What's Better: Grilled Cheesus or the Absent God?

What's Better: Grilled Cheesus or the Absent God? November 30, 2010

I’ve been wondering for some time now about the pervasive absence of God-talk from popular television and movies.  To be clear: I’m not wondering why God is absent.  The entertainment industry has collectively decided that talk of God and spiritual subjects is potentially controversial and alienating, and therefore better avoided.  Thus you can watch countless movies and television shows in which characters go through their lives, confronting issues of life and death, marriage and childbearing, and so on, without ever once considering whether God exists, whether there is a soul or an afterlife, or whether Jesus Christ is who he claims he was.

What I’m wondering is: What is the effect of this absence on the people, and especially on the children, who watch movies and television?  Because this way of avoiding God-talk is, in itself, making a statement of spiritual significance to the audience.

My doctoral dissertation was devoted to Kierkegaard, and among the manifold influences on Kierkegaard were the German Romantics.  The German Romantics had a tendency to examine literary and dramatic genres in terms of the worldviews they expressed, and Kierkegaard picked this up.  So ancient tragedy was not merely a genre; it reflected a particular way of dealing with reality, a particular way of living in the world, and a set of beliefs and values came along with it.  One of Kierkegaard’s earliest pieces contrasted the worldviews expressed in ancient and modern forms of tragedy.  Attending the theater was attending training in how to live.  By watching the motions, the passions, the decisions of those upon the stage, we are trained for our own motions, passions and decisions.

Which leads to the question: What is the worldview communicated by now-contemporary movies and television?  When children watch thousands of hours of movies and television, in which untold thousands of characters face untold thousands of decisions, including extremely important decisions, without once asking what God would have them do, or how this will affect their souls and their eternal destinies, or whether there is such a thing as eternal truth and salvation, how does this effect them?  Are we illicitly training our children to face life’s decisions without reference to God, by showing them an endless succession of fictional characters who do precisely that (and get along just fine, thank you very much)?

All of this was brought to mind when I watched a recent episode of Glee entitled Grilled Cheesus.  One of the male leads produced a grilled cheese sandwich which bore the apparent outline of Jesus Christ.  It was a clever play on Pancake Jesus, the Holy Toast, Cinnamon Nun and other gastronomic apparitions that strike many of us as silly.  It was also profoundly condescending toward the kind of simple faith that is lived by billions of people around the world.  The entire episode featured the gay student, Kurt, who is far the most articulate of the students (and a sort of avatar for the gay creator of the show, Ryan Murphy), offering impassioned and eloquent criticisms of (mostly Christian) faith, while the Christian students offered lame defenses, acted befuddled, or got upset that someone had the audacity to question their faith.  At the end of the episode, Kurt tells his father (whose coma-inducing heart-attack was the event precipitating the discussions about faith) that he does not believe in God, but he believes in their love for one another.  The faux profundity was disappointing.

I am a fan of Glee.  But let’s be honest.  Its depiction of faith was by and large cynical, skeptical, and mocking.  One character, Sue Sylvester, says that “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn’t a moral thing to do.  It’s cruel.”  (Yes, she later accepts her special-needs sister’s offer to pray for her, but this is never accompanied by an intelligent response to Sue’s statement.)  Or, when one character offers the lame apologetic that “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist,” Kurt replies (as though these were remotely analogous), “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 bolts out of its boobs, but it seems pretty unlikely, doesn’t it?”  Kurt also says that God is “like Santa Claus for adults,” and that churches hate gays, women and science.

I’ve seen some assess the episode more positively, but the fact is that there was not a single genuine defense of faith (or even theism) presented in the entire hour.  The only positive portrayal of faith came in a visit to an African-American church (even in the most skeptical precincts of academia, I always found that the one unassailable form of Christianity was the African-American church).  But even the young black woman who takes Kurt to the African-American church can only offer this defense: “you’ve gotta believe in something,” because otherwise “life is just too hard.”  As though Christians have not been presenting intelligent and compelling defenses of their faith for two thousand years.

I am going to write a column on this shortly, but for now I wanted to ask you: Which would you rather have?  A television show that has the courage to raise and address questions of faith and salvation, even if it does so in a way that is broadly disparaging of faith?  In which faith questions are at least shown as relevant?  Or would you rather have movies and television shows that ignore those questions and essentially train us and our children in going through life without reflecting on God or incorporating God into our lives?  In which faith appears not so much untrue or unreliable as merely irrelevant?

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  • I think the two options go together and each is largely incomprehensible without the other. Since we are now so adept at running our own lives, any kind of god is merely quaint – a character in cartoons, jokes, and the lives of weird people.

    As to African American Church, I think that’s largely acceptable not because it’s Christian, but because it’s Black People.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I partly agree. Folks I know, who regularly mock Christian churches, are not inclined to mock African-American Christian Churches, partly (I think) because the African-American church was so central to the Civil Rights struggle, and sustained blacks through slavery. It’s almost as though blacks have been through so much that they are allowed to have the crutch.

  • Another thought. Whereas K and others in his generation understood the power of stories, our generation does not (or won’t admit to it). We think stories (and their simulacra like video games) exist only to “entertain.” And we have no idea at all what all that entertainment is doing to us (though Neil Postman had a few ideas).

    God is useful only insofar as he is entertaining – which isn’t much. A god who meets our needs, a good who makes us feel better when we’re down, a god who saves us from our mistakes (Do over!) is what we’re looking for.

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  • edna

    Off topic, I know, but the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church is fairly unassailable in academia as well, though you’d have to look farther East than you might be used to looking to know it. FYI

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That’s an interesting point, Edna. A related point I’ve noticed. There are Orthodox churches in the United States where virtually every member of the church has converted as an adult. These are very thoughtful, intentional communities where everyone is self-educated about theology and etc. It creates an impression that is somewhat misleading. If you were to go to, say, Russia or Greece, you would find just as many Orthodox church members who are theologically uneducated, and given to pseudo-religious superstitions, as you find in some precincts of the RCC or in the Appalachians or etc.

  • Lisa

    Here’s the thing – some of the most beloved films – Ben-Hur, It’s a Wonderful Life, etc. all had faith-based talk and ideas in them. It’ how the 60s culture grew up, however, in rebelling against everything (including God) and they’re the ones writing and producing these shows, as if their opinions are the only ones.

  • Tim,

    Great thoughts. I think you are right about Kierkegaard and worldview in movies/theaters. When I saw Glee, my response was actually quite positive. You are right that there was no defense of Christianity made, but that actually seems honest considering the state of belief in teenage America (as described in books by Christian Smith about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism).

    What I found so positive was the sort of cultural shift away from a modernistic God of the gaps rationality towards a spirituality integrated into every facet of life. This show never would have aired in the 90s. Now it’s okay to talk about faith on TV. Glee isn’t the only show this fall talking about faith. And if kids learn worldview from watching TV, then high school students will feel comfortable (or think it’s normal) to talk about their beliefs with their classmates. The culture is shifting so that faith is normative now, and conversations about faith can be brought into spaces where it used to be shunned (TV, schools).

    So, I enjoyed the episode as an expression of the changing cultural norms that are increasingly weaving spirituality into everyday life. And I’m thankful for that.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I hear what you’re saying, John, and you’re not alone in having a more positive response to the show. I’m actually a big fan of the show, and wanted to like the episode. But my view is: “you need to believe in something” cannot be all that Christians have to say. Otherwise, you might as well believe in whatever helps you get by.

      I had noticed this pattern before watching the episode, so I was looking for it. The pattern is: a skeptic (say, the main character on House) offers a sharp, articulate criticism of Christian faith. Then the Christian character has no intelligent response to the criticisms, but, ignoring the criticisms, opens a different front by saying something to the effect that faith “helps me get through the day.” But this is ridiculous. There is a rich conversation going back for centuries, in which Christians compose careful responses to criticisms, and then the critics compose careful responses to the responses. But, with great consistency, Christians on television are never shown to be as thoughtful, intelligent, or informed on these matters. Only one side of the conversation is represented, while the Christians carry on with their faith because they need it to get by.

      I’m tired of the skeptics and atheists being shown as the rational, intelligent, scientific ones, while the Christians are shown as essentially inarticulate, less intelligent, but maybe in touch with some sort of mystery that helps them get by. The House character is a cliche. What would have been truly daring is a hyper-intelligent, committed scientist who is a firm believer (of which there are many, but you never see them on tv).

      I understand the desire to avoid a god-of-the-gaps apologetic, but that doesn’t mean that we have nothing intelligent to say in defense of our faith. We live our faith not just because it is helpful, but because it points to the Truth. I also don’t see the show illustrating a faith that is integrated into every aspect of life. It was just a faith that helps us get through the tough times. If it had shown someone who speaks with God throughout the day, whose faith expresses itself in acts of service and compassion, etc., then I would agree.

      What is positive is that it reflected the fact (and many 90’s shows wouldn’t even go this far) that many people do go to church and find something sustaining there. And it’s also positive that it is, at least, raising these issues, and showing that they are relevant. I liked the line from the mousy guidance counselor (to paraphrase): “The big questions are big for a reason. Everyone struggles with them.” So I actually DID find this better than ignoring God. But what would have been still better would be to show people who have intelligent things to say on both sides. I’m pretty sure the effect of the show, upon kids, would be to portray faith as backward, irrational, unscientific, but, well, Who really knows?, and if it helps you get through the day then who am I to take it away from you?, but believing in human love may be equivalent.

      • I agree with everything you said. There isn’t a character in any of the regular television shows that provides a thoughtful representation of the Christian faith. I also agree that the House show is terribly annoying in the way it portray’s smart people and faith.

        Did you see the Community episode on Abed’s Messianic complex? It portrayed Shirley in typical TV Christian fashion, but then at the end celebrated her sacrificial act as the right representation of the messiah. It was subtle, but I still think it is fascinating that studios are willing to produce such spiritually-oriented shows. And it’s interesting that people love it. People are hungry for it.

        I think the best place to experience articulate Christians representing truth is on late night talk shows. Jon Stewart, Colbert, and recently Craig Ferguson (he had a great interview with Cornel West) have had dialogue that provides a space for these Christians to represent Christianity well. Not the same art form as drama, but still important!

  • Doug

    The “pervasive absence” premise is arguable, as your Glee example suggests. You could just as well argue that there’s more God-talk in television and film now than there ever was (admittedly, it’s not always positive). Public secularism was, in certain respects, more a live assumption fifty years ago than it is today. Faith used to be treated as a more personal, private affair and not paraded around as a sort of consumerist-era identity badge.

    I’m curious why Evangelicals today look at the culture at large and feel they ought to be more explicitly represented in things like television and film (of all things). Then it occured to me that conservative Christians are only discovering their new role in society as a minority lobby group.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Doug, neither I, nor most evangelicals I know who write about media issues, are calling solely or even primarily for more evangelicals to be represented. Whether they are evangelicals, or Catholics, or Mainline Protestants, or Orthodox, does not particularly matter to me. So while it must have felt nice to take the “minority lobby group” dig, it’s beside the point. I did not note the absence of evangelicals; I noted the absence of God-talk, or how the vast majority of characters depicted on television never discuss God or church or afterlife or etc., even in life circumstances where most people do. I would be happy to see more characters represented thanking God for their newborn child, or seeking and finding helpful marital counseling in scripture, or discussing how the Orthodox church has given them a new perspective on the sacramentality of creation.

      I don’t think the pervasive absence claim (it’s less a premise than a claim) really is arguable. The Glee example is salient — and won plaudits even by many Christians — because it is one of very few examples. And while public secularism was more the rage in academic/scholarly/literary circles five decades ago, it was not the case on television. Five decades ago, most characters on television actually were shown attending church, and would discuss what God willed, etc. Now, you can watch entire seasons – and sometimes entire series – of popular shows with no character ever mentioning God or eternal questions.

      I don’t know if you were feeling instinctively inclined to disagree with me, but there was a lot more ground here for agreement than you might have realized. But you seemed to assume this was yet another evangelical complaining about Hollywood. There’s more to it than that.

  • Deborah

    Thanks for this thoughtful critique of Glee. I am a fan, but I find myself watching in anticipation of that episode that will finally “cross the line” (my faith line) and therefore make it impossible for me to watch anymore. So far, I’m still watching, but your article made me realize how low the bar has become. I guess I viewed it as “a success” that everyone – including the Christians – was allowed to express their views and the Christians weren’t laughed at. How sad is that?

    It seems ok to talk generically about “god”, but Jesus is a whole different scenario because even people in the so-called “Christian” community can’t get their story straight about him. You were spot on about Mercedes’ “you have to believe in something” comment. But what? Atheists like Kurt can only have one point of view, but the subtleties and centuries of discussion regarding the Christ obviously make people uncomfortable. I might mention that Muslims do not have this problem discussing their beliefs.

    Ironically, I was more upset by this week’s episode that featured a pastor (Why did we need a pastor? What is his relationship to these people? Was he a cleric for hire? ) deferring the “normal start of the service with prayer” because a God denying teenager thought it would be “boring”. And everybody laughed. THAT was the true misrepresentation of my faith. A pastor is really expected to let an unbeliever have him deny his own faith practice in his own church???!!! I was simply shocked. They want the “legitimacy” of the sacred space without the whole package. All the crosses hanging around just added insult to injury.

    I LOVED the song, the energy, the choreography, and the idea of a “Glee” wedding – but they didn’t need a CHURCH for that. I felt it turned the pastor into prostitute and the church into the brothel. Hired to fill a specific need… They weren’t there for God’s blessing (hence no prayer/invocation/liturgy) – they were there simply for tradition and the coolness factor. Maybe not – but as you said, nobody ever bothers to actually explain it.

    Sorry about the rant. I’m still sorting it out. Glad to know you’ve got similar thoughts about House. I’m glad to have found your blog. Keep writing!!!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Deborah, thanks for this response. I was glad to have a major, popular television show dealing with the issue of God and the afterlife, but I never really felt as though the Christian side was expressed. A case for nonbelief was made. A case for belief? Not really, at least not by my lights. Except that you cannot prove that God does not exist, it’s wrong to question, and you gotta believe in something. This just leaves the impression that religious belief is sustained by coercive religious authority, by psychological need, and the inability to prove it wrong. That’s how I saw it, anyway.

      In the wedding episode, the dismissal of the prayer because it would be “boring” was irksome to me as well. I didn’t have quite as strong a reaction as you did, but I understand it. Something about it felt jarring and wrong.

      I’ll keep writing, if you keep dropping by. Best.


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  • My devout Christian (LDS) spouse asked me to read this column and comment on it to her, since we’re both Glee fans (me more than she, to be honest) and since I’m a devout (so to speak) empiricist who nevertheless has been attending church with her regularly for 26 years–with the others knowing that I’m not only an empiricist but also a Democrat.

    I should add that my wife teaches the advanced Sunday school class at her church and has a Temple recommend– According to her I know as much about Christianity in general as anyone who isn’t a “person of faith” could know. Also, I hold a BA in sociology from a top 20 university and am a film/TV buff.

    All that said, there seem to be several topics here. One is this particular episode of Glee vis a vis “God talk.” The other is a broader consideration of “God talk” on TV.

    Here goes.

    1. Yes, Hollywood TV largely ignores religion in general and Christianity in particular.

    I do note that the Simpson family goes to church regularly, and while that’s often treated comically in various ways, that comedy mainly focuses on the foibles of humans, not of religion per se. God even appears on the show now and then, and the treatment is neither prostratingly reverential nor offhanded either.

    And the Simpsons’ neighbor Ned is an evangelical who is, here again, used for comedy–the show is, after, a comedy–but also with a curious kind of respect. He’s presented as largely living the life he sings about in his song, to quote Mahalia Jackson.

    And as regards the Simpsons, disapproving Christians often ignore the plain fact that the show teaches Christian values in the way its issues are resolved. They’re not presented as Christian values usually–only they are in fact.

    I see many of my Christian acquaintances tend to view TV shows dimorphically–either the show is for Christ or against him. If a show is in between, like the Simpsons, they toss it in Satan’s camp because it doesn’t treat the humans running religious institutions as sacrosanct. Yet even on “edgy” comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, the satire is strictly limited to those humans–not to religious beliefs themselves.

    But no religion’s sacred texts teach that all its declared adherents are perfect–above reproach, humorous or otherwise. So you could argue that hostility towards criticism (whether it’s expressed humorously or not) doesn’t uphold one’s religion–it simply upholds hubris as a virtue–something else I haven’t seen in anyone’s 10 Commandments.

    And there have been Hollywood TV shows with lots of “God talk” : “Joan of Arcadia” and “Touched by an Angel” notably. My wife & I watched the former religiously, so to speak; the latter not at all–seemed too saccharine.

    “Joan of Arcadia” wasn’t expressly Christian, but it was absolutely God-centric and the values it taught were Christian values. Whereas “Wonderfalls,” while teaching Christian values as well, did so in such an eccentric fashion and with such a reprobate as the central character that my wife wouldn’t watch it. My wife reacts strongly to what she regards as blasphemy, so her approval of “Joan of Arcadia” tells me that I’m right in my assessment of it.

    But overall, yes, Hollywood’s America reflects the churchgoing half of the country much less than the other half, in terms of the ritual observances you see carried out by the characters on TV shows. And Judaism, while not represented much, is probably over-represented relative to the proportion of Jews in the general populace.

    However, if you look at the values taught by those churchless shows they’re mostly Christian morality. A lot of the cop shows teach Old Testament morality (Inspector Javert in Les Miz), and some action shows dip down to personal loyalty/revenge pre-Christian level morality (moreso in young male-oriented movies than in TV shows), but most shows mostly teach the values Christ said we should have.

    [I’m referring here to Kohlberg’s morality scale; you can read about it at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlberg's_stages_of_moral_development%5D

    As I write this I’m watching the National Christmas Tree (not Holiday or Winter Solstice Tree or Season Tree) lighting ceremony, attended by the President of the United States and his entire family, beginning with an ecumenical prayer by a Christian pastor, with the featured singer being Jackie Evancho, a 10 year old Christian soprano whose Christmas album full of religious Christian songs went platinum in one month, making her the youngest performer in history with a platinum album. And the President led off his remarks by saying “Merry Christmas everybody.”

    And of course there are Christmas TV specials being presented across the channels, some secular mostly, some religious mostly, all promoting the values Christ taught.

    And over 3/4 of Americans declare themselves to be Christians of one sort or another.

    It is true that the nation was never less Christian, what with the influx of people of other faiths via immigration, and the very small minority of empricists (wrongly labeled “atheist”) becoming slightly less very small.

    On the other hand, Christianity as a whole has become more militant, more politically aggressive, more insistent on its prerogatives as the country’s dominant religion (while at the same time individual Christians have come to interpret their particular sect’s beliefs less and less stringently). I’m old enough to remember “under God” being added to the Pledge of Allegiance, thus excluding everyone like me. And now people act like the Founding Fathers were all evangelicals instead of being mostly Deists.

    After all, no empiricist–however you call him or her–has a prayer (so to speak) of getting elected President, or any elective office across much of the country, for that matter.

    Evolution is no longer taught in 2/3 of American high school biology classes, according to a recent NCSE survey of high school teachers, due to opposition by people who label themselves Christians, for reasons they label as Christian.

    Abortion is no longer effectively available across much of the country due to opposition by people who call themselves Christian, for reasons they call Christian.

    Large majorities of the electorate have voted down homosexual marriage in nearly every state, again for ostensibly religious reasons by ostensibly religious people.

    Christianity in America does not possess the hegemonic domination that Islam has across the Arab, Persian and Indonesian world. If that’s what today’s Christians demand, then they have reason to feel frustrated by TV coverage of their faith.

    But otherwise they just look like sore winners to Americans who aren’t Christian.

    2. As for Glee–
    I do get the impression that its show runner isn’t Christian. But I’ve also noticed that Kurt, the presumed mouthpiece for the show’s homosexual creator, is shown as having severe flaws as well as virtues–of having a martyr complex, of running roughshod over the feelings of those close to him while being thin-skinned about his own feelings–of being an ideologue.

    So his denunciations of religion need to be seen in the context of coming from someone who the show does not present as perfect by a long shot.

    I also observe that the character on the show who worships a piece of Jesus-shaped cheese is generally presented as being a little slow mentally, and his Cheezus worship is presented not as a criticism of Christianity but of treating Christianity as if its’ some kind of Juju where you try to manipulate supernatural forces for personal gain–which, of course, Christ totally opposed.

    Those are mitigating factors.

    In the last analysis, for a Christian like my wife or this blog’s writer, your TV glass is, I believe, either half empty or half full. You get to choose which half you want to obsess about.

    I bet Christ would have you looking at the half-full part.