Nathan Jacobs spent seven years as a college philosophy professor, and now combines art, culture and film as a writer, film director and storyteller. He is the writer-director of the first film on America's religiously unaffiliated, and the first ever North American Orthodox feature film, Becoming Truly Human.
He is also writer-director of the college comedy, Killing Poe, starring Matt Bush (The Goldbergs), Osric Chau (Supernatural), Julianna Guill (The Girlfriends Guide to Divorce), Sunkrish Bala (Castle), and Cyrina Fiallo (Good Luck Charlie).
We spoke with Nathan about his latest project, the power of understanding and how he brings his faith to his art.
DIFW: Tell us about your current work life. What has your work journey been like? Why is your work important to you?
I started in fine arts and dabbled in film, but art was always my primary interest. I was drawn to art because of big theological questions like "Does God exist?" and "What happens when I die?" Because of those questions, I began to study philosophy and theology and became an academic. I left art school to get a degree in philosophy instead. I got my PhD in historical theology. But all the way through my PhD studies, I would have identified as religiously unaffiliated.
Somewhere in that journey is where film and ideas converged for me. I was somebody who had a deep theological and philosophical side, but had always identified as an artist. Film brought together the academic and artistic, allowing me to reconcile those two sides of myself.
My faith journey was one of crisis. I journeyed away from the faith I grew up in, then became a ‘none,’ and after years of study and struggle, I discovered what would be my faith ‘home’ in eastern orthodoxy. That discovery was my PhD studies, but it would be nearly a decade before I actually became eastern orthodoxy. That story comes through in the film.
DIFW: How did your latest film — 'Becoming Truly Human' — evolve?
Even though my previous film was not philosophical or theological, the Eastern Orthodox church came to me and asked me to consider doing something that would speak to this issue of religiously unaffiliation. There was a committee of folks trying to figure out this growing trend of ‘nones’ and how to speak to them.
At the heart of the movie is the feedback we got when we polled 'nones' — or the religiously unaffiliated. Most of them identify as spiritual, but they have theological problems with the faith they were raised in (baptist, catholic, or whatever) and don't know how to reconcile those problems with their present spirituality. The majority of folks want something deeper than what they were raised to believe. They don't know what that something deeper is, but they're looking for something to resonate with them.
I chose to offer up my story in the movie because it offers a long view of the journey of a 'none.' The story ends with me being very devoutly religious, but not in the tradition I was raised in.
The goal of the movie is to humanize the 'nones.' These are people with real stories who have real questions. They are on a journey that presently leaves them unaffiliated with any religion, but is that who they are? What happens if we extend out their story another decade or so? It was an honor to capture an honest portrait of the faith journeys of these individuals.
DIFW: How has your faith has informed your career journey?
All of my work and education was driven by a desire to understand the world and understand myself. In the context of teaching, there is the urgency to convey that to students who are on their own journeys looking for guidance. In that sense, faith very obviously informed my teaching career — as well as in my research and writing.
Film was not as obvious. I did film on the side as an expression of creativity. I saw that as tied to me as an image of God — it is communal and creative, like God is.
Yet, "Becoming Truly Human" changed everything about how I look at my film making. It was the first time that all the things I am converged — spiritually, artistically, academically. It feels like a culmination of my journey of faith, partially because my own story is woven into the film so closely, but also because the film offers a unique combination of wrestling with big questions, while engaging faith and culture through cinema and storytelling. The fact that such a project came to me feels very providential. There’s no way I could have orchestrated that.
DIFW: What are main takeaways that you would like people to draw from the film?
First, I hope that people see that 'nones' are more than just data. The portraits done in the film are intentionally filmed face-to-face, so you can look these people in the eye. I hope that the story humanizes them and invites people into their real experiences, stories and questions.
Second, I hope people understand why many 'nones' grapple with faith. There is a challenge with many 'nones' saying that something they were taught about faith as a child didn't make sense to them. Some even say that there are things about Western Christianity that are deal-breakers for them. I hope that those tensions invite people to be part of an honest conversation about how the religious affiliated engage 'nones' around those tough topics.
Finally, I hope viewers see that engaging ‘nones’ may require more listening than talking. Traditional Christian apologists or evangelists and atheists are in many ways cut from similar cloth. Their approach to questions is highly analytic. They offer arguments — point and counterpoint. 'Nones,' on the other hand, are open to alternative ways of thinking. They are curious about aesthetics and poetry, and what beauty tells us about the world. We could all learn from them and their openness. Such interests create ample room for wonderful conversations about religion. They just aren’t the conversations that your traditional apologist or evangelist is accustomed to having. Figuring out what that new conversation sounds like requires a good deal of listening. “Becoming Truly Human” is a good place to start.
“Becoming Truly Human” is available to rent or purchase on iTunes. If you are interested in setting up a screening for your church or group, visit theatricast.com.
Laura Bernero is our blog curator, overseeing both internal content and contributions from our amazing network of writers. She loves all things creative communications, acting on the belief that we all resonate with great narrative and connect to one another through story. In addition to her role at DIFW, she manages media storytelling campaigns at SE2, a Denver-based communications agency. She was 5280 Fellow in the inaugural 2016-17 class and can’t wait to see the program continue to empower leaders throughout Denver in their unique gifts and callings.