Rethinking Youth Ministry
The Gospel according to "Glee"?
Does high school musical sitcom "Glee" go out of its way to be hostile to Christianity? Some may think so, given the matter-of-fact treatment in so many episodes of teen drinking, drug use, sex, pregnancy, and its acceptance of same-gendered relationships. As a progressive Christian and fan of the show, even I wonder at times if they are pushing the envelope a bit too far. I've often commented that I'm not sure younger teens should be watching the show. It is, after all, an exaggerated, satirical look at how adults view adolescence. I'd be a little worried if some middle-schooler watching the series sits there thinking, "Oh, so that's what high school is going to be like!"
Several episodes have dealt with the issue of faith (most famously the season two episode "Grilled Cheezus"), but most often the Christian characters are depicted as either hypocrites or espousing a sort of "believe whatever you want but believe something" sort of attitude. In fact, the writers depict the few nominally Christian characters as perfect examples of moralistic therapeutic deism—an understanding of the Christian faith that maintains that God is only important to life when we need something from "him" and faith is ultimately only necessary to the degree to which it helps us live happily and achieve our personal goals. All of this to say that "Glee's" depiction of Christianity up to now has been somewhat realistic perhaps, but definitely not flattering.
Then comes along the February 14 episode "Heart." It's Valentine's Day and the McKinley High Christian club, the God Squad, has decided to raise money by performing singing telegrams throughout the school. Meanwhile, girlfriends Brittany and Santana are called into the principal's office for a minor public display of affection in the hallway. When Santana argues that straight students kiss in the hallways all the time, the principal admits to the double standard but says he's responding to complaints from several conservative students. Unwilling to let this injustice stand, Santana pays The God Squad to perform a singing love letter to her girlfriend.
But will they do it? Everyone seems to be on board except the newest God Squad member, Joe Hart. He's just not sure it's the right thing to do. But by the end of the episode, Joe has prayed over the question and concludes they will sing for Santana because "Love is love." This turn of the plot came to me as a bit of a surprise. I'm used to seeing conservative and evangelical Christian values depicted on TV and in films. But for once here was someone espousing the inclusive justice-oriented values of progressive Christianity. I wonder if any of the teen audience that night figured this was just some pie-in-the-sky "Glee" plot twist or if they understood that there really are Christians who would agree with Joe's realization that compassionate love is more important than the constant debate over what people do in their bedrooms.
Recent polls would indicate that "Glee's" live-and-let-live attitude toward sexual politics and religion are in line with much of the population in the United States. Attitudes in this country continue to shift toward greater inclusion of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. Gallup polls in 2011 show that, for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalizing gay marriage. The United States military has done away with its policy of "don't ask, don't tell," and the Defense of Marriage Act looks to be the next piece to fall in the wall that has long kept LGBT persons at arm's length in U.S. culture.
Additionally, polls of persons under the age of 30 show that the majority support greater inclusion of LGBT persons. These findings echo those indicating that many young people (including teens who identify as Christian) view the church negatively because of its seemingly hostile attitude toward persons of minority sexual orientations. Relatedly, recent studies by The Barna Group indicate that youth who had once been active in church but are no longer often point to the church's overly simplistic or judgmental view of sexuality as a main reason for their disconnect.
These changes suggest a cultural (if not theological) shift amongst youth that will represent a real and perhaps painful struggle for many in both mainline and conservative churches who do not believe that openness on the issue of sexuality is compatible with the Christian faith. However, it would seem clear that the church risks irrelevance if we fail to engage in honest and open dialogue with youth on these issues. In a way, the Gospel according to "Glee" simply mirrors the movement of Christian youth in this country away from seeing religion as a set of strict moral rules (do's and don'ts) that separate people and toward a dynamic faith centered in justice, inclusion, and a way of celebrating the dignity and worth of all God's people. If this is the wave of the future for Christianity in the United States, I imagine that more groups like "Glee's" God Squad will find themselves perfectly at home within our country's progressive congregations.
Rev. Brian Kirk is an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves an inner-city church in St. Louis, Missouri. He also teaches as adjunct faculty at Eden Theological Seminary, and co-writes the blog rethinkingyouthministry.com.