Bubblegum Pop and Pop Religion

The series on immorality is still ongoing, and the next post will go up this evening.  But now for something completely different…

Last night, the pop juggernaut/variety show/karaoke hour that is the TV show Glee decided get religion.  If you don’t follow the show, the title of the episode “Grilled Cheesus” may give you a hint about the taste level of the show.

In brief, one of the students makes a grilled cheese sandwich that appears to be imprinted with the face of Jesus.   He takes up prayer and tries to express gratitude for his sandwich’s wish-granting powers by leading his show choir team in songs about religion.  This leads him into conflict with Kurt, another student in show choir who is gay, an atheist, and whose father is in an aneurysm-induced coma for most of the episode.

Atheists in the blogosphere have already registered some complaints about the episode, and I share a number of them.  Personally, I don’t think much of the Problem of Evil as a justification for atheism, so I was frustrated that it seemed to be a large part of the rationale behind some of the character’s beliefs.  Although there was a good dialogue between a Christian teacher and the atheist cheerleading coach, it’s awkward to place one of the best defenses of atheism and secularism in the mouth of the undisputed villain of the show.  Worst of all for me as a civil libertarian, was the way that the show blatantly misrepresented the church/state divide as being much more restrictive and unreasonable than it is in actuality.

I’m inclined to say that people of faith have more to complain about than I do, however.  If the atheism presented on Glee was standoffish and cold, the Christianity was so empty as to be completely uncompelling.  Richard Beck’s post yesterday on “Mortalistic Therapeutic Deism” pegged the empty religion of the Glee characters perfectly.  Christian Smith outlines the basic creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers:

This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about obtaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people…It is thus no wonder that so many religious and nonreligious teenagers are so positive about religion, for the faith many of them have in mind effectively helps to achieve a primary goal: to feel good and happy about oneself and one’s life.

This is precisely the empty, self-indulgent spirituality that the Glee students urge Kurt to accept.  Although Kurt mentions that a great deal of Christianity would not be welcoming to him as an out gay man, his friends reject the idea that Christianity would ever ask people to sacrifice for the sake of their faith.  There’s no implication that any religion could ask anything more than being generally decent, and the kids seem to believe that a reasonable religion certainly wouldn’t conflict with our modern understanding of morality. One student says:

“What I don’t like seeing is people using [Jesus] to cramp everyone’s style.  It seems to me that true spirituality, or whatever you want to call it, is about enjoying the life you’ve been given.”

This type of religion disgusts me.  It fuses the secular values that most of us subscribe to with the certainty of religion, making them unquestionable and dangerous.  It elevates a placid happiness as the greatest good, placing it above virtue and right action.  No matter how off-putting the atheism presented in Glee was, it is certainly superior to the cotton-swaddling God presented by the other students.

Hulu only keeps videos up for ~5 weeks, so if you’re coming to this post from the far future, the embedding will not work for you. Sorry for the inconvenience, but, back here in the past, we didn’t have jetpacks, so we all have to learn to live with disappointment.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Nick Geiser

    Absolutely. Religion is no longer a way of knowing or even a way of "being," but a lifestyle choice. It's a challenge for people who want to talk about reason vs. revelation today, because the default position is that God is dead. But what were we supposed to expect? Glee is pure kitsch anyways.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17359788578212299468 Dylan

    My Glee Club has real Christians and real atheists and sings real sacred music rather than bubblegum pop. What now, Fox?Also, the, FYI correct term for the kind of religion you're describing is "fuzzy bunny spiritualism" (FBS).BUT!!!"It fuses the secular values that most of us subscribe to with the certainty of religion, making them unquestionable and dangerous. It elevates a placid happiness as the greatest good, placing it above virtue and right action."These two sentences are in tension. First you claim that the problem with FBS is that it makes secular ideals "unquestionable" and "dangerous." Then you critique FBS for espousing the wrong values based upon a secular scheme of valuation to which you seem to subscribe quite strongly. As the "sin" posts may show, the problem may simply be that your strongly-held atheist values are more similar in non-theological content to moderately theologically conservative American Catholic values than they are to FBS values. Yet if your anti-universalist critique of FBS is to stand, then perhaps you shouldn't be using your own values so aggressively to critique FBS. Moreover, in fact, you're doing exactly what you accuse FBSers of doing: choosing a kind of religion based upon your values rather than the other way around. You just have a (meta!) value/principle that tells you that you prefer religions that dictate values.I'd also add that the simultaneous blessing and curse of FBS is that it leaves these sort of "religious values" ("love," "kindness," "happiness") as such empty abstractions that pretty much anyone can sign on to FBS. You're just mapping your personal values to these vague, positively connoted abstractions and calling yourself (at least in this majority-Christian country) a "Christian." FBS, in other words, doesn't give a specific kind of "love" "the certainty of religion." Rather, it lets everyone define "love" as he or she likes and call it a religious value.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11174257204278139704 Charles

    I thought this post was very well thought out and I agree with your sound rejection of that nonsense. I also see the 'Problem of Evil' as an argument for atheism that atheists think is silly and unconvincing, yet for some reason theists constantly cite it as the strongest case for atheism. To me it is the un-intellectual argument for atheism, perhaps it is so compelling to a few because of how abhorrently our culture is anti-intellectual. To take prima facia facts and then try an make them work logically is silly, one can plainly see that theists and nontheists already accept the existence of evil, it is self evident. The only folks that could be convinced would be people that already had a world view that wasn't internally consistent, basically its an argument that would only work on someone who had never thought of it before.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @Charles: Couldn’t agree more. I’d really like to see this argument retired from the debate.@Dylan: You’re right, I wasn’t clear enough. I don’t object to defending values as universal (obviously!). My problem is that FBS elevates banalities as first principles. Foundational beliefs should have consequences. They’re really making “Do what makes you happy” as a first principle, which I think is pretty clearly not universalizable. Some FBSers wiggle out by saying no one really wants bad things, but then they actually ought to make rightly-ordered desires the base of their philosophy, as I do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11465925613716349619 CindyC

    Found you via Elizabeth Esther's Saturday Evening linkup.Though I have much, much else to learn about embracing the cross of Christ, it is devastating to see how absent anything remotely like the Cross is in modern thought. And what is the Gospel without the Cross?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Thanks for visiting, CindyC. I should mention for the sake of clarity that I am not a Christian. However, I am still put off by the tendency of many strains of modern religions to dumb themselves down to the point of being contentless. What on earth is the point?

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