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Glee and God

2011 January 24

I started watching Glee a few weeks ago, and thanks to the show’s catchy songs and slightly cheesy high school plots, I’ve discovered what much of the country has: that Glee is completely addictive. I knew I had to write about the show after watching the episode “Grilled Cheesus” [0], which several articles extolled for the way in which the questions of religion, were handled. Sadly, though, “Grilled Cheesus” is not theologically exciting.  While “Grilled Cheesus” + “pluralism” turned up a lot of hits in Google, the episode touches on little more than high school atheism, Protestant Christianity, and Judaism.  Aside from the Sikh woman that Finn accuses of being a Muslim, the episode doesn’t stray from the comfort-zone of Middle America’s religion.[1]  For those of you who haven’t seen the show, or the episode, beware there are spoilers ahead.

The episode begins with Finn – football star and glee club male lead, a renaissance man if there ever was one – making a grilled cheese on his George Foreman grill. He lifts the lid and lo’ and behold, the titular “Grilled Cheesus” – grill marks forming the perfect image of Jesus – is revealed.  Stunned, Finn decides to pray for the first time.  He prays for what most teenage quarterbacks probably pray for, to win the first football game of the season – in exchange for honoring Jesus in glee club that week.  Aside from the awkwardness of his “coming out” as a Jesus freak, Finn’s revelation has repercussions to the other students. Rachel and Puck, New Directions’ Jewish bloc, are uncomfortable about the Jesus-centric spirituality [2], but that’s nothing compared to Kurt’s reaction:

Finn: I know there’s others in here who dig him too, so I thought this week, we could  pay tribute to Him. In music.  You know, pay tribute to Jesus.
Kurt: Sorry, but if I wanted to sing about Jesus I’d go to church, and the reason I don’t go to church is because most churches don’t think very much of gay people. Or women. Or science.

It’s a glib answer, but often true, particularly in a religiously conservative area of the country–just see some of my other posts. Later in the episode, after his father’s heart attack, Mercedes sings “I Look to You” about turning to Jesus in dark times, Kurt confesses his atheism:

Kurt: Thank you Mercedes, your voice is stunning, but I don’t believe in God.
Tina: Wait, what?
Kurt: You’ve all professed your beliefs, I’m just stating mine.  I think God is kind of like Santa Claus for adults. Otherwise God’s kind of a jerk, isn’t he?  I mean, he makes me gay, and then he 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.  And right now I don’t want a heavenly father; I want my real one back.
Mercedes: Look Kurt, how do you know for sure? I mean, you can’t prove that there’s no God.
Kurt: You can’t prove that there isn’t a magic teapot floating around the dark side of the moon with a dwarf inside of it that reads romance novels and shoots lightning out of its boobs, but it seems pretty unlikely doesn’t it?

I admire Kurt’s strong atheism and his choice of a teapot on the dark side of the moon for his god-like analogy; in high school I probably would have retorted, “Well how do you know there is one?”  Kurt doesn’t believe in God because he sees no proof for God’s existence.  Quinn cries out, “We shouldn’t be talking about this! It isn’t right!” because she can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t believe in God, since her faith helped her through her pregnancy (and as fallen captain of the cheerleading squad and president of the celibacy club, you have to hold on to something).  She’s adamant that you can’t defame God, or pretend the divine is a teapot or an evil dwarf.  While he takes everything in stride, even attending Mercedes’ church in his “fabulous hat,” Kurt’s admission of his own atheism to his friends hurts and alienates him from the group.

One of the popular ways to look at religious pluralism is through the lens of Pascal’s Wager.  In general terms, Pascal states in his Pensees that it’s better to believe in God than not believe in God (whether God exists or not) because you have nothing to lose by believing and leading your life accordingly.  Typically, pluralists extend that argument to say that since there are a lot of different religions, so statistically one of them should be right.  Of course followers of a given religion think that their choice is correct –which turns into Karl Rahner’s inclusive pluralism of every0ne’s religion looking a little like yours.

Atheism is often left out of the inclusivism argument. Rarely does an inclusivist see an atheist as following a valid path, which only emphasizes Kurt’s liminality more.  Midway through the episode, Rachel sings “Papa Can You Hear Me,” which, thanks to Glee’s tendency to jump scenes mid-song, she finishes in the hospital alongside the comatose Burt Hummel, Kurt’s father, and then says “Who’s next?” just as Kurt walks in.

Kurt: What’s going on in here?
Rachel: We’re just praying for your Dad.
Mercedes: Rachel, Quinn, and I are taking turns. We’re from different denominations and religions so we figured one of us is bound to be right.
Kurt: I didn’t ask you to do this.

But is one of them right? Especially in light of Kurt’s earliest anti-religion argument about gays, women, and science? Kurt is furious that his friends decide to pray for his father, because he doesn’t believe that prayer works. As the episode closes, Kurt apologizes to his still comatose father for stopping his friends: “I’m sorry about the other day Dad.  I should have let those guys pray for you. It wasn’t about me, it was about you, and it was nice.” While it’s sweet and heartfelt, it doesn’t reflect well on the religious that the atheist turns to their side even though the religious students never really come to understand Kurt’s atheism.[3] The pluralistic extension of Pascal’s Wager limits the validity of atheism. Kurt finishes talking to his father by saying, “I don’t believe in God, Dad, but I believe in you,” a hard thing for a teenager to say.

It sets me on edge that most people still refer to God in the masculine, as they do throughout the entire episode. Years of feminist theology and growing up in a liberal church make me extraordinarily aware when someone refers to “Him” and even more so when referring to “Him” as “Papa” or “Daddy.” I don’t think we need to change the term to thealogy, as some feminists argued, nor am I as extreme in insisting that God could be a woman. But theological language is a powerful tool: when you use He, or Father, it may humanize God and make God relatable (and solves the problem of repetitive sound of God as noun and pronoun), but it limits the spiritual imagination. It constricts God to male and relegates women to secondary, whether consciously or not. It’s rare, outside of Dogma, for the possibility of a gender neutral or feminine divine in popular culture. Rachel’s rendition of “Papa Can You Hear Me,” while beautifully sung, enforces God’s gender. Finn talks about Jesus in the beginning of the episode as the new man in his life.[4] When Mercedes and Quinn talk about God, they do so with the implicit understanding that God IS their father, and therefore God is male. Not one character in the show, even Kurt, refers to God gender neutral.

There are, of course, more issues “Grilled Cheesus” covers. First Amendment rights and prayer in schools, for example.  Sue Sylvester, the cheerleading coach and mostly-villain for the show is also an atheist, and stands up for Kurt. She spends most episodes doing anything to bring down the glee club and have her Cheerios funding restored, but when it comes to issues that are important for her she becomes human again. She brings to Principal Figgins’ attention that the kids are singing about God. Figgins, a member of a local Christian church, thinks the kids should have a right to believe whatever they want to believe. And according to the First Amendment, that right is protected, but as Sue points out that  doesn’t mean they can pray in school or sing about Jesus whenever they want without regards to others’ beliefs.

I enjoyed this episode as much as I’ve enjoyed other episodes–most of which I haven’t, and won’t, analyze to death because I’d like to continue to watch the show. Kurt’s version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is incredible, as is Rachel’s song.[5] I love that it ends with Finn eating his Grilled Cheesus, realizing that if there is more to life, it’s not in a grilled cheese sandwich. I am impressed with the manner that the writers did pull of an episode about religion that was very well received. But I’m still disappointed with the lack of depth the show brought outside of Christianity and Judaism. It addresses religious tolerance clumsily, and yes, I expect more. It doesn’t take us outside of the comfort realm of middle America, unless you count atheism as outside, and when it branches out to other world religions, it uses inaccurate cliches. Come on Glee, give me some real religion!


[0] Season 2, episode 3.

[1] My knowledge of Sikhism is more limited than my knowledge of Hinduism or Islam, but I’ve never heard of a Sikh practicing acupuncture. Unless I’m missing a cultural joke, when the Sikh woman shows up in a turban with a case of Chinese needles and is accused of being a Muslim I was a little offended.  From my understanding, Sikh women do traditionally cover their hair for modesty, but not with turbans (the men do). And while I don’t think there is necessarily anything in Sikhism that forbids acupuncture, I find it an unlikely combination.   Above all, the cliche of confusing a Muslim and a Sikh because of the turban needs to die and not be brought up again and again by the media.

[2] Puck says “Oh, I’m a total Jew for Jesus” but does so in a sarcastic manner and finds spiritual enlightenment primarily in making out with new girls. Later in the episode, Rachel confronts Finn about wanting to raise her future kids Jewish and he better be okay with that if in 10 years he wants to be their father.  (To which he nods and says, sure they should go to Jew church.)

[3] Mercedes says at the church service, “I know you don’t believe in God. I know you don’t believe in the power of prayer, and that’s ok; to each his own. But you’ve gotta believe in something. Something more than you can touch taste or see, because life is too hard to go through alone…without something that’s sacred”  She says it with all the conviction of a church-goer who wants you to listen to them that you can’t go through life alone.  We used to have an argument with one of our graduate school professors about atheism and religion and comfort.  He used to say that as times get harder, everyone starts to turn towards religion. He didn’t think that meant that everyone turned to God, but as a Jew, he thought it meant everyone turns to the comfort of ritual and structure within religion. I still don’t think that professor is right, but his point is valid that to those who do believe in something, ritual provides comfort (to the Glee kids, that means singing your feelings).  What it doesn’t mean though, is that everyone has to turn towards God or something spiritual.

[4] I have different issues with talking about Jesus as the “man in your life” as if it could be a romantic relationship, but I do at least agree with the gendering of Christ. I won’t get into it further, because the Bride of Christ mysticism (for nuns and monks) is a rich topic.  It always makes me think of Christ like Krishna, gallivanting with gopis (not that most Christians know the story of Krishna). There are more subtleties to a mystical relationship with the divine that pop-culture religion simply ignores as it brings Christ to the masses.

[5] My boyfriend and I have been singing along with the episode every time we’ve watched it! Which I think is now up to six, since I’ve been writing about it.

One Response
  1. Andrea Greco permalink
    February 24, 2011

    Meg, this made me think of you:

    It’s also a great site in general.

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