Glee's "Grilled Cheesus": Is Religion Beyond Reason?

The writers behind Glee understand that faith and spirituality is a deeply profound and personal concept. They understand that each person struggles with questions of faith and that those questions must not be trivialized or stifled. They get that many of us find a need to pray to a higher power, to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and to devote our lives to something great. That’s why they thought long and hard about a storyline to open up the episode with and provide a context for such a conversation. That’s why they decided to open with Finn, praying to his “super-delicious” lord, Grilled Cheezus.

Wait, what?

Glee has always dealt with hard or controversial subjects with a certain amount of irreverence. If the show is guilty of anything, it’s giving deathly serious subjects a slight air of triviality, though they might argue (wrongly) that such an approach is perhaps the only way to speak to the current generation of teenagers. Either way, this has been Glee‘s voice and it’s made for a fascinating and entertaining show. Even if we may not be coming to the table with the same assumptions as Glee, we can appreciate the show for its fairness and frankness. While the rest of popular culture either refuses to acknowledge the typical teenage taboos, or normalizes them to an embarrassing degree, Glee has the guts to question them and wrestle with them. Whether the discussion focuses on sex, teenage pregnancy, self-image, disability or relationships with parents, each side of the issue is given a fair voice, even if the show does often come out on one side or another of an issue.

For the most part, faith is given a similar treatment in this episode. As is usual for a hot-topic related Glee episode, each member of New Directions is leveraged to present their own distinct opinion about the subject at hand. The two extremes are represented in Kurt’s staunch atheism and Finn’s blind faith. In between, we are treated to cursory expressions of agnosticism, Judaism and Christianity. Quinn expresses her thanks for God bringing her through a pregnancy, while Santana mocks her thanksgiving. Puck expresses frustration at Finn’s using Jesus’ name to cramp everyone’s style. The teacher expresses nothing and merely facilitates, perhaps a wise response when such a discussion breaks out in a public school setting.

This all sounds perfectly fair, and for the most part it is. Still, as the episode progresses, the question of what one believes becomes far less important than the question of why one believes it. When we hear from Sue in this episode, it’s clear that her reasons for sharing in Kurt’s atheism stem from a place of both compassion and reason. First, God doesn’t make sense. And if he did, why doesn’t he heal her mentally challenged sister? Kurt expresses frustration that, if God exists he “makes me gay and then has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose.” Quinn, one of the Christians, can’t handle it: “We shouldn’t be talking about this. It’s not right!”

The telling thing about the episode is that while Sue and Kurt have the opportunity to share why they believe what they believe, the rest of the cast come across as blindly dogmatic. Even Finn, who had the benefit of seeing a sign from God on his grilled cheese, could claim to have more reason for faith than the rest of the characters. So why do these people believe in God? Glee offers the answer by way of Mercedes, in a stirring speech to Kurt:

I know you don’t believe in God. You don’t believe in the power of prayer, and that’s okay. To each his own. But you’ve got to believe in something. Something more than you can touch, taste or see. Cause life’s too hard to go at it alone, without something to hold on to, and without something that’s sacred.

And there we have Christianity framed as a coping mechanism or crutch rather than anything close to a reasoned response to the world around us. It’s not so much that it makes sense of the world. According to Glee, it’s that faith of any sort allows us cope with the harsh realities we face every day as human beings. Jesus Christ is just one of many things we can cling to in this endeavor. Nothing more, nothing less.

Kurt agrees, but finds that something to be his Dad, whose heart-attack forms the emotional core of the episode. It’s this event, not finding Jesus’ face on a grilled cheese sandwich, that the show demonstrates to be the real instigator of religious and spiritual thought. For Kurt, it confirms his belief in his dad and his disbelief in God.

So yes, Glee truly does understand that many of us have a deeply personal need to devote ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. The only thing they don’t understand is that for most true Christians, belief isn’t a luxury. It often makes things harder, more troubling, and more disturbing. We don’t believe it because it comforts us. We believe it because it rings true. Does it often seem as if God has betrayed us? Yes. But more often, I feel as if I’ve betrayed God. I am deeply in tune with how awful I am, and how deep my need for salvation truly is. And when I look out into the world, I don’t see a meaningless nothing as much as I see a world in need of saving, with no hope except for the only One that makes any real sense to me.

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  • I agree with most of what you wrote here, Richard. It was pretty much what I expected, but I was still a little disappointed with Glee’s “Just believe something to help you get by” message.

    It’s interesting that you read Sue’s response as reason and compassion for Kurt. I can see the compassion, maybe – she understands where Kurt is coming from. But I see her reaction coming more from a place of hurt than anything else. She feels like God let her down when she was young and praying for her sister. She feels like, if God is real, then he doesn’t care about her or her sister.

  • Well, I didn’t mean that she was showing compassion for Kurt, as much as her sister. So I basically agree with you. Mainly she showed solidarity with Kurt for personal reasons.

  • I haven’t watched Glee yet — due more to lack of time than of interest — but your description above reminds me of some of the conclusions reached by the movie Saved. Specifically, that it doesn’t really matter what you believe so long as you believe in something.

  • Well said, More often than not it is we who have betrayed God. Quiet an interesting post. Thank you!

    When you have a minute please stop by for some Coffee with Jesus


  • matt

    Is there a more dangerous idea than the idea that some type of spirituality is good for you (like vitamin C or flossing)? Jesus becomes a flavor.

  • I had a very similar reading of this episode. The religious perspectives were so vague and unsupported, I wish they wouldn’t talk about it at all instead of give it such a cursory nod. The singing in the church is a great example, why set a song in church and then sing “bridge over troubled water” — something you could include in any episode — instead of a legit gospel song?

    I’ve been in conversations like Mercedes had, trying to comfort an atheist friend faced with trauma. I never say what she said. I say something like this: I know you don’t believe in Jesus, but I do. And I’m going to pray for you because I believe it means something.

  • Melody

    I love Glee. More so because of the character development and the musical numbers than Ryan Murphy’s desire to prove that he has the most inclusive, thought-provoking show on primetime. I appreciate their willingness to have a ‘religious’ episode, but like every other major issue Glee tries to bring to the table to show that their content has depth, it fails ultimately to stereotypes. Of course, the Christian and Jewish characters are there to force their faith down Kurt’s throat because they simply cannot believe he’s an atheist, instead of trying to understand. Quinn, of course, is the close-minded Christian who covers her ears and goes ‘LALALALA’ whenever someone disagrees with her beliefs. And of course, Sue takes the NO RELIGION EVER stance as the mean scary atheist trying to shut New Directions down. Why couldn’t any of the Christian characters been supportive, despite his stance on God, from the beginning? Yeah, what Kurt said about God was blasphemy and very alarming, but he’s freaking out about possibly being an orphan. If there is anytime to set your own feelings aside for a friend in need – that’s one of them! As they showed later in the episode, just because you believe different things that doesn’t have to stop you from praying for them, caring about them, being a shoulder to cry on, etc. Mercedes was slightly different in that she accepted that he doesn’t believe in God, but didn’t let that stop her from being his friend.

    I read another blog that recapped the episode that the church scene came off as the most stereotypical thing Glee has ever done, but I was thrilled that they actually showed a black church with real black people in it. I agree with Bethany, the song though was a little ‘eh’ compared to the other things Mercedes could have sang. Then again, this is network TV and they’d probably already reached their quota for the number of times they could say the ‘J-word’ without getting sued.

    I was so pleased with Finn, though! Finn was, dare I say, the most realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be young and to believe in something so strongly, you don’t even question it. You just roll with it cause it feels so awesome to have that “special connection” with something greater than yourself, as he told Emma (who’s response to his Jesus is talking to me in a sandwich confession was all kinds of inappropriate). Was it ridiculous to me? Very. But I laughed more than I should have. I sympathized for him though and was sad to see his lost faith at the end. Oh and his singing ‘Losing My Religion’? So awful lol.