The second of two posts on the recent “Glee” episode “Grilled Cheesus.” Amy Thompson Sevimli asked church leaders to listen to the show here.
“Glee” is adored by people who we wish could fill our youth groups. Had someone asked me to write a parody of how “Glee” might comment on religion, I wouldn’t have dared go as far as a recent episode about faith titled “Grilled Cheesus.”
Finn, football hero turned social outsider, discovers an image of Jesus burnt into his grilled cheese sandwich. He kneels before the sandwich and asks for a win for his football team. When his prayer “works,” Finn has two more requests: “What up, Grilled Cheesus. I need to ask you something. I didn't go to Sunday school, so I don't know if God works the same as a genie and I only have three wishes.” His wishes to get to second base with his girlfriend and to be reinstated as quarterback also “come true.”
Finn’s struggle runs alongside the more serious one of Kurt, whose father is suddenly struck with a heart attack. Kurt rejects attempts by his friends to offer comfort through faith. Sue Sylvester, cheerleading coach and glee-club-nemesis, uses Kurt’s frustration to level her own dissatisfaction with religion through a complaint to the school board. “If your kids want to praise Jesus in class,” Sue snaps, “I suggest they enroll in Sweet Mother of God Academy on I Love Jesus Street.” Sue’s antipathy to God, we learn, grew from her unanswered childhood prayers for a cure for her beloved sister with Down Syndrome.
The episode points to the ambiguity in Finn, Sue, and Kurt’s situations. Sue accepts the prayers of her sister, who confesses her confidence that “God never makes mistakes.” Kurt offers tolerance for his friends’ prayers but tells his dad, “I don’t believe in God, Dad, but I believe in you, and I believe in us. You and me -- that’s what’s sacred to me.” A disenchanted Finn delivers an angry rendition of R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” and finally, in a sort of anti-eucharist, eats the sandwich.
At “Entertainment Weekly,” Tim Stack sings a hymn to the episode itself: “I worship Glee. And I especially want to give praise to the show's latest telecast. . . the social importance of a show that promotes a message of tolerance and support . . . cannot be underestimated.” For Stack, the show is not just reflecting how teenagers feel about God. It is also intentionally shaping those feelings, carefully attempting to include both anti-faith and pro-faith perspectives.
What is telling is that the most truthful moments of the show are the anti-faith moments. It isn’t the sappy, hopeless message that we should all believe in something that matters here. What matters is Kurt’s claim that “God is kinda like Santa Claus for adults” and Sue’s incisive judgment that “asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an immoral thing to do.”
To simply believe in something is, indeed, both childish and immoral. Finn’s genie god is a spot-on representation of the generic belief that pervades American culture. A recent piece in "USA Today" reports on Paul Froese and Christian Bader’s book "Four Gods: What We Say about God—and What That Says About Us." Froese and Bader posit four American portraits of God: the authoritative god, feared by 28% of us, is both highly judgmental and involved in the world. The benevolent god, imagined by 22% of us, is highly involved but not judgmental. The critical god, judgmental but not engaged in the world, exists in the belief of 21% of us. The distant god of 5% of Americans neither judges the world nor engages in it.
All four gods devolve into what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This most common faith of American teenagers affirms a vague sense that God wants people to be nice and will send good people to heaven. Life is about being happy and feeling good, and God is only called on to intervene when a problem needs solving. This idol is perfectly portrayed in “Glee” and rightly denounced by Kurt and Sue as nothing but a wish-fulfilling projection of trivial human desire.
We hunger for something more: for the living God whose involvement in this world is fleshly and costly and whose judgment against sin and pain and death is love made manifest.
The incarnation is a great place to start.
Beth Felker Jones teaches theology at Wheaton College. Her most recent book is “Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga” (Multnomah).