Losing/finding our religion with Glee

by Kristin on October 13, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Leonski

Jason and I finally got around to watching the “Grilled Cheesus” episode of Glee. (We were a whole week late! Terrible!) If you don’t watch Glee, you might feel a bit confused for a paragraph or two (or, more likely, you’re still stuck on the title, “Grilled Cheesus”). But fear not! This post isn’t really about Glee. It’s about the complexity of this thing we call “faith,” or “personal belief,” and it’s about the importance of existing in that complexity, rather than trying to do away with it.

In the “Grilled Cheesus” episode of Glee, Finn sees the face of Jesus burnt into a grilled cheese sandwich he makes, which sets off a whole series of prayers, so-called “answers” to prayer, and conversations with his glee club friends about faith.

I was excited to see this episode, but I have to admit, I was also pretty nervous. When it comes to the portrayal of faith in popular culture (and even the news), I am always ready for the extremes: “Goody-two-shoes conservative, close-minded, ignorant  Christians,” countered by “smart, hip, educated atheists and agnostics who ‘know better’ than to waste their time on that crap.” There are so many stereotypes and extremes—so many go-to jokes and easy laughs—and so few examples of regular, in-between people just trying to figure it all out.

Beyond the stereotypes is complexity

But Glee managed to portray a relatively balanced cross section of faith and belief (without going over the top). While Finn is struggling to make sense of this new-to-him concept of faith, his friends are also sorting themselves out: Mercedes and Quinn seem steadfast in the Christian faith they were raised in, while Puck and Rachel claim their Jewish heritage, and several of the students don’t seem to know what to think. (“Whenever I pray, I fall asleep,” Brittany says.)

On the other side of the spectrum are Sue and Kurt, who both reveal they are atheists. God must not exist, Kurt says, “Otherwise God is kinda a jerk, isn’t he? Well he makes me gay and then has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose as if someone would choose to be mocked every single day of their life.”

Sue similarly feels there must not be a God, or if there is, he chose to ignore her all those years she prayed he would cure her sister of Down Syndrome. “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an immoral thing to do. It’s cruel,” she says.

The episode ends with a slight shift in the two professed atheists. They don’t change their minds about what they believe, but they do change their positions about prayer being offered by people who love them. Ryan Murphy, the show’s co-creator, said in a TV Guide interview, “”Sue’s an atheist, but I love that she doesn’t want to be. She and [Kurt] are both saying to the world, ‘Prove us wrong: If God is kindness and love, make me believe in God.’”

Giving people room to explore and change

In the end, that’s what I love about this episode, and what I want to take with me: This whole personal exploration of faith doesn’t have to be black and white, or set in stone. We don’t have to draw a line in the sand and make people decide once and for all whether they believe in a God.

We can be like Finn, completely unsure of what we believe and how to express it, trying out prayer and then losing our religion (again) all in the same week.

Or we can be like Mercedes, sure of what we believe and how our beliefs can be expressed in our own life, but also willing to let those beliefs take different shapes in the lives of people we love.

Which brings me to my second main thought: We don’t need to force our position on anyone else to share the same space. We can be sure of what we don’t believe, like Kurt and Sue, and still let someone else’s beliefs be expressed in our lives, as a demonstration of love. If we start by not drawing those lines, then there’s no need to divide our communities with those lines.

The point isn’t figuring out where we are—believer or non-believer—and taking a stand. The point is that we give everyone room to be wherever they are, and room to change their minds.

And the point isn’t just “letting” everyone believe what they want, as long as they keep it to themselves. The point is that we love one another and try to express that love in ways that make sense to us, and feel real—without hurting and shutting people out in the process.

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  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    A beautiful post, Kristin and one that I can really relate to as both a Glee fan and someone who spends a lot of time in that uncertain, “in-between” space. I loved your line about giving everyone room to believe whatever they believe AND the chance to change their minds. I liked that there wasn’t a dramatic change or conversion at the end of the episode, but rather an acknowledgment that maybe there are some other ideas out there worth exploring. As someone who spends a lot of her own time trying to explore and figure things out, I really love the idea of just having the space to do so and not having to define myself in such absolute terms.

  • steph

    Hm. I really like some of your points, including praising the show for validating Finn’s exploration of religion. And I’m glad you posted this, bc it’s continuing to push my thinking on this, but I had a very different reaction. What I found most difficult about watching that episode was that most (all but Puck?) of the characters who expressed their belief in God were also committed to acting according to their beliefs in express violation of Kurt’s wishes. This was about him, his experience, and they made it about themselves. They chose to act in a way that would cause him pain, rather than engage him in conversation, or learn something from him. Kurt ends up being the one who reaches outside his comfort zone at the end, but he’s bullied into doing it, as a bargain for Mercedes’ support. Kurt’s the one who makes room for everyone else, and they don’t seem to return the favor. The message I got was, “you don’t have to believe, but you’re wrong, so we’re going to pray over your dad in your place.” I’d need to watch again to be sure, but I don’t think anyone ever apologizes to Kurt, or expresses any awareness that they did something wrong. It wouldn’t entirely solve my concerns about the episode, but it would have been a great opportunity for understanding on both sides.

  • http://www.bigmama247.com Alise

    While I’ve not watched any other episodes of Glee, I did watch the Grilled Cheesus episode since it was so heavily talked about. And my impression was the same as yours. Very well done. The way those in the church relate to those not in the church has become incredibly important to me in the past year since my husband told me he left the faith. And ultimately, even though we have different reasons for doing what we do, we still want the same things. Justice for people who are oppressed. Children who choose to do the right thing. Fidelity. Love. Forgiveness.

    Going through life together requires us to be flexible. Whether it’s small like a family or big like a society, we still have to get along. I don’t think that means we should hide our beliefs, but certainly it means we can be respectful of the beliefs of others.

  • http://butterfliesinmyhand.com Kool Aid

    I love what you have to say here. I’ve been a big fan of Glee, and I was a bit nervous about how it was all going to play out. I’ve run the gamut of faith “labels” from athiestic to agnostic to believer and I could relate to Sue and Kurt as well as to Quinn and Mercedes.

    However, I do see the comments from Steph as a very valid interpretation of what was going on in the show in regards to ignoring Kurt’s wishes. Either way, it was a fun show to watch and I enjoyed your post about it. But I will say this: I kept waiting for them to sing George Michael’s Faith.

  • Debbe Perry

    Kristin, I have to admit that I cried when I read your post. I’m a baby boomer who’s been on a long and winding faith journey, and the belief that I’m most steadfast in is that, while my journey is all about me, “We don’t need to force our position on anyone else to share the same space” (your beautiful words). If my God made me, and everyone else, perfect, I really don’t need to worry about them, but I do need to concern myself with how I relate to them and that has everything to do with how I feel about myself and my relationship with God.

    Back to Glee: I LOVE the sensitive way that all sides of the one big life issue we all have to face (albeit in different bodies and different places, and different times) are laid out there in terms we call all relate to. As a older viewer, I love that younger viewers are talking about this – in fact almost everyone I KNOW is talking about this!

    Let’s keep the dialogue going! Thank you.

  • sarah louise

    like. (although I’m not a Glee watcher, I loved this post.)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Meredith, I tend to really like people who are comfortable in those “in-between” spaces. :) And I would hate to think that your explorations might be smothered by those who think you should know exactly where you stand. Here’s an example: I get the sense there are many churches out there with a subtle (or not subtle) attitude that says “you can come back and be a part of this after you get your act together.” In my mind, being a part of a church isn’t the “reward” for having the right answer, its a place where a lot of the exploration can happen, alongside others who are also exploring.

    steph, that’s a great point. I did feel uncomfortable when everyone was insisting on praying for Kurt’s dad, against his will, but I also saw it as an expression of love for him—their motivation wasn’t to shove their beliefs down his throat, but rather to love him by trying to help, in a situation that felt really helpless. It’s confusing. There are so many examples in the world of people who take advantage of difficult times in order to promote their cause. We definitely need to be sensitive to it. But we also need to realize that’s not always what’s always going on. I do absolutely agree with this point that you made, though: “Kurt’s the one who makes room for everyone else, and they don’t seem to return the favor.” In their care for Kurt, his friends could have done a lot more to support and validate his feelings and perspective. As I’m writing this, though, I’m realizing something else (and haven’t completely thought it through): To express your faith or belief in something usually involves an action—going to church or temple, praying, lighting candles, etc. Expressing your lack of belief in something is harder to *do*, and much harder to invite others to *do* with you. Kurt went to church with Mercedes; I’m curious—what might Mercedes have done to “return the favor?”

    Alise, I am always glad to meet someone “in the church” who really thinks about the feelings and perceptions of those “those not in the church.” And I really like how you put this: “Going through life together requires us to be flexible. Whether it’s small like a family or big like a society, we still have to get along.” You and your husband, and many other couples/families like yours, are proof that it’s possible to be who you are, believe what you believe, and still share a love that overrides the differences. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible. We don’t have to draw those lines.

  • http://noebie.com/main Noebie

    very nice post

    they did an admirable job with the episode – and i agree that it was more nuanced that what we usually get in pop culture

    i’ve long felt that religion and atheism aren’t as far apart as are certitude and the lack thereof

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    I still have that episode on the DVR, which indicates I am WAY too busy. I’m glad there are no spoilers in your post, Kristin: something like the entire cast boarding Oceanic Flight 815 in the final scene.

    Francis Scheaffer once remarked that non-Christian artists are more likely to ask serious questions than Christian artists, and they are also more likely to carry the answers through to their logical conclusions. The North American church frequently places art in the service of the gospel message, thereby turning art into propaganda. I’m grateful when Hollywood asks real questions, nor will I chide them when I disagree with their answers.

    Great post today!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Kool Aid, it’s interesting to hear from someone who has related to all the labels at various points in their life. While I haven’t ever been fully in the “there is no God” camp, I have definitely experienced some really low “angry at God” moments, and my heart broke for Kurt and Sue, as they explained why they don’t believe. I don’t blame them one bit for coming to that conclusion. (Btw, yes! It’s hard to believe they didn’t do George Michael! I can totally picture the Glee version.)

    Debbe, you expressed this beautifully: “If my God made me, and everyone else, perfect, I really don’t need to worry about them, but I do need to concern myself with how I relate to them….” Yes! I’m so glad people like you are out there, figuring out this faith journey as you go, and sharing it with others.

    sarah louise, thank you! (And now I’m curious—did you “try” Glee and decide it’s not your thing? I definitely can see how/why Glee not everyone’s cup of tea….)

    Noebie, wow, this is so right-on: “i’ve long felt that religion and atheism aren’t as far apart as are certitude and the lack thereof.” Absolutely! I tend to be highly suspicious of anyone who is absolutely certain of anything, on either side of the religious/anti-religious spectrum.

    Ray, I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s a week or more behind the pop culture times (often I’m *years* behind, seeing as how we don’t get any channels on our TV!). It’s interesting, as I wrote this post I was thinking about Francis Schaeffer, but around the topic of belief/doubt, not art (although I really like the art reference you made, too). I spent most of a summer at L’Abri, and really love/respect the approach Schaeffer built into the L’Abri communities: figuring out exactly what our hangups are with God/the idea of God, looking the questions and problem-areas straight in the eye, then digging into them with rigorous intellect and discussion. We could all stand to be less afraid of tackling the serious questions.

  • http://www.coffeestainedclarity.com Bethany

    Reading this post, a memory kept springing to mind of watching “The Big Kahuna” several years ago. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but the gist of it is that an eager Christian blows an important business deal in his zeal to get the client saved, essentially screwing his two coworkers in the process. In the movie, the two co-workers are immoral and jaded and lack the sincerity of their Christian cohort, but when the movie ends, it’s impossible to shake the conviction that they acted more honorably.

    I felt guilty about my gut reaction to the movie for a long time, but in journeying through those in-between spaces, I’ve become much more comfortable in my absolute distaste for proselytizing. I saw hints of it in the Glee episode (I felt that Mercedes was particularly pushy), but I appreciated how the characters eventually came to accept each other in all their different flavors of spirituality.

    I think you put it perfectly: “We don’t need to force our position on anyone else to share the same space… The point is that we love one another and try to express that love in ways that make sense to us, and feel real—without hurting and shutting people out in the process.”

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Bethany, I haven’t seen “The Big Kahuna,” but it sounds very thought-provoking—thanks for bringing it up. I can really relate to your experience with this: “…in journeying through those in-between spaces, I’ve become much more comfortable in my absolute distaste for proselytizing.” It’s just so hard to find that balance. Many Christians I know, who have a strong distaste for proselytizing, end up almost never saying anything at all about their beliefs. We overcompensate, to make up for all of the Christians who are over-doing it on the other end of the spectrum. In the process, though, we’re doing nothing to shift the stereotypes, and we’re not being true to our beliefs, and how those beliefs inform our lives. Maybe we’ll never figure out that balance, but I think it’s important that we keep trying.

  • http://www.emergingmummy.com Sarah@EmergingMummy

    I loved this episode for all of the reasons you pointed out. Thanks for the insights.

  • http://twitter.com/Pastor4you Chris Johnson

    I really liked when Kurt was sitting in Mercedes church and the woman sitting next to him grabs his hand. I nearly cried it was so beautiful to see the hand of Christ reaching out to the seemingly “unclean” Samaritan and not just patting him but grabbing hold and not letting go! Wow. I am sure I read a lot more in than the writer/director had in mind