Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Glee: Grilled Cheesus

I've written on Glee before, but I cannot pass this up:

Last week's episode was "religious": theme-wise AND results-wise.

And it all begins with a grilled cheese sandwich...

Finn sees the face of Jesus in his lunch, prepared on a George Forman grill. He is moved to prayer, thinking God is speaking to him. Finn asks for help in winning our first football game. In return, promises to try and get the Glee club to "go Jesus" in song.

Lo and behold, they win.

Finn, under the belief that "Grilled Cheesus" has answered his prayers, testifies in front of the Glee club, insisting that they should sing about Jesus and faith: surprising all and shocking some. The reaction is mixed: some like the idea, others are wary. Mr. Shue suggests that they go with a "spiritual" theme for the week, to the apparent uneasiness of Rachel and Kurt.

We quickly learn that Rachel's worry is self-centered: in her clearly developed picture of her life, she sees her kids (with Finn, of course) raised Jewish (A plot device that leads Finn to further trust in Grilled Cheesus).

Meanwhile, Kurt's father has a heart attack, and lies in a coma in the hospital.

With the best of intentions, the members of the Glee club reach out to share their faith and prayers for Kurt.

Kurt, while appreciating the gesture, makes it clear that he doesn't want their prayers: he doesn't believe in God.

Kurt simply and powerfully states that he doesn't see the need to believe in a God that first makes him gay, and then subject to ridicule and rejection by God's followers.

Kurt continues to push away his friends as they attempt to do what they can for Kurt and his father: expressing their faith, and hope for healing.

There has been some criticism how the "atheistic characters" in television are tortured souls or generally unhappy people (in Glee's case, Kurt, who is gay, and evil Sue). I can see the point, but I would suggest that Kurt is, in actual, a rather stable person (well, as far as a gay teen can be in our current society....) He's not miserable in general. He accepts who he is, and has friends who do as well. Sure, being a high schooler is dramatic, and with his father's sudden illness, we see him in crisis: but it's not do to his atheism.

Sue, on the other hand, is a tortured soul (or at least a soul who likes to torture others...). Her move to help Kurt stop the Glee club from singing about religion, however, is not her typical pettiness, but a serious aversion to praying for "good things to happen". She represents the other side of the pray to get mentality. This is actually the same kind of faith as Finn, who gets what he wishes from praying to Grilled Cheesus, and thus becomes vocal and adamantly pro-God.

People often yearn for religious certainty (and simplicity). Sue decided long ago that there is no God because she prayed to God to cure her older sister, which did not happen. So God must be a joke and not exist.

This is a candy machine mentality to our relationship with God. We put our money in the slot, press the button, and expect the results to appear below. A good result, we have our proof that God is good, and give praise to God who must have answered our prayers. No results (or bad results), we either explain it away (God must have a greater purpose) or reject it (there is no God, because if there was, God would not allow this to happen).

Sue reconsiders her position after talking with her sister: realizing that, at the very least, faith is a little more complicated than she was willing to admit.

Finn also reaches this point when his third prayer to Grilled Cheesus goes horribly wrong: getting to be quarterback again, but only after the starting QB gets his collar bone broken on a play Finn suggests. With great guilt, he goes to Counselor Emma to confess "what he's done." Emma convinces him that his "wishes" were things that were rather likely to happen, and that God is not really talking to him through an image of Jesus in a sandwich. Finn sees the truth in this, but professes that he liked the idea of God talking to him, and he now feels very alone. Emma wisely suggests that he has company in this: that this is an eternal human struggle. Finn singing REM's "Losing My Religion" really brings this home.

Kurt finally goes with Mercedes to church: not because he is seeking God, but because Mercedes is his best friend, and he trusts her. She seeks not to convert him, but to express her hope for him (and share the strength of her community) in the midst of tragedy. The results are lovely: Kurt remains atheistic, but understands Merecedes point of the need for human beings to believe in more than themselves (in Kurt's case: believing in the relationship between him and his father, and seeing it as sacred, which reflects back to their opening conversation in the show.) It is beautifully done.

The overall point of this episode is that real religion is not professing certainty, but engaging the questions of who we are and how the world works. The questioning of who we are, the things that happen to us in our lives, and the way we make sense of it all (individually and community) are worthwhile endeavors: whether we end up Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, or Atheistic (all mentioned in this episode). Making room to hear where others are strengthens our common humanity, and ultimately leads us to see beyond our individual selves. The "sacred" becomes where our lives intersect with others: embodied in the ensemble version of Joan Osborne's "One of Us", and the wonderfully delivered closing dialogue between Mr. Shue and Sue.


Kimberly Winston said...

I also watched that episode -not so closeted "Glee" freak that I am - and I was not so struck by the vending machine God angle as I was by the whole Kurt story. In previous episodes, I have always admired the way the writers have handled this young, out, gay teen and the problems he's had at school and home. I have found it an excellent "witness," if you will, to how difficult a road young LGBT people have. In this episode, tho, I thought they went too far, hitting us over the head with the idea that one of the reasons Kurt does not believe in God is because so many religious people have hurt and shunned him. I thought their approach was so heavy-handed, it undermined the real religious message of the show - that God loves us all just as we are - gay, straight and otherwise - because He made us. What did you think?

Kurt said...


Thanks for your comments!

If we’re honest, Kurt’s perception of Christianity is more likely to be negative than positive, growing up in small town Ohio, UNLESS he was specifically part of a community that was open and affirming. I find Kurt’s position authentic.

It’s worth noting that Kurt doesn’t say, “so many religious people have hurt and shunned me personally.” What he says is that his perceptions/assumptions of religion are 1) that God makes and does everything for a reason, and 2) that religious people condemn gay people. I think it's fair to say that Christianity often gets presented in this way, especially in the mainstream media.

One of the things that comes loud and clear in this episode is that, before Finn’s Grilled Cheesus moment, these kids know little about each other’s faith, with two exceptions: Rachel & Puck’s Jewish ethnicity, and Quinn’s ultra-conservative Jesus background (which we saw last season from time with her family). It is assumed that the religion of others is either something “in your face”, is something private, or a cultural thing that isn’t all that important. (Consider everyone’s surprised reaction to Puck’s valuing words on spirituality before his song.)

Why is this the case? Well, people assume “moderates” in religion are just that: only moderately engaged in faith. And, too often, those who ascribe to more open version of a particular religion are less likely to talk about it, except in a moment of crisis, like a sudden illness.

By the end of the episode, the two assumptions have been challenged (that God makes and does everything for a reason, and that Christians condemn gay people). The show clearly shows religious people with integrity, and points to the reality that religion is much more complicated and multifaceted that many people realize.

It should come as no surprise that I agree with you “that God loves us all just as we are - gay, straight and otherwise - because God made us”. However, I think that it’s a stretch to suggest that this is the “real religious message of the show.” The show does not offer a specific vision of God, but instead (in my opinion, rightly) suggests that our understanding of the nature of God is unsettled (What if God was one of us?).

Kate Anne said...

Wow -- beautifully written and I love your response to Kimberly's comment.

My daughter demanded I start watching Glee and now I'm caught up in the episodes and hooked. It rather bothered me that Kurt was atheistic though I am one of the first to say God calls us all to be various faith and or non-faith traditions and it is all good, part of the plan. We grow and sometimes we are called to something else. One wonders what Kurt (and he does seem so real) will be like in a few years. Peace hugs to you and yours.