Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next five weeks we’ll be counting down the most read posts of last year. This week, Richard Clark explores Glee’s treatment of faith in its’ landmark episode, Grilled Cheezus.
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.
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 relatedGlee 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.