Every year, the Kennedy Center Honors are handed out and this often creates, in my opinion, some of the most interesting Beltway journalism about the arts and culture.
The point, of course, is that these honors are given to truly transcendent artists, those who have helped shape American life or who somehow symbolize essential trends in our times (as defined, of course, by the principalities and powers behind the honors process).
The Washington Post features team, as you would expect, rolls out massive, deeply researched stories about these artists. This brings me to the long, long feature that ran the other day about actor Tom Hanks, who is about as likely a Kennedy Center honoree as anyone who has ever lived.
The big theme in this piece is that people respect Hanks as a thinker, as an artist and as a man, yet they also know that he has kept his private life in the shadows. The bottom line: It's just hard to find out what makes this guy tick. Here is the crucial passage:
Poke around. Ask other actors. Google at will. There’s not much you can find on Hanks. No storming off sets. No DWIs. No errant tweets. He did once extend his middle finger to the paparazzi after being stalked at lunch, but he has never pulled an Alec Baldwin.
In person, he is warm, thoughtful and funny. ... Just don’t mistake that warmth for accessibility. Tom Hanks, the public figure, has rehearsed his lines as well as Tom Hanks, the actor. Long ago, he built a wall between his personal and professional lives. No magazine cover is worth scaling it. Over the years, the few snippy comments the genial Hanks has made to interviewers have come when others have tried to intrude.
“If people don’t know the real me or know what my life’s about, that’s good, because I don’t want them to,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993.
All well and good. Hanks has been a rather private man, but not all THAT private. He has been asked some interesting questions and he has answered them. He also has a very interesting, articulate and talented wife -- actress Rita Wilson -- and she has, on her own terms I am sure, had a few things to say. In short, any kind of Google work by a reporter open to asking about Hanks and religion will hit the following passage in a famous piece by Wilson entitled "The Joys Of Greek Easter," which originally ran, believe it or not, in The Washington Post. This is long, I know, but interesting:
We will arrive at church at around 11 pm, when it starts, and listen to the chanter as he chants in preparation for the service. My kids, dressed in their suits and having been awakened form a deep sleep to come to church, groggily sit and wait holding their candles with red cup wax catchers.
As the service progresses, the moment we have all been waiting for approaches. All the lights in the church are turned off. It is pitch black. It is dead quiet. The priest takes one candle and lights his one candle from the one remaining lit altar candle which represents the light of Christ's love (I believe). From this one candle, the priest approaches the congregation and using his one candle he shares his light with a few people in the front pews. They in turn share their light with the people next to them and behind them. In quiet solemnity, we wait until the entire church is lit with only the light of candles; the light that has been created by one small flame has now created a room of shared light. And at a moment that can only be described as glorious, the priest cries out, "Xristos Anesti!" ("Christ is Risen!") We respond with "Alithos Anesti!" ("Truly, He is Risen!") We sing our rejoiceful Xristos Anesti song with the choir.
That moment, which happens about an hour, to an hour and half into the service and seems as if the service is over, actually marks the beginning of the service. The service then continues for another hour and a half. When I was a kid, after the service was over, we would go to the Anastasi Dinner, the church would throw in the church hall, where we would break our fast, drink Cokes at 2:30 in the morning, dance to a raucous Greek band, and not go home until our stomachs were full of lamb, eggs, Koulouraki, and we saw the sun rise. Or was it the Son Rise? But usually now, after Midnight Mass, we drive home with our still lit candles.I always love seeing the looks on people's faces as they pull up to our car seeing a family with lit candles calmly moving at 65 MPH down the highway.
When we get home, we crack eggs, eat cookies, drink hot chocolate ( so not Greek), and I burn a cross into our doorways with the carbon from the candle smoke to bless our house for the year. There have been many times when painters touching up the house have wondered why there was this strange black cross burned into our doorways.
What's my point?
Well, for starters, I am not -- as an Eastern Orthodox layman -- trying to argue that I think Hanks is a highly conventional Orthodox believer. He has talked about his faith in ways that are quite explicit, but not all that Orthodox, with a small "o" or a large "O." I have no way of knowing the specifics of his beliefs and practice (nor should that matter to journalists, quite frankly, in a story of this kind).
And yes, there is the whole "The Da Vinci Code" thing. However, during the press events for "Angels & Demons) I actually had a chance to ask Hanks a faith-related question or two, leading to the following in an "On Religion" column.
Note, by the way, the information about the rather unique and complex role of religion in the actor's upbringing, which can be found with a simple Google search.
"This is true," noted Hanks, whose complex family history included doses of Catholicism, Mormonism, the Church of the Nazarene and several years as a Bible-toting evangelical teen-ager. "The church does feed the poor. It does take care of the hungry. It heals the sick. I think that the grace of God seems to be not only in the eye of the believer, but also in the hands of the believer."
These days, he said, he still ponders the big questions, while raising a family with his Greek Orthodox wife, actress Rita Wilson. Miracles are everywhere in daily life, he said, and it's the "mystery of it all" that continues to haunt him.
"I must say that when I go to church -- and I do go to church -- I ponder the mystery," he said. "I meditate on the, 'why?' of 'Why people are as they are,' and 'Why bad things happen to good people,' and 'Why good things happen to bad people.' ... The mystery is what I think is, almost, the grand unifying theory of all mankind."
Does Hanks know that the word "Mysteries" -- with a big "M" -- is at the heart of all Orthodox Christian discussions of faith and theology? I think that is a safe assumption. Does he know that he can use the word "mystery" in a secular forum and few reporters will know that? Maybe.
So what is my point? Am I arguing that the Post needed to devote a large chunk of its Kennedy Center Honors feature on Hanks to the role that Christian faith does or does not play in the actor's life and career?
Well, if part of the point of the story is that this complex man -- often hailed for his moral convictions and character -- has kept essential parts of his life quite closeted, I think it might have been interesting to ask why. That might include at least a few sentences about his family and his faith.
Think about it. You see, the contents of his mind and his soul might have SOMETHING to do with his art.
Perhaps there is a reason that he keeps some parts of his life private, yet not all that private. I mean, what kind of Hollywood superstar burns crosses into the frames of his doorways?
IMAGE: The famous Russian poster featuring Tom Hanks describing why he is an Orthodox Christian.