“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”
If you have even a surface-level knowledge of comedian, actor, writer and all- around provocateur Russell Brand, this is a shocking statement.
Though in recent years he’s become more and more vocal about social justice issues, for much of his career, Brand has been known for his uniquely raunchy brand of shock comedy (This is the guy who once brought his drug dealer to work with him when he was an MTV VJ.).
He continues: “When stripped of the cultural inflection of the time when it was first written and is variously being translated, there is an undeniable truth.”
Yes, Russell Brand, that Russell Brand, believes the world needs Jesus’ message now more than ever. It’s something he thinks a lot about.
Brand feels the world is profoundly broken. Technology, pop culture and social media have accelerated the worst impulses of human nature, and, in his view, never has there been a time in history that humanity has more desperately needed the message of Jesus.
“There’s a famous quote: ‘Every man who knocks on a brothel door, he’s looking for God,’” he says. “Crack houses and these dens of suffering and illicit activity, they’re all people trying to feel good, trying to feel connected. People are trying to escape. People are trying to get out of their own heads. To me, this is a spiritual impetus.”
This is at the core of why he believes the message of Jesus Christ is so important right now: Humanity is (metaphorically), knocking on a brothel door, in that they are looking for fulfillment in things that will only leave them empty. And because instant, but quickly fleeting, gratification is always at our fingertips—Amazon Prime, Instagram likes, pornography, text messages and other modern trappings—we have become addicted.
And addiction is something Brand knows a lot about.
In his new book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, Brand not only further delves into his own struggles with addictions to drugs, sex, alcohol, food and fame, but also how he’s found a pathway to healing.
Recently, this journey has taken a surprising turn.
Brand now feels the answer to breaking out of this vicious cycle—not just as an individual struggling to get clean from drugs, but as a culture—is a spiritual one. It’s one he thinks can be found in Jesus.
A CHARACTER WE ALL KNOW
For many Americans, their first introduction to the comedy stylings of Russell Brand was the 2008 hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In the film—and subsequent spinoff Get Him to the Greek—Brand plays a famous, constantly philosophizing British rock star known for dating a famous American celebrity and going sober after years of drug-fueled antics. In other words, there’s a lot of similarities to the real-life Brand, who was famously married to pop star Katy Perry for about two years in 2009.
But before becoming an American movie star, Brand was a well-known celebrity in the U.K., famous for his controversial stand-up comedy, being an MTV VJ, serving as the host of the reality show Big Brother’s Big Mouth, hosting his own radio and TV talk shows and acting in various popular series.
He was also known for struggling with drug addiction, often in extremely public fashion. He’d become a fixture of British tabloids, and in his darkest moments, would even cut himself.
In the years since Brand has gotten clean, he has written openly about his troubled upbringing and becoming addicted to alcohol, hard drugs and sex. Fifteen years ago, he decided something in his life needed to change.
Already having been arrested a dozen times for drug-related incidents, Brand was caught shooting up heroin in the bathroom during an office Christmas party by his agent, who knew that Brand’s life was now legitimately at risk.
After an intervention orchestrated by his agent, Brand embraced recovery—not just as a means of getting clean, but as a way of seeing the world. The experience radically changed him, and he’s since become an advocate for what’s known as the 12-step program, an addiction recovery method based largely on Christian principles that is centered on a reliance on a higher power, self-reflection and forgiveness.
The program transformed Brand’s life. And in the years since he discovered it, Brand began to see everything through the lens of the 12 steps.
“I’ve been in recovery from drugs and alcohol for 14 and a half years,” he explains. “The longer I’ve been clean from drugs and alcohol, the more I’ve noticed that [our] own addiction—and perhaps addiction in general—is affecting our behavior in ways that we wouldn’t previously have assumed.”
A SOBER VIEW OF THINGS
The 12-step program takes time, because ultimately, it isn’t about changing behavior, it’s about changing oneself. The first three steps are based on the ability to recognize the depths of our own circumstances and to begin to understand how we can free ourselves from them.
“We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable,” as he paraphrases the 12-steps in the book. “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Brand explains the steps in more modern—more profane—terms, essentially, getting “unf***ed up.”
The program caused him to think about the powerlessness people have over their addictions if they refuse to recognize the depths of their own brokenness—even if the addictions aren’t drugs or substances.
“Everything we do can be colored by this unconscious belief that we can make ourselves feel better with external stuff, be it behavior or chemicals,” he says. “So what I’ve kind of come across mentally is that either we are working an unconscious program or a conscious program. So if we’re not consciously running a program, we’re running on the unconscious program of our past and of our culture. That’s what I wanted to understand an alternative to.”
Essentially, Brand believes that instant-gratification culture has led to a culture of addicts, and the 12 steps—which include things like “humbly [asking] God to remove our shortcomings,” “making a list of all persons we had harmed and [being] willing to make amends to them all” and “… [seeking] to improve our conscious contact with God as we [have] understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out—can help free people.”
However, when he was first introduced to the program—by an atheist, ironically—he had one problem: all of the religious talk.
He was known as a bohemian cultural figure with a taste for dirty jokes, and the whole “God” thing didn’t seem natural. So, instead of becoming traditionally “religious,” he changed how he thought about religion.
“My understanding of what religion means altered,” he explains. “Because when I think about the aim, the purpose of religion, I think it becomes—when you put aside the social institutions that spring up around religions in all their strains and various forms of strands—I believe that the purpose of religion is love and connection, to feel connected to one another and to feel at ease with who we are … a kind of oneness, a kind of wholeness. So, as I began to understand that, this sort of superficial language of religion seemed less relevant.”
It took a while, but after stripping away the “superficial language of religion,” Brand decided to connect with the higher power at the root of the 12 steps. Brand became fascinated with spirituality as a way of escaping the pull of physical vices, and his struggles with addiction—and their root causes—framed his way of viewing faith.
“My route to spirituality comes through addiction, so it comes from desperation and fear and this sort of defeat, destruction, annihilation of self in a very humiliating way, I suppose,” he explains. “So, I had no choice but to embrace spiritual life, but now I am grateful for this. It makes sense of my life.”
Brand realized that cultivating a spiritual life could help free himself from the strongholds of addictions by treating the root causes of the pain he’d attempted to dull with drugs. And being raised in the U.K.—a traditionally Christian country—he turned to the Christianity. He began implementing spiritual practices every day.
“Because I come from a Christian culture, a lot of the language of prayer that I use is Christian,” he explains. “I say the Lord’s Prayer every day. I try to connect to what those words mean. I connect to what the Father means. I connect to what wholeness means to me. I think about the relationship between forgiveness and being forgiven and the impossibility of redemption until you are willing to forgive and let go.”
The practice of embracing spirituality, prayer and digging into the teachings of Christ has helped keep him on the path to personal recovery. But while discovering his own unique spiritual path, he also uncovered a message that could be the key to transforming culture.
RECOVERING THE WORLD
Brand says reciting the Lord’s Prayer made him start thinking about what Jesus really meant by the words. One phrase in particular began to jump out at him: “Thy kingdom come … on Earth as it is in Heaven.” What does that idea mean for a world crippled by addiction to superficial fulfillment?
“I think continually about what Christ meant by the afterlife,” he explains. “And for me, it’s that when you are disavowed of the illusion that the material will fulfill you, you enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is spread upon the Earth.”
He references Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 who asks, “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” Brand says, referencing Christ’s response, “Give away all your possessions and follow me—that’s a pretty radical thing.”
Brand says the reason why this idea is so radical is because it strikes at the core of the values so many people secretly hold: that money and materialism can cure our unhappiness. “I think the reason that the economic arguments Christ offered are not promoted is because they are deeply at odds with the way we live,” he explains.
Instead of focusing on unhealthy patterns centered on self-fulfillment, the message of the Gospel offers an alternative: caring for others and helping those in need.
“I’ve seen in many formats now—because I’ve played out the same pattern many times—the attachment to physical things, physical behaviors or people, will never make me happy,” he explains. “But service of others and values that are certainly found in Christianity will make me feel peace or make me feel happy. It’s a lesson that’s very hard to learn.”
The reason he says the lesson is hard to learn is because even when people are free from drugs and alcohol, there’s always the pull of a society focused on self-gratification instead of selflessness. That struggle—consistently questioning our attachment to material things instead of eternal ones—is the tension of a journey to actual recovery.
“I question what would happen,” he says. “‘Russell, if you had the strength of character to give up everything and just live in the service of love? Would you?’ I sort of rationalize why I don’t do that. I don’t have to. I can’t. I’ve got a wife and a child and live in a capitalistic society and would just be vulnerable and exposed and torn up by reality. But no, of course, the spiritual perspective is, ‘No, you would be carried there by grace.’”
Brand frequently interjects that he’s “not a theologian,” and, at times, has trouble remembering specific Scripture references or using typical “Christian” language. But after studying religions and writings from across the philosophical spectrum, the teachings of Jesus have helped him understand modern cultural addictions—and how to free ourselves from them—in much deeper ways.
One of these ways is, in his words, seeking “Christ consciousness”—a concept that Paul refers to as, and many Christians would call, achieving “the mind of Christ.” Essentially, becoming more Christ-like ourselves.
“If Christ consciousness is not accessible to us, then what is the point of the story of Jesus, you know?” he asks rhetorically. “He’s just a sort of a scriptural rock star, just an icon. Unless Christ is right here, right now, in your heart, in your consciousness, then what is Christ?”
To Brand, this is key to not only changing a person struggling with addictions, but also to recovering a culture. It must be a spiritual change; a change of values.
“I do think a spiritual and transcendent change is required for people to be free from addiction,” he says. “And by spiritual change, I mean the transition from one’s life being predicated on self-fulfillment to a life predicated on service, which for me is a moment-to-moment struggle.”
Fifteen years ago, Brand embraced sobriety and started a journey to learn about why he sought relief through drugs, sex, alcohol and fame. Today, he sees a world that suffers from the same addictions on a cultural level.
And after exploring faith, the teachings of Jesus have led to a revelation: The Kingdom of God can be ushered in on Earth, but only if we free ourselves from all of the trappings that distract us from it—the same ones Jesus Himself warned us about.
For Brand, attempting to do that is what recovery is all about. It may seem like a difficult task, but perhaps his most profound revelation is that it is not something that should be attempted alone. A higher power is here to help.
When asked about taking the first step to recovery, Brand, a man who has thought about recovery every day for more than a decade, offers this advice for those wanting to get clean spiritually and physically: “Admit you have a problem. Believe it’s possible to change, and ask Him for help. Invite Him in … Capital H’s, of course.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.