But why am I talking about Glee?
Well, last night's episode dealt with religion, a topic that many successful television shows either fail to tackle or handle so incredibly poorly that you're left screaming at the TV. The Glee episode in question had potential that wasn't entirely fulfilled and at the same time wasn't entirely horrendous. Since the show's staples are an often grating mix of satire and blunt honesty, I was prepared and able to decipher the parodied character types and stereotypical situations to get to the messages in the episode. And those messages weren't all that bad.
NOTE: There will be spoilers, so if you're a fan who hasn't seen the episode yet, you might wanna skip this post. Try this one instead. Also, I realize this is a long post but hey, I've barely written in a while. Be happy!
I knew that the episode had potential when I read its title: "Grilled Cheezus". Finn Hudson, co-captain of the high school glee club, makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich upon which he thinks he sees the face of Jesus. After eating half of it (he was hungry, after all), he makes three wishes to the remaining Cheezus. I told you the show is over-the-top with the zaniness. When these wishes start coming true, Finn professes his belief in Christianity and asks that he give praise to God through the glee club song selections.
Meanwhile the show's openly gay character, Kurt Hummel, is devastated when his father suffers a heart attack. Most of his friends in the glee club are of some faith, so they immediately set upon him during this trying time, urging him to seek comfort in God. It is at this point we learn that Kurt is also an atheist (by some definitions, a "strong atheist" -- he says he knows there is no God).
Let me step back and address some of what's already running through my mind at this point.
- The satirical situation of Finn finding Jesus on a sandwich is hilarious and a great way to show that the writers of the show find that sort of idea ripe for parody.
- Oh boy, they're portraying an atheist on prime-time TV! Too bad that usually leads to gross misrepresentation.
- The believers on the show are already coming at this situation the wrong way, in my opinion. But they're believers, that's what they do.
Holy shit! Not only one but TWO nonbelievers on a popular show?! WOW.
Yeah, let's not get too happy just yet. Let's see how they handle themselves first.
We atheists don't believe for different reasons. While many, like myself, are nonbelievers for intellectual reasons, some don't believe out of being misinformed, misanthropic, or having had something terrible happen in their past. Sue seems to be the latter kind. Her sister has Down syndrome and Sue's personal way of handling the problem of evil is to, in effect, "blame God" for letting her sister contract (or inflecting her with) her condition. Like I said, we're atheists for different reasons, and while I think the problem of evil is truly a valid philosophical issue that is irreconcilable with a loving god, Sue's rejection of belief isn't couched in philosophy. She can't explain the reasoning behind why such a problem is indeed a problem that points to evidence against a traditional idea of God. Instead, she's angry with the idea that such a god would even do such a thing, and as a child her prayers for her sister went unanswered, therefore there must not be a God. Sue doesn't want to be a nonbeliever. Her sister tells her "God doesn't make mistakes" and offers to pray for Sue, to which she happily agrees. She wants to have this same peace that her sister has.
So while I'm not going to go into a no-true-Scotsman rant about how Sue isn't a true atheist, I will state that this portrayal of atheism in entertainment media is as old as time. No wonder we nonbelievers are bombarded by religious people asking questions like "so what happened in your past that made you so mad at God?" or "who hurt you?" or "why do you feel like God let you down?" Makes me wanna scream.
But back to the recap. So Kurt's dad is in the hospital, comatose. Kurt has been pelted with pleas to find strength in faith, as the other kids sing gospel and spiritually-laden songs. Kurt pushes his friends away, asking them to keep their views to themselves. Coach Sylvester urges Kurt to make a formal complaint to the school, citing church-state-separation issues.
Here's where the show makes a gross error in judgment. Either due to Sue's own personal take on First Amendment rights or by ignorance on the part of the show's writing team, Sue claims it's a violation for the children to sing about Jesus in public school. This is not the case. While they do have a problem if a student complains, there is no law against such a practice. It would only be against the law if it were teacher-lead, and we see the glee club teacher, Mr. Shue, realize this and try to tone down the religion-specific songs to just "spiritual" songs. (If you'll recall my previous post, 67% surveyed said that teachers are not permitted to read from the bible as an example of literature, something the law clearly allows. A lot of right-wing conservatives I've talked with falsely claim that kids can't even pray in school. I'm wondering if Sue's tactics are based in this line of thinking.)
Throughout this episode, the views of both sides are expressed through characters' actions and dialog. There are characters who express new-age beliefs like "God is all religions" and "God exists, just not in any man-made religion". Here are some other examples:
- The show attempts to show different views of religious theology. Puck and Rachel are both Jewish, Mercades and Quinn are Christians, Kurt hires a Sikh acupuncturist, and he also makes a reference to the FSM. Oh, and Kurt's version of Russell's teapot not only had me in stitches but also applauding the writers, some of whom surely either are atheists or have had intelligent conversations with one.
- Yes, Kurt hires an acupuncturist! I was pissed off at first, but I've come to see it like this: he's still just a kid! He's in high school for crying out loud, and he's not (yet) a full-fledged rationalist. And you should all know by now that being an atheist doesn't automatically make you a skeptic or critical thinker.
- There are some great quips in the dialogue:
- After simply stating his nonbelief, Kurt is barraged with questions like "Why don't you believe? You can't prove there's no God!" and "We shouldn't be talking like this...it isn't right!", Kurt politely says to his friends, "You all can believe whatever you want to, but I can't believe something I don't. I appreciate your thoughts, but I don't want your prayers." It's also funny to see that the simple act of one person saying "I don't believe" causes an entire room full of people to start claiming they're being oppressed or silenced.
- When guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury sits down with Sue Sylvester to ask her why she's trying to take away the other children's means of comforting Kurt in one of the shows best scenes, Sue responds with, "Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, isn't a moral thing to do. It's cruel." Emma retorts with, "Don't you think that's a little bit arrogant?" and Sue hits back: "It's as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God and if they don't accept it -- no matter how openhearted or honest their decent -- that they're going to Hell. That doesn't sound very Christian, does it?" (I'd have to disagree here and say yes, it's perfectly Christian, as Christ is supposed to have delivered the doctrine of eternal hellfire for infidels himself.) The riveting scene ends with Emma saying, "If that's what you believe, fine, but please keep it to yourself" and Sue replying with, "So long as you do the same." High-five Sue!
- Finn's eventual confession to Emma that Grilled Cheezus has granted him wishes is met with healthy skepticism and a round-about explanation of coincidences and self-fulfilling prophesy. If only she could apply that ALL of her beliefs...oh well. Finn finally "loses his religion", probably becoming/returning to colloquial agnosticism, and eats what's left of Grilled Cheezus.
- Kurt finally gives in to Mercades's pleas and goes to her church with her. This scene is important on several fronts, mainly for the episode's surprising conclusion.
So far the show has been building up to a familiar pattern and I was fearing the worst. [sarcasm on] Here we have a kid going through one of the worst times of his young life, and his friends are only trying to comfort him with their religious beliefs. But he harshly refuses them (soooo close-minded), pushing his friends away every time they bring it up. He obviously doesn't believe in anything, and we all know that if you don't have God then your life is an empty, hurtful void of meaninglessness. If only he'd just give prayer a chance! [sarcasm off]
Then comes the scene where the atheist goes to church. From the pulpit, Mercades tells him, "I know you don't believe in God or the power of prayer and that's okay, to each his own. But you've gotta believe in something...something more than you can touch, taste, or see, 'cause life is to hard to go through it alone without something to hold on to, without something sacred." She and the choir then sing as Kurt ponders her words. Oh no, I'm thinking, here we go...the immenient conversion.
At the show's conclusion, Kurt is sitting at his father's bedside, holding his hand and crying. He tells his comatose father that he should have let his friends pray for him the other day. Any minute now, he's gonna start praying. But he doesn't.
I told you the conclusion was surprising.
If I'd been paying closer attention I could've caught it sooner. The clues in the dialog...the writer's tricks laid bare for all to see, but I was too caught up in this valid attempt at a network show to seriously address religion. You see, just before his heart attack, Kurt's dad was scolding him for planning to miss out on family dinner night, something he said was "sacred". That word was the key, and it was planted in the first few minutes of the episode. Kurt does believe in something sacred: love. The love for his father, who accepted his homosexuality, and who was there for him when his mother died. Kurt tells his father, "I don't believe in God, dad. But I believe in you; I believe in us."
I couldn't have been more happy in that moment. And I'm really not too let down with the show as a whole. Like I said, I don't like how some of the arguments were handled, but I think that both sides were equally portrayed. Nobody's ideology "won", and for every argument there was a counter argument. Kurt says he should have let his friends pray for his dad; that it wasn't about himself, but about his father, and it was a nice gesture. I feel the same. When most believers say they'll pray for someone, they're not trying to be snide or arrogant, they're doing it from a place of love. It's a nice gesture, but please, do it on your own time -- don't force it on us. And that's what I think Kurt meant at the beginning of the show, when he told them he didn't want their prayers. If they would have prayed in their own church services or on their own time, it would have been fine.
A lot of ideas got at least partial treatment, and for that I'm thankful. No one converted or deconverted (except maybe Finn, but his "faith" was more of a parody to spring-board into the topic). Of course I personally think that the believer's best arguments could have been easily crushed if the atheist characters actually put forth their own, but obviously that's not the show's goal (think of the number of viewer's they loose...and the hate-mail!). I'm happy they at least got some of our arguments out to the general public, and that they didn't rely on the usual, misinformed portrayal of atheists. I'm happy that it showed that atheists don't all "believe in nothing" but that we seek out the love of our friends and family in times of trouble. And that's something we can all do, whether or not there is a god.
Since this is a show about music, I'll leave you with the apt words of Rush (from their song, Faithless):
I don't have faith in faith
I don't believe in belief
You can call me faithless
you can call me faithless
But I still cling to hope
And I believe in love
And that's faith enough for me
that's faith enough for me