Glee, West Wing, and Jesus: A Conversation with Stephen Prothero

Glee, West Wing, and Jesus: A Conversation with Stephen Prothero June 11, 2012

I recently wrote a piece — in response to Stephen Prothero, writing at the CNN Belief Blog — explaining that I would celebrate the “coming out” of conservative Christians on television when they were not merely present and foils for arguments against their viewpoints, but were actually capable of explaining and defending their viewpoints coherently.  The point of departure was Glee, where there is a steady drumbeat not only against bullying and derision toward gays (points on which I would agree) but against traditional Christian views on moral matters, especially homosexuality.  And I questioned why conservative Christians were “closeted” in the first place, and wondered what might be the effect of presenting our children with thousands of characters living thousands of lives and confronting millions of major transitions and life decisions without reference to God.  See the original piece for more.

Stephen Prothero

Dr Prothero, a professor at Boston University (I never had the pleasure of meeting him while I was taking my own doctorate in the area), responded on my Facebook page.  I wanted to post the conversation that ensued because it’s the kind of collegial conversation I greatly appreciate and crave to see more often online.  So I asked whether I could share the conversation that ensued, and he graciously agreed, as long as I included the proviso (which I had suggested, actually) that we are typically more careful to compose our thoughts on blogs (and certainly books!) than we are on Facebook.  So here it is, in the raw.

Stephen Prothero: On Glee, Timothy, nicely done. But here’s my pushback . . . First, in any sort of fiction you need to be careful in attributing “arguments” spoken by a character to an author or producer, no? When Mercedes of whoever it is speaks of lobster and Leviticus (or cheeseburgers or whatever), is that the “true” “voice” of “the show” or “the producer”? Who knows? Truthfully, the point of view is necessarily multivocal. Lots of different voices, including Quinn telling dreadlocks boy not to give up his Christianity for sex. My point is that I LOVED the fact that there was an actual Biblical argument going on here, something I NEVER saw on Friends, for example. Is it sophisticated? No. But do you honestly expect it to be? I don’t. It’s network tv.

Timothy Dalrymple: My response, Dr Prothero, while I would agree that one cannot straightforwardly attribute an argument from a character (or even the general tilt of a conversation, as I was doing here) to a producer, the voice of the show has emerged with great clarity and consistency over time. I really enjoyed the first season, when the show was less preachy. It had a central gay character (Kurt Hummel) who was the most intelligent and least flawed character on the show, and it showed his struggles in a sympathetic and heart-rending way — but all that is fair and not too over-the-top. I enjoyed the character in part, I think, because the actor is fantastic. But I honestly think that Glee, in its second and third seasons, has been the most preachy show on television, especially (and understandably, given that Murphy himself is gay and outspoken about his desire to push the sexual envelope on television). I can get on board with the extremely prominent argument against anti-gay bullying. But it makes just as strong an argument, I believe, against traditional Christian views on homosexuality, without ever really giving them a hearing.

I do not, by the way, think the show is anti-Christian. Quinn is a church-goer, and *sometimes* that is represented in a positive way. Mercedes is a church-goer, and that is often represented positively (I think progressives in general, for understandable reasons, view African-American Christianity much more positively), and now there’s Teen Jesus. I know Ryan Murphy was raised Catholic, and still attends church.

So I think his intention was sincerely to represent a Christian in a positive way. But I haven’t seen Teen Jesus seriously challenge the overall thrust of the show, which is overwhelmingly pro-gay. I don’t know if you watch the show, but I have to think it would be hard for a regular viewer to disagree.

Stephen Prothero: Hi Tim and John, yes I watch the show, “religiously” even. I’m not sure I should admit it, but I also watched last season’s “Glee Project,” which “discovered” Samuel (the kid who plays “Teen Jesus”). On that show Ryan Murphy practically begged Cameron to stay on the show (after he announced he was quitting) because he desperately wanted a conservative Christian kid to come onto the show. Samuel was in a sense a second choice–he has a Bible verse tattoo, which Murphy noticed. So I agree his intention was to represent Christianity in a “positive way.” I do NOT think his intention was to bring in a straw man so he could “preach” some pro-gay agenda. He’s a storyteller, and he’s looking for good stories. So I’m not surprised that Murphy attends church (though I did not know that). My broader point is this. . . . as Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us (not to mention the Bible), this is not a perfect world. So if you want Glee to turn into a show that preaches evangelical Christianity that is not going to happen. I guess my bar is lower than yours, Timothy. I’m just glad to see conservative Christians portrayed on TV. Perhaps our differences will be settled next season. Does Samuel’s character “deconvert”? Or does he stick to his Christian guns? I suspect the latter, but we will see.

Timothy Dalrymple: I don’t think his intention was to bring in a straw man. But I think that is, presumably unintentionally, what he has become — at least on the issue that seems to matter most to Murphy, which is the homosexuality issue. It’s a fairly minor example. I think what we’re dealing with here is the accumulated frustration of seeing people who are ostensibly supposed to represent my point of view having nothing coherent or compelling to say in defense of their view, or being stumped speechless by bumper-sticker arguments that any one who truly represented my point of view could easily refute, or at least respond to. I don’t expect the creator of Glee and Nip/Tuck to teach evangelical Christianity, to be sure. But I guess I’m less ready to applaud the simple present of conservative Christians on television — but will eagerly applaud when they actually represent their views well.

One example I appreciated was Ainsley (sp?) Hayes on the West Wing. She was the conservative lawyer who was so whip-smart that President Bartlet convinced her to work for him. Aaron Sorkin actually allowed her sometimes to get the better of the argument. In a show that was, otherwise, a paean to the intelligence and good intentions of liberals, it was a refreshing change of pace. I still remember one time she said, “Your problem is not that you dislike guns. It’s that you dislike the people who like guns.” And it actually brought Bradley Whitford’s character to a thoughtful halt.

In any case, I appreciate the thoughtful conversation. I’ll let you know, in case it interests you, when I write about the Catholic nuns issue. Your comments above have been helpful.

Stephen Prothero: Hey Timothy, thanks for the Ainsley example in West Wing. Yes, I would prefer that too in Glee, and precisely that sort of moment as well–when a character can be brought to a “thoughtful halt.” I don’t think it will happen re: homosexuality, since as you note the question of the sinfulness of gay sex really isn’t on the table (though it was for a moment in the episode I wrote about on CNN). I could imagine such a moment re: premarital sex, however. We’ll have to see. Still, I stand by my position that a breakthrough of sorts is happening with conservative Christians on network TV, and I’m grateful that Glee is part of it.

Timothy Dalrymple: I hope you’re right, Stephen! And we’ll keep a lookout for Ainsley moments 🙂

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