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The Gospel According to Glee

12 October 2010

I have more conflicted feelings about Glee than anything else I watch. I try so hard to remember the admonition from the pilot’s first frame, that Glee “is sheer joy”. But it’s a challenge. It’s groaning from the weight of it’s burgeoning cast list, leaving the most compelling players to simply disappear from the screen for a week or so at a time, while everyone else merely gets a spotlight so short they can’t help but be a walking stereotype. The writing is a train wreck every other week, leading to episodes like the atrocious Britney Spears marathon that made me want to go eat the closest unprofessionally-prepared blowfish. And then Sue Sylvester will say something about elves coming out of Will’s hair, and I’ll forget all that.

Nonetheless, Glee’s track record when it comes to discussions of power and difference is, at best, mixed. Tongue-in-cheek though it may be, the consistent milking of stereotypes is tough to take, and even it’s most powerful moments often wind up backfiring rather spectacularly. So you’ll have to forgive my initial reticence about Glee‘s stab at a serious religious discussion in its latest episode, “Grilled Cheesus”.  If you missed it, the episode swings on Finn’s religious awakening, spurred on by a George Forman Grill-induced, Christ-shaped burn on a grilled-cheese sandwich. By sheer coincidence, Kurt’s father suffers a massive heart attack, setting up a conflict between Kurt’s cynical, reasoned atheism, and the well-intentioned-though-ill-defined theism of, well, just about everyone else over their attempts to pray for Kurt’s father.

I haven’t exactly been in-the-loop when it comes to television for going on five years now, but I can’t remember another such genuine attempt to give serious credence to atheism in a popular setting. Kurt had more than ample room to refute the argument from un-falsifiability espoused by Mercedes, even if his dwarf in a teapot analogy lacked the elegance of Sagan’s original. And I was blown away by the shocking choice of the writers to give Sue Sylvester some principled ground to stand on for once:

This might actually be as far beyond a stereotype that Glee has ever gone, and treated it’s characters–especially its stock antagonists–as having depth and values beyond being selfish imbeciles. In fact, the writers respect their creations so much that they offered no “come to Cheesus” moments for Sue and Kurt. Moments in which they decide to be accommodating/not outright hostile to their friends, sure, but there’s no indication that either of them have changed their stance where deities are concerned. I judged this episode–as I do all of them, really–by the extent to which it complicates an important discourse. And when it comes to questions of theism and theodicy, that will never happen so long as our culture conceives atheists as being malevolent hedonists. In that light, by the time Finn finally finished the damned sandwich, I was a rather happy Glee viewer.

But this episode nagged at me as I let it percolate. For all the depth and conviction it gave Kurt and Sue, it still fell back on the tired caricature of atheism as bereft of hope or wonder, the result of humanity in a juicy marinate of despair, cynicism, and arrogance. Kurt explains pretty clearly that the death of his mother in early childhood created the “Santa Claus or jerk” dichotomy, while for Sue it was watching the cruel treatment her developmentally disabled sister suffered from her peers. We’re led to believe, ultimately, that had some different cards been dealt, and their character arcs written to be a little less woebegone, both would have gone waltzed through life with their belief in the numinous mercifully untouched. Theism (though let’s be honest, neither Puck or Rachel did much with their Jewish identity to draw us away from the Jesus vs. Kurt debate) is treated as the original state, while atheism is an aberration, the result of being nudged off the original path by an avalanche of suffering.

I can see why the script went this direction, too.  As a friend pointed out, it does cast our resident atheists in sympathetic positions, instead of, say, some teacher who just happened to have strong ethical boundaries on this topic. Atheism isn’t presented as a sinisterplot by Feminist, Obama-voting, Massachusetts residents to corrupt the youth of Lima, Ohio, which is a step. But presenting it only as the product of overpowering pain hints that behind respect for that position lurks the hope that someday, enough healing can take place to put everything right again. That is to say, atheists are really just Christians, looking for a reason to believe again. Is that true of some atheists? Sure.  But portraying it as monolithically true omits the principle, carefully-reasoned philosophy, and yes, spirituality that can inhabit even the most fervent of dis-belief.

I know there are more than a few atheists out there like Sue and Kurt.  But maybe my friends have just been particularly fortunate, because I’ve never met any.  I have, though, been close with many an atheist for whom the idea of God just never added up, who never needed codes of behavior to be presented ad verecundiam, or who has seen just a few too many historical examples of theodicy in action. These are the voices that “Grilled Cheesus” so desperately needed to make it worth the effort.  Why not turn to Quinn, who spent most of Season 1 seeing the ugly side of the Church, for some insight? Or have someone like Tina or Artie weigh in on the subject with a bit more nuance?

“Grilled Cheesus” was a step forward for religious dialogue only insofar as it substituted one dumbed-down conception of atheist thought for a considerably kinder variant. This Christian will take kindness and tolerance where he can get it, but the thing about straw-men is that no person’s love–or argument–is strengthened by dealing with them. Maybe I’m asking too much of Glee, I know, but I’d love it if Emma’s observation about “big questions” being big for everyone had been backed up by others being pushed outside their comfort zones instead of retreating into them , and then being angry when others don’t as well. At the very least, we should be able to get past this simplistic notion of atheism as an excursion from the path to the Kingdom. That is to be ignorant of both the secular and the Christian reality. No matter which path one chooses, it is guaranteed to be winding, and bounded by wilderness.  How one defines the ever-present hinterland is unimportant; the fact that all of us have stood there, once, twice, and again, is.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 October 2010 4:42 pm

    This is, almost word for word, what I said to everyone in my life with whom I discuss Glee. (Which, I will admit, is an alarmingly high number.) It was also much more gracefully stated than I could have managed. Thank you, Hal, for (as always) being a reasoned and ever-eloquent voice.

  2. Leah permalink
    12 October 2010 11:21 pm

    That is an eloquent commentary, and it pulls out much of what I felt while watching the episode and also finds insight that I missed. I have to say that I ended the episode still upset about how the atheists were portrayed as having lost their faith, and that the implication was that they would be better off spiritually and emotionally if they accepted a belief in God back into their lives. Digging into the details shows that they never actually express that wish themselves, but it was the first impression I took from the show before I thought more about it, and I think that many viewers will get to that level and stop with that message.
    I also found the show remarkably one-sided in that the atheists come to tolerate their religious friends’ beliefs, but the friends still try to push their religion on the atheists and that is deemed acceptable. In one respect this shows the atheists in a more enlightened position, but there is no effort by the authority figures (Mr. Shue in particular) to stop the proselytizing.
    I was particularly mortified when Emma was giving counsel about how everybody wrestles with big questions and went on to say that everyone finds their own connection to God. That was a completely inappropriate remark from a public school counselor. She should have referred Finn to a religious figure for advice.
    It was also frustrating to me that, while everyone was shocked that Kurt didn’t believe in God, I don’t remember anyone telling him that he would go to Hell. Maybe that isn’t something that the Glee kids would say because they’re close to each other and, after all, they’ve accepted that he’s gay, but it’s something I heard all the time growing up and it seems like the perfect opportunity for one of the scenes by the lockers with the football bullies.

    There was some good music, but the subject was way too big for the show, in my opinion.

  3. 14 October 2010 7:17 am

    Hi Hal! I haven’t seen you in forever! I could leave something deep or complimentary on here… but I think this is sufficient for the time being 🙂

    I just today stumbled upon this thing via facebook… bravo!

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