and they got a kick out of the interview with Rainn Wilson. 

Thank you for doing that. It helps a lot. 

Lee Hale (kicker) Feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. Feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. Feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. She's based... (laughs)

 Tricia Bobeda The words turn into gibberish but it's also really funny.

Lee Hale It is funny.

KUER 90.1
Glynn Washington On Leaving A Cult, What Comes Next

The host of Snap Judgment opens up about becoming agnostic and rethinking the role of belief after growing up in an apocalyptic cult. Plus, the parts of your spiritual upbringing stick that with you in unexpected ways. Hosted by Lee Hale. From KUER and PRX.


Show Notes:


Herbert W. Armstrong (archive) Again I say the unthinkable nuclear World War is coming. And sooner than most people expect. Now only in Bible prophecies can we absolutely know what is coming.

Lee Hale From KUER and PRX, this is Preach. I'm Lee Hale. That guy you're hearing was the leader of the Worldwide Church of God.

Announcer (archive) Ladies and gentlemen, Herbert. W. Armstrong.

Lee Hale Armstrong was an evangelical preacher and a kind of multimedia prophet. He had a TV show, a radio show and he even predicted the end of the world. A couple of times.

He is not our guest. Armstrong died in 1986. 

But you can draw a direct line from this self-proclaimed apocalyptic prophet …

Herbert W. Armstrong (archive) But Bible prophecies show that we are now in the very last days of this civilization.

Lee Hale To the only show on public radio that sounds like this ...

Glynn Washington (Snap Judgment clip) OK, so my father he told me early on. See boy, your little white friends, they think life is fun and games.

Lee Hale Glynn Washington, the host of Snap Judgment, is very much alive and he's our guest this week on Preach. Glynn was raised in Herbert W. Armstrong's church. A church that Glynn calls a cult.

Glynn left the Worldwide Church of God a long time ago and now he considers himself agnostic.

Glynn Washington Well man, talk about messy. My beliefs don't make any sense to me. And I've worked on this. I've really worked.

Lee Hale Preach is a show all about that kind of messiness. I talk to people who don't have it all figured out and are willing to say so. And I'm definitely one of those people who does not have it all figured out. 

In fact, after spending years as a religion reporter covering my own church — the Mormon church — I've found myself in a bit of a faith crisis. So as a journalist, I'm approaching the problem the only way I know how to by interviewing people who've gone through something similar. About what they believe. About what they're not so sure about. And how they try to make sense of life's biggest questions. 

I'll talk with Glynn about the beliefs we're raised with, and how they never really leave us. They're in our spiritual DNA, so to speak. 

So, what do you do after leaving an apocalyptic cult? How do you rebuild your beliefs? Can you ever really separate the divine from the damaging religion you're raised in? 

To start off, because cult is such a charged word, I asked Glynn how he defines it.

Glynn Washington Generally for me a cult is an organization that's organized around one single leader, generally, who has the divine truth or speaks with Jesus or God or something like that. The theology is oftentimes built around an apocalypse or end date or something of that nature that's coming up. 

And I think most importantly for me, when I think of cult, a cult is very insular. And that one of the things that you do in a cult is you basically define the other as everything else but those people who are in the organization.

So you might be asked to not talk to your mother, your father, your cousins. Your new family becomes this organization either explicitly or just by the activity level. Put them all together, for me, that's a cult.

Lee Hale I gotta admit I've been a little nervous to talk to you because a lot of people who leave Mormonism will use that word. And as the kid that word was thrown around a lot from outsiders. I did not want to believe that anything I did was culty. 

I guess I would say this way. If, like, being a cult was compared to being vegan, we were definitely vegetarian but not quite vegan, right? I think a lot of what you're saying, like, reminds me of how I was taught to believe about things. But it sounds like with your upbringing in the Worldwide Church of God, that insular-ness was a big part of what gave you the cult vibe, right?

Glynn Washington Yeah. We were cut off and that was purposeful. It was very, very difficult for me to leave behind my grandmother, my grandfather, my extended sort of family situation.

You know, 'Why can't we see Grandma? Well, you know it's not going to really work out right now'. Or because she's celebrating holidays that are of the devil, we can't go see her around the holiday season.

Lee Hale How old were you when your family joined and that had to happen? That separation?

 Glynn Washington That separation happened when I was four or five. For a couple years it would be really extreme and then wouldn't loosen up a little bit then it'd get extreme again. It was always black or white. There was no in-between, compromise, see it both sides sort of situation.

I laugh now because it was a Yoda-ish aspect to it. It's either do or do not. There is no try. (Right) You believed it or you didn't. You went full in or you didn't go in at all. That's kind of how we were.

Lee Hale That was your house like shuttered on Christmas Day and you just stayed away from everything? Like what was that like?

Glynn Washington Yes. Christmas was dead to us and (we) really tried to make it into just another day. T

he same thing with our own birthdays. We weren't allowed to celebrate our birthdays. I remember one birthday my present was some carrots. (Wow) Here's some carrots for you to eat for your birthday.

Lee Hale Do you feel any kinship with people who are raised Jehovah's Witness because it sounds similar to me.

Glynn Washington It is. Jehovah's Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, I think we're probably an extreme bastardized version of both of those organizations.

Lee Hale Did your parents have you in public school?

Glynn Washington Yes, we were in public school.

Lee Hale Were you a weirdo?

Glynn Washington I was an extreme weirdo.

Lee Hale Did you own it? Like were you like proud of it almost?

Glynn Washington No. I mean like no kid wants to be the oddball. (Right.) I couldn't help it. I was a true believer as a youngster. I believed in magical healings and I believed in divine interventions and I believed that our leader Herbert W. Armstrong spoke to God.

Lee Hale I'm curious. There's a verse in Peter — First Peter — that Mormons really love because it talks about how you're chosen generation. You're a peculiar people.

I totally resonate with what you're saying. You don't want to be weird. But I was almost told that when you're weird or different that's validation that you're doing it right. (Amen) That you should be odd you should kind of stick out and stand out and people are going to say what you're doing is foolishness. Was that the kind of message you're getting as well?

Glynn Washington Exactly. And exactly from the same verse. You're not here to make it easy for everybody else. You're not  here to make it easy on yourself. You're here to represent the will of God. And you're gonna stick out and if you don't then there's a problem.

And you know what? I told you I'm as far away from that organization as I can be right now but I believe that. I don't think that is the best thing always to just go along to get along. I emphasize to my kids sometimes you got to stand up. Sometimes you have to take the hard road. Sometimes you know it' s true that you just can't hide in the back.

A lot of those sort of lessons that I reject from whence they came, they are so inculcated into my personality right now. To my actual real belief system. Sometimes I wonder if I've run away as far as I thought I have.

Lee Hale I often think about like spiritual DNA. And like I've had to come to that with Mormonism even though I feel confident still identifying that way. My faith has evolved a lot. And I'm in a weird place right now. I would say weird.

But I've realized, like, I've got to make peace with it because like you're saying these are my glasses, right? This is how I saw the world. And to think that I could throw that out and forget about it. That's just not how it works.

Glynn Washington That's right. You gotta figure out those glasses that you're wearing and figure out what you gonna do with them. Sometimes I'll find myself saying things that I can't justify from a logical perspective.

A funny story — this is just a funny ridiculous story. (Yeah.) When I was going to have a child. I didn't know whether it was a boy or girl. But if it was a boy, I was going to go ahead and take care of the circumcision situation and my wife didn't have to worry about it. (Right) So I found one of my friends he's a rabbi. He's a Moyle. He was so good at circumcision that they said that the babies didn't even wake up. Which is funny to me.

I said look, I know I'm not Jewish or anything like that. But I just wondered if you hook a brother up. And I got like a special dispensation that he would do the circumcision. Right. I'm thrilled I'm over the moon.

And then I go talk to my then wife and I said look it's all taken care of. I got a circumcision covered. She said' what are you talking about, circumcision?'  And I was like, 'well, you know because the Israelites when they crossed the Red Sea'. She said 'what are you talking about the Israelites for?' I'm asking why are we getting the baby circumcised?'

And I'm talking about every single aspect of the Old Testament even though that's not where my religious grounding comes from anymore. And when you don't make sense to yourself? Sometimes you have to ask yourself where are these ideas coming from. And I can only laugh at myself.

Lee Hale Right. If I were to talk to a young Glynn, back then, why were we here on earth? Like what was your answer for that question?

Glynn Washington We were here on Earth to be gods. You're here on earth to keep the god family alive.

Lee Hale To be gods?

Glynn Washington Yes.

Lee Hale That's what Mormons say to you. I've never heard any other faith say that.

Glynn Washington Yeah. We're similar. The Mormons are looking for oftentimes another planet? That you guys are gonna be in charge of. We're very very similar. It was essentially the same.

Lee Hale Wow. Yeah. I mean the idea, like, that you would become a god eventually in the same way God is God. And the joke is that people would say when I make my planet they're going to be mosquitos. Like, I'm gonna do it better.

Glynn Washington Oh yeah. I remember we had our youth camp and at one point our exercise was to describe the land that we would build. The land that we would create. (Wow)

And you know I had this grand tower that went several miles into the sky and it went down through the ocean and you could see the various creatures on every single level through this great glass elevator type of structure and it was stunning and crazy and ridiculous.

And my then best friend in the group, he said well he just wanted a farm. Just a little piece of land with some sheep.

I was like 'Man are you crazy? You can't say that out loud. God might hear. You've got to go big. You've gotta go big. This is sacrilege. I don't know what's wrong with you.

But as much as I screamed and hollered at him, all he wanted was a little 40 acres. A little piece of land. Maybe a truck. That's all he wanted. We almost came to blows over it.

Lee Hale Wow. I hope he's got his back 40 now.

Glynn Washington He might have already found his own little piece of heaven. That's the truth. I don't have my tower. He's probably already living in heaven.

Lee Hale So it felt like that kind of ambition, that Godly ambition, it synced up with you at a young age.

Glynn Washington There was an aspect of revelations that talks about the two witnesses. Revelations is a very, very hard book obviously for people to understand. Wars have been fought over it.

But I thought that, sure, our leader Herbert W. Armstrong, he was definitely one of the two witnesses. But that other spot was free. If I get right with Jesus, if I'd pray properly, maybe who knows maybe that other witness could be me.

Lee Hale I keep talking about myself, but it's crazy the parallels. Because Mormons have 12 apostles. A big part of the church structure is patterned after, you know, what we would say is Christ structure. (Right)

And it doesn't come up a lot but it used to come up when I was growing up that there be these two apostles that were killed preaching the gospel. And I don't know if I ever thought that I would be one of the two that was killed. But for some reason I always had it in my head that I had to be, like, ready to be an apostle. Like that was my trajectory.

And it wasn't until like five years ago, I remember exactly where I was sitting in traffic, where I was just in a really bad almost self-loathing place because I felt like I was not living up to my faith. And I remember saying out loud in my car 'you don't have to be an apostle'. And the amount of relief I felt, like, I feel that relief whenever I think about that moment in my car. (Wow) Because like you, like for some reason I had it in my head that I could do that. Why limit myself, right? If mortal men can be called as apostles of God they can talk to God directly then it should be me. And I didn't realize how deep that had been wedged in (Wow) until not that long ago.

Glynn Washington I don't know that I have an analogous moment except that I know this. The flip side of being a weirdo growing up the way that we did, having people make fun of you and all this other kind of stuff? The flip side of it is that you think that you're special. Y

ou think that you're set apart. You think that God called you for a reason. (Right) And that feeling of being special is, it's a warm feeling. It's a cocoon. It's an armor against a lot of the blows that people deal with in daily life.

And I found, I didn't realize this myself until later, even though I don't believe in the religion I grew up in. Even though that intellectual framework for having that sort of specialness and that armor is gone. Sometimes I still feel special and I don't have any reason for it.

Lee Hale I know exactly what you mean. I mean in some ways it's like the best pep talk in the universe, right? Your calling in life is larger than life. It's bigger than this world. (Yeah)

But it always comes with some dangerous caveats. And I know that like part of what your church taught basically there is this whiteness standard. (Yeah) This race element. When did you start to realize the color my skin might be a problem here?

 Glynn Washington It's not part of the initial sales package to a black family but once you get into it it ends up being a very very deep part of the faith. This idea in the Worldwide Church of God of being pure in your generations.

The founder of our church, Herbert W. Armstrong, claimed -- and I never understood this and I still don't but this was his claim — that somehow he could trace his lineage to the Queen of England and thus back to Jesus and from Jesus back to Noah and from Noah back to Adam. And that this was a pure strain. And by pure, it was a pure white strain.

Lee Hale Were you, as a teenager especially, were you encouraged to have private moments with God to, like, get your own answers? To get your own revelation? Is that a concept that was taught to you?

 Glynn Washington The concept was that you should prove all things. Don't believe anything that we tell you, prove it.

Lee Hale And proving it was exactly what Glenn intended to do.

Glynn Washington That was really the basis of the unraveling of our organization.

Lee Hale Kids in the Worldwide Church of God were told not just to study the Bible but to memorize it. To internalize the meaning of each verse. And young Glynn took that mandate seriously.

Glynn Washington Most people who claim to be Christians have never read the book that their belief is based upon. And they are surprised when you tell them what's in it.

The thing with this is that they prove all things. OK. And then we start taking it seriously, they would say 'well this is in the book'. Well, where is it? I didn't read that. The kids that they raised to memorize the Bible like that and to question the Bible like that end up being the kids who were the most critical and the ones who had the most learned positions on why they left their own faith.

Lee Hale I mean that's kind of empowering, right? You have the answer sheet. Was there a verse or something that stuck out to you that was a seed of doubt for you? Was there something from the Bible you can remember that put you on a trajectory that led you out?

Glynn Washington I wanted to know from whence this book came from. I had been taught that this was, you know, burned and blazed from the Lord on high. And to his credit I asked my then pastor, who wrote the Bible? Where did this book come from?

And he gave me a book and it was called Who Wrote The Bible and I read that book and I read it again and I read it again. And I have never had the same type of belief system since.

Lee Hale Why do you think your pastor gave you that book?

Glynn Washington I have no idea. I'm not sure you read it. I think that he was just like 'let's shut this kid up'.

Lee Hale Wow. Because I mean that puts you on a trajectory, right?

Glynn Washington It did. And I was already probably going on a trajectory. I didn't appreciate the culture of the organization. Interracial dating was strictly forbidden. I wanted to be able to go out with a girl. Hold a girl's hand. Kiss a girl. Stuff like that. (Right) And the area that I was in was almost entirely white. And the older I got the more separate I felt not just from the community at large but within the church itself. I was an other. So I was two kinds of other. (Right.) That was untenable.

Lee Hale When I have friends who reassess their faith especially in Mormonism it's a whole spectrum of how people deal with it. Some people just want it all out. Just gone. Then there's other people who try to navigate, well, maybe I had some authentic experiences with God but maybe I don't like the structure of the church. And I'm just curious about you. Like, you doubting this church. You doubting the Bible. Did you have a strand connected to God still that you could hang onto?

Glynn Washington This is a strand I have that's connected to God. And the reason why I tell you I'm agnostic and not an atheist. I think that there is a mystery that animates everything. I don't know where this universe came from. And I think that the divine from me is in that ignorance and being humble enough to say you know what? I don't get this.

Lee Hale Yeah you're speaking my language.

Glynn Washington When I say I don't know I'm being as honest as I can be. I don't know. The Grand Unified Theory would be a story that makes everything make sense. I don't have that story yet. (Yeah) I'm trying to find it.

Lee Hale Do you ever find yourself praying?

Glynn Washington When my son was sick and I didn't know which way it was gonna go, and my father told me that he was praying for me, I said “do whatever you can.”

I don't know that I prayed myself. But I understood in a different way that when someone tells you that, what that means is I love you. And I don't want to be dismissive of that because I think the love is what matters in the first place.

I think that there is a power to someone's love that does help people. That being able to express that even if it's on the other side of the globe, some people would dismiss that as some magic, hocus pocus, whatever. I think that's power. And I know that I felt that. I felt stronger having him tell me that he was praying for me.

Lee Hale We do blessings of comfort and healing in Mormonism. A man would put their hands on your head and usually it's the father to a child. And as much as I get weird about a lot of what I was raised with there's something that makes me pause with that.

Some of the best experiences in my life where like having my father put his hands on my head and just invoke the powers of heaven to bring me comfort and healing. Something about seems really pure and powerful and comforting, right?

Glynn Washington Yeah. And isn't that what ritual is supposed to do?

You know I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas as I told you. And the first Christmas that I did have, I was going to stay at university. I was going to stay there Christmas holiday because I didn't want to go home. And my buddy is like 'No you're not. You're coming back with me'.

So I went back to his house and we had Christmas meal. And it was wonderful. His family was in a different space than mine was. They were joyful and they loved each other and they were touching. The food was awesome and everything like that.

But they had come from India. And at the top of their Christmas tree was a Ganesha, the elephant headed god.

Lee Hale Oh interesting. Yeah.

Glynn Washington And that was my first Christmas.

Lee Hale It almost sounds like Harry Potter. Where he goes to somebody else's home so they can have a holiday.

Glynn Washington Right. Very much. That's a really great analogy.

But I know now that when I want to invoke that same feeling of joy and family and warmth and welcome? There's a Ganesha on my Christmas tree.

Everyone's gonna have a different experience and they're going to have different ways of channeling their own magic and channeling their own divine. And I just want to make sure that no one's hearing that I'm dismissive of any of it. I think it's all power. I think it's all love.

Lee Hale You know, you're kind of like a secular preacher now with your job.

Glynn Washington It's funny you use that term.

Lee Hale Does it feel like that?

 Glynn Washington Because I thought at the end of it, the only thing I could do would be to become a cult leader. That's the only thing I have of any sort of real background and knowledge of.

But I didn't want to lead anybody's cult. I don't.

And I think that the biggest thing missing right now in the world is empathy. Is getting inside someone else's shoes and understanding their experience. And I really do believe that it is extremely hard to hate someone once you know their story. And so maybe, maybe yeah. A secular preacher.

But there's a magic to story. This is the closest thing that we have to telepathy. And in a lot of ways I learned story on the feet of Masters. These charlatans who were busy with this discredited organization I grew up in. But those tools were real. The power of story was real. And I do want to find a way to take those tools and use them for a positive purpose.

Lee Hale Do you think that God aspiration of your childhood is still there a little bit?

Glynn Washington Yeah.

 Lee Hale In what way does it manifest?

Glynn Washington You know, you said it kind of yourself but the truth of the matter is I did grow up thinking that everyone else was a muggle and that I was Harry Potter. And that just doesn't go away just because the intellectual underpinning of that belief goes away.

Lee Hale It almost feels like a paradox in one sense you're saying ‘I'm special’. On the other side, you're saying empathy is the answer.

 Glynn Washington Yeah. Those things are contradictory but I do hold those two different beliefs in my head at the same time. I would hope that somebody tells all kids that they're special.

Lee Hale Do you tell your kids that?

Glynn Washington I do. I tell them they're knuckleheads. I tell them they're special too.

When I say that there is a purpose for my children? For me? For the world? That there's a judgment that happens? That there's karma in the world? Am I my telling them that's a religion?

Those are religious concepts that I'm telling my kids and I am not a religious person but I still believe those things. I believe they're here for something. I believe that I see the spark of the divine in them. No question about it.

Am I religious because I said that stuff? Maybe.

Lee Hale Maybe. Well, Glynn this has been so fun. Thank you so much. This felt like a sacred time to me.

Glynn Washington Yeah. We need more sacred time. I'm so glad you're doing this show. This is really important work you're doing.

Lee Hale It feels like in some ways like I don't know if I could do anything else right now. Because I'm just like, I'm going through something.

I don't know what's going to happen at the end but I know that egomaniacs like myself like the process in public, right? (laughs) And when I know it's messy for somebody else I feel less crazy. I feel kind of looked after and I feel like I'm on the right path. It's purely selfish is what I'm saying. (laughs) 

Thanks for listening to Preach. You can hear more from Glynn Washington every week on Snap Judgment. 

This show is a production of KUER and PRX. 

If you’d like to be pen pals with me, sign up for our newsletter at preachpod.org And check us out on Facebook. 

This show is produced by me Lee Hale and Tim Slover. 

Tricia Bobeda is our editor. 

This episode was mixed by Ernie Indradat, who also mixed the first episode and we didn’t give him a shoutout. So, sorry Ernie! And thank you.

Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton.

And our executive producer is Joel Meyer. 

Also, I want to say thank you for all the lovely, kind, supportive things you’ve been saying since the show launched last week. It’s been a very exciting week and there’s been lots of love. 

And there’s been some reviews on Apple Podcasts, which we really appreciate because it helps other people find the show. 

For instance, Vhathaway says, ‘I listen to a lot of Catholic podcasts, because I’m Catholic, but I find that I learn a lot about my own faith by listening to others share their own faith story.’

That’s awesome. Thank you for the stars, and the love. If you want to leave a review, do that on Apple Podcasts. It helps us out a lot.

KUER 90.1
Rainn Wilson On His Return to Baha’i And ‘Office’ Binge Watching

On the first episode of Preach, actor Rainn Wilson — best known for his role as the oddly obsessive Dwight Schrute on The Office — opens up about his messy journey to find a religion that felt right.

Image: KUOW | Illustration: Renee Bright

Image: KUOW | Illustration: Renee Bright

Show Notes:


Rainn Wilson Are Mormons all mad at you that you're kind of like in this Mormon crisis and that you're doing this podcast?

Lee Hale Yeah, I don't know. 

Rainn Wilson Oh. Uh oh. 

Lee Hale I'm kind of going public with my own faith crisis as part of this podcast. To be frank with you I don't know what I'm getting myself into.

Rainn Wilson So this podcast is almost like your spiritual therapy. 

Lee Hale Yeah. Is that selfish of me to kind of ask you to be my spiritual therapist?

Rainn Wilson You should be paying me, is what I’m saying. $350,000.

Lee Hale (laughs) We should have figured that out.

Rainn Wilson An hour.

Lee Hale Maybe we should have asked about that before we agreed to this.

You might recognize that voice. That's Rainn Wilson, best known for being Dwight Schrute on The Office.

Dwight Schrute (Clip from The Office) What did I do? I did my job. I slashed benefits to the bone. I saved this company money. Was I too harsh? Maybe. I don’t believe in coddling people. 

Lee Hale I’ll introduce myself too. I'm Lee Hale, and this is the very first episode of Preach — the show where we dive into the messiness of faith. And, just to put this out there, like Rainn suspected, this is kind of personal for me. I'm Mormon. In fact, 10 years ago I was so Mormon I was walking the streets of Minnesota with a white shirt, a tie, and a black nametag going door to door. 

Back then I was pretty confident I had all the answers. These days, a lot less so. 

A while back, I decided to move to Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormonism, to be a journalist reporting on my own church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I gotta say, if you want your faith to remain unshaken, do not do that. Do not cover your own church. 

So, here I am. A religion reporter who has worked myself into a faith crisis. And because I’m a reporter, I’m going to do the only thing I know how to do: Interview people who’ve gone through something similar. People who do not have it all figured out and are willing to say so. People who don’t shy away from life’s biggest questions. And I want you to join me because I think it’s going to be pretty fun. 

From KUER and PRX, this is Preach.

To start things off, I wanted to talk to Rainn Wilson because he's not afraid to get a little existential. And he might be the most famous member of the Baha'i faith. In fact, he has a podcast called the Baha'i Blogcast.

Rainn Wilson (Clip from Baha’i Blogcast) Hello. Baha'i Blogcast fans—the dozens of you. Thank you for tuning in. It's me, Rainn Wilson.

Lee Hale I've been fascinated with Baha'i for a long time. It's roughly the same age as Mormonism so I feel a little camaraderie there. It began in 1863 from the teachings of the Persian prophet Bahá'u'lláh. 

And although Rainn is a dedicated follower now, that wasn't always the case. His parents joined the faith in the 60s when a lot of people were searching for truth and Baha'i offered a kind of open minded approach to God.

Rainn Wilson There were a lot of amazing things about it. The Baha'i faith is very progressive when it comes to race. Seeing ourselves as all one human family. Creating bonds of love and unity between the races, the classes, the creeds, the different nationalities. This was one of the central concepts of the Baha'i faith. So it was a very diverse faith growing up.

There were people from lots of different cultures that I met. And a lot of the teachings of the Baha’i faith were really fun and exciting to grow up in. 

Baha’is believe in all of the world’s faiths and so I grew up learning about Christianity, and about Islam, and about Buddhism and people of other faiths came by the house. So I view that as a really positive thing for a kid.

Lee Hale And Rainn admits that he was kind of a weird kid and he had a lot of big questions.

Rainn Wilson Ever since I was little I've just been interested in the deepest and darkest questions and always found it very odd that people don't want to talk about them. 

You know, like, I remember my cat Tex got hit by a car. And I I saw it on the side of the road and half of its skull was gone and it was already, after a day, it was a cat's body was like merging with the physical reality of the dirt and gravel by the side of the road. And I remember talking to my parents about it, and talking to my friends about, you know, this cat. And I shared my grief. 

And, you know, talked about life and death. When are we going to die? What happens when we die? How do we know if we're going to die? Would we want to know when we're gonna die? 

And people just thought I was the weirdest kid. And I was a pretty weird kid. But it should kind of be the least weird thing to want to talk about why we're alive and the miracle and difficulty of being in a human body and having this life experience. But people don't really want to talk about those things very much.

Lee Hale Well I do. So you're in luck.

Rainn Wilson Except you and me. Except you, and me, and Oprah and a few others. Russell Brand. 

Lee Hale That's a good group, I'll consider myself lucky. I'm like you and I grew up in a household we talked about God a lot. We talked about eternity. We talked about life after death. We talked about the purpose of being here and I wrestled with these things. 

Some of my earliest memories are trying to grapple with: What would eternity look like? What would it feel like? Kind of like one of my trigger points for anxiety is I don't know if I want to exist forever. That was emphasized is a comfort to me as a Mormon kid growing up and I thought, like, is that a good option? Is that what I want? 

Rainn Wilson That's a good question. That's a really good point. It almost sounds like torture, kind of. You know? Even if you're in the most idyllic circumstance. I mean even if you just have like beautiful fruit salads handmade for you by maidens every day and you have a swimming pool and a beautiful view and you're surrounded by friends and family. Like, every day forever for the rest of your life? That's nutty.

Lee Hale So Rainn is not afraid of the big questions. But I had a few pretty basic questions about Baha'i. 

Did you celebrate Christmas?

Rainn Wilson Baha'is don't celebrate Christmas, no. We have our own holy days. We're not like anti-Christmas or anything like that. Like if other people in the family want Christmas trees or do gifts, we would do that. We would kind of have gifts at my grandparents and some of our relatives would have Christmas trees and whatnot. But Baha'i faith has its own set of special holy days.

Lee Hale Would you pray before meals? I'm just kind of imagining kind of a typical religious home. Was that something you would do?

Rainn Wilson So Bahai's don't usually pray before meals. Again we're not like anti praying before meals but like the concept of Grace isn't really a Baha'i thing. But we would pray. Baha'is say what's called the short obligatory prayer. So between noon and sundown, Baha'is all over the world say a very short prayer and that goes: 

I bear witness, oh my God, that thou hast created me to know thee and to worship thee. I testify at this moment to my powerlessness and to thy might, to my poverty and to thy wealth, that there is none other God but thee. The help in peril. The self subsisting.

Lee Hale That’s a beautiful prayer. So you recite that every day?

Rainn Wilson I recite that every day, yes.

Lee Hale There are only a few Baha'i temples in the world. But Rainn happened to grow up right next to one in the suburbs of Chicago. In fact, Rainn used to patrol the grounds as a security guard when he was a teenager. But when he moved to New York City and left that environment, he started to question everything.

Rainn Wilson I left the Baha'i faith and I left anything having to do with God, religion or spirituality when I was about 20 years old or so, 21, and I didn't come back in to it until my mid thirties.

Lee Hale Can we talk about that period because I think I might be in that drought period a little bit right now. Like I'm in an interesting place with my faith where I grew up very religious. I went to BYU, the Mormon college. I served a mission, two year proselytizing mission. 

Over the last few years I don’t feel it like I used to for a number of reasons. Well, there’s been some institutional friction. There’s some historical things that I’ve learned that have troubled me. I think I lack maybe a God hunger like I have in years past. 

It's hard to know what the cocktail of these feelings are but what it's produced is a time in my life where I feel like I am just not faithful like I used to be. And I'm wondering what caused you to kind of lose the spark or at least walk away.

Rainn Wilson Well, it was a number of different things. I had a lot of big issues with my parents and I really had linked to the Baha'i faith to my parents. So kind of rebelling against my parents was also rebelling against the Baha'i faith. I knew it would hurt them. 

I was moving to New York City. This was my dream was to be an artist, bohemian living in Greenwich Village and making art and I didn't want any moral laws over my head. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. 

I had a girlfriend at the time and we were having sex. But premarital sex is frowned upon greatly. So I was having sex with her and I felt really guilty about it and at the same time I wasn't really going to stop. But then I felt like a hypocrite if I was going to Baha'i activities and I was breaking this law. So, that was another existential crisis. 

I was also surrounded by a lot of secular nonbelievers who just thought religion was preposterous and I was very highly influenced by the people around me. So all of those things together I was just like you know what, screw it. I'm done. I just jettisoned all of it. I'm going to kick that can down the road about, you know, whether or not there is a God and I'll deal with that later.

Lee Hale Coming up, Rainn is living in New York and something is missing.

Lee Hale So at this point, Rainn is living in New York City and working as an actor. Now, this is before he made it big on The Office. But still, he was living his dream. But he still couldn't shake this feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

Rainn Wilson I was living in Brooklyn in a beautiful apartment. (Had) a beautiful girlfriend at the time who is now my wife. I was an actor, which was amazing. I wasn't particularly successful, but I had to work a lot of other jobs. But I was an actor I had an agent and I was working in some cool projects. And I had awesome friends. I had a great van—an awesome van. 

But at the same time I was dissatisfied. I was chronically dissatisfied with my life. The kind of dissatisfaction where you wake up at four in the morning and you're like 'Why am I even here? What's going on? What does it all mean?' I had put so much focus into being an actor, becoming a professional actor, training as an actor. 

And then I had arrived and then I was like 'Is this it? I kind of hustle some work and then I go do a cool job and then do a crappy job and then do a cool job and then I'm unemployed for six months and then I do another job. Like, is this all there is?’

And this chronic dissatisfaction just wouldn't leave. It wasn’t depression. I wasn’t, like, depressed. But I just was like, ‘There’s got to be something more!’ and I just kept going back to like, you know, maybe when I jettisoned the Baha'i faith maybe I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

So I started thinking about it and this one question really came up which was: Is there a God? And it seems really basic and people argue about it a lot. But I really didn't know and I needed to find that out for myself.

A life experience is very very different if there is a creator and if there's not a creator. If there's a creator then there's a purpose and who we are is not just our bodies but we continue on in some way after this physical plane. And if there's not, then live a great 70 to 90 years on this planet. Have as much pleasure and meaning and fulfillment as you possibly can and then die. And that's it. And there's no ramifications for anything you do.

So I really needed to dig deeper and so I started exploring other religious faiths and I started reading holy books such as the Bible, and the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita, and the writings of the Buddha. And I went to church and I went to some Buddhist gatherings and went to different Quaker prayer meetings and I just was really exploring what was out there.

And I suppose I was kind of putting it off a little bit but then eventually I decided to re-explore the faith of my childhood. I started reading the books of the Baha'i Faith, several of the key central books that were important history and whatnot. And it wasn't an aha moment. It was not like I was hiking on a mountain top and a ray of sunshine fell on me and I was like ‘yes, I must do it’. It was gradual and I kind of found myself in it. It's like when you go to the ocean and it's cold you can either like dive in or you do like me and kind of like sidle yourself in and the waves splash up against you and then finally they're up to your nipples and then you go 'Okay here I go' and and then you're in. It was more like that. It was a longer, slower process of several years.

Lee Hale Rainn decided: Yes, there is a creator. God is real. And he found his answers by believing wholeheartedly in these Baha'i teachings.

Rainn Wilson The cosmology of the Baha'i Faith made more sense to me than the cosmology of some of the other religions. The idea that God educates humanity through these spiritual teachers that are sent down every five hundred or a thousand years or so. Baha'is call this progressive revelation. And this gradually unfolding faith of God, which is really just one faith, it culminates in the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh as the most recent of these spiritual teachers and I was like ‘I'm in’. I haven't looked back. I've struggled, but I have been fully in since the late 90s.

Lee Hale Your approach back to Baha'i was such a Baha'i approach. You were gathering the wisdom of so many different cultures and it almost seems like that was the perfect conclusion. You're bringing everything to the table and it made sense that, hey, this has been here all along.

Rainn Wilson Yeah exactly. And as a Baha'i I am allowed to love Jesus and Moses and the Buddha and Krishna and Mohammed and Abraham as part of my religious faith. So it just felt the most right for me.

Lee Hale Is this a solo thing? Or what did your partner think of this?

Rainn Wilson Yeah. That's a good question. It was very much a solo thing. In fact I wasn't talking to anybody about it. I mean she knew I was reading these books and I was pondering these questions. She certainly knew that.

But then I went to my wife, you know, who met me when I wasn't a Baha'i. She met me when I was firmly out of the Baha'i faith and, you know, drinking and partying and doing whatever I wanted. And she knew I grew up Baha'i but then I went to her in like '98. And was like ‘Hey, uh, so I'm a Baha'i now. I just wanted you to know’.

And she was like 'Oh, really? Ok well what does that mean exactly? What does that mean for me?' I'm like ‘Nothing. We're all good. We're good. I love you. It's all gonna be great.’

I think it was coming up right at the time of the Baha'i fast. So Baha'is do a fast that is 19 days long and we don't eat from sunup to sundown. So I was going to do the fast and I was like I'm going to fast and this is what it means and I think she was really worried for me. She thought I was pretty cuckoo. And she's like 'Oh, Ok'.

And you know I didn't put any pressure on her. I rarely even invited her to stuff. I just started being a Baha'i. You know, I quit drinking. I started praying. I started dabbling in going to Baha'i meetings. And then I started inviting her to some and she thought it was a little weird at first. And then, you know, (she) got used to it got to know a lot of Baha’is. Again really diverse Baha'is: African-American Baha’is, and Native Indian Baha'is and Persian Baha'is and Hispanic Baha’is. And eventually she had her spiritual moment of faith and she became a Baha'i about 13, 14 years ago.

Lee Hale I hear these stories a lot about you kind of have to come out to your partner and just say this is the path I'm walking. And it sounds like you were very respectful about it. Not having expectations. But it must be nice that you can do this together now.

Rainn Wilson It is. It's really beautiful. It's something we can share. We can pray and meditate together. And the service work that we do is informed by our spiritual beliefs. And when things get rough, you know, it's a place we can go back to. It's really beautiful.

Lee Hale So I couldn't let Rainn go without asking at least one question about The Office, right? But rather than just relive some of Dwight's greatest moments I had a theory I wanted to run past him. 

I think Netflix said that last year people watched 52 billion minutes of The Office. Like it made up three percent of all viewing on Netflix. People consume this show post-production in an intense way. And we hear from Pew about people not being as religious. People aren't praying. People aren't going to church. People aren't reading scripture. And the thought came to me: what is scripture besides stories that we reflect on daily and guide the way we live our life? And I thought, I think that we might be at the point where some people are consuming The Office, these stories, almost at the level of scripture. Almost like modern day parables, right? And you know the characters fit such distinct roles. There's strife and stakes and morality. And I just thought, I wonder, like, if that's kind of the role it plays in some people's lives right now. Almost like this parable, instructive, daily consumption.

Rainn Wilson That’s hysterical. I think there's a lot of truth to that. A lot of the people that watch The Office, when they tell me that they watch it and they kind of like, their eyes get real big with spirals in their eyes and they grab me by the forearm, and they're like 'You don't understand what The Office has meant to me. Like, you don't understand. I've watched it 10 times through and I get up and I watch it when I'm brushing my teeth. And I watch it when I'm going to bed and I wake up and I turn it on and it got me through some really rough times’.

There is something about the family nature of The Office. About these misfit characters but they love each other and they're in this kind of pseudo home family environment that is very soothing to people I think and it brings them great comfort. And there's a love there that's underneath it that I think people really respond to. It's brought a lot of people some real solace in some very difficult times.

Lee Hale Is there's something you rely on in a similar way in your life?

Rainn Wilson I’m just kind of a spirituality junkie. It’s kind of weird because I’m this weird character actor, comedian, but I have this kind of secret life as a spiritual dude. You know, it's prayer and meditation. It's connection with people. It's reading holy writings. It's reading the Buddha. A practice of seeing the world through a spiritual lens. That's my version of The Office. And that's what brings me solace.

Lee Hale I really appreciate you being so honest and open with your story because it is like healing for me. Like, honestly. It's a crazy thing where like the best thing for me to hear when I'm confused or wandering is just to know that somebody else out there has wandered, right?

Rainn Wilson Right.

Lee Hale They have stumbled. And it doesn't mean that I come away and say 'Oh I have the answer' but like I just feel less crazy. I feel like 'Oh that's right. Stumbling is part of it, right?' That is a valuable part.

Rainn Wilson Well, stumbling is part of it. Stumbling is all of it. You know in the Baha'i faith there is that central teaching which is the independent investigation of truth. That we all have the obligation to find the truth for ourselves. We don't inherit the truth of the church. We don't inherit the truth of our parents or our grandparents or our neighbors or the kids at school or the people at work. We don't hear inherit those truths.

We have to find the truth for ourselves and we have to stumble along that path in order to do that. I think that's a spiritual gift from God for this peculiar and beautiful plane of existence that we inhabit.

Lee Hale Amen to that.

Rainn Wilson Amen, brother.

Lee Hale Alright. Thanks for listening to Preach. I've got one more question for Rainn about his first existential crisis, so just stick around for that. If you're curious about Baha'i and you want to learn more, you should listen to Rainn’s podcast. It's called the Baha'i Blogcast.

This show is a production of KUER and PRX. 

We have a newsletter you should check out. Go to preachpod.org. I write it, it’s great, I promise. Check us out on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, we’re everywhere.  

This show is produced by me, Lee Hale and Tim Slover. 

Tricia Bobeda is our editor. 

Chelsea Naughton is our digital producer. 

And Joel Meyer is our executive producer.

Ok. So this is what Rainn told me when I asked him about his first existential crisis.

Rainn Wilson I remember having this book when I was a kid. I was 4 or 5 years old and it was Raggedy Ann and Andy. And I think they were pulling Andy down into the ocean and I remember being very sexually aroused at like a very young age, like 4 or 5. 

But it wasn't really sexual. I mean it wasn't like, you know, in my penis. It was like in my head more. Like, 'Oh my God.' Like, I would love to be pulled into the ocean by these sea nymphs and their gossamer robes. 

And I felt this kind of strange kind of buzzing in my head and longing to be down in the ocean with the sea nymphs. But I also knew that they were pulling him to his doom. So I think that was my first existential crisis that was also a little bit sexual. 

Lee Hale (laughs) I was not expecting that, I must say. I did not expect that Raggedy Ann and sea nymphs to be your answer.

Lee Hale
Preach: A new podcast about the messiness of faith

On Preach, host Lee Hale talks to people of all religions about living in the messy middle when it comes to faith.

Some of them are famous. All of them are fascinating. And you can count on each episode to serve up a frank, fun conversation about how we wrestle with life’s biggest questions. From KUER and PRX.

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