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:


Transcript:

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