Grilling Glee: A Divided Duet
October 15, 2010
By Chris Stedman & Bryan Parys
Interfaith activists Chris Stedman – a gay atheist – and Bryan Parys – a straight theist – sound off on last week’s Glee episode, “Grilled Cheesus.”
Quick Episode Summary: Glee club member Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich and sees the face of Jesus in it. Not sure if praying to Jesus works like a Genie, he prays that three wishes be granted — for the his high school football team to win a game, for his girlfriend and Glee club colleague Rachel to allow him to touch her breasts, and to be restored to the position of quarterback on the team. After the first of these prayers is realized, he requests that the Glee club sing songs praising Jesus, which concerns Rachel, who is Jewish. Kurt, another member of the Glee club, faces a personal crisis as his father suffers a heart attack. His friends rally around him with supportive prayers and worship songs, but he announces that he is an atheist and is bothered by their religious petitions. Sue, the coach of the school’s cheerleading squad, is also an atheist and takes up his cause under the banner of the separation of church and state. Meanwhile, Kurt’s friend and fellow Glee club member Mercedes invites Kurt to church and asks her congregation to pray for his father. Finn has a conversation with Emma, the school guidance counselor, and she causes him to question his newfound beliefs. Sue decides to abandon her cause to stop the Glee club from performing religious songs after a conversation with her sister, who believes in God and is a big part of why she does not. A lot more happens; Entertainment Weekly has a fairly thorough recap.
Bryan: I admit, or perhaps confess, that I had not seen an episode of Glee previous to Tuesday’s “Grilled Cheesus.” Chalk it up to providence, luck, a convergence of midichlorians, or the fact that when I got home from teaching a night class, my wife was midway through the faith-centric episode. I thought, “Ooh – interfaith dialogue in the mainstream! I wonder what Chris Stedman’s going to think of this?”
Chris: After last week’s ode to Britney Spears turned out to be little more than a thinly veiled worship of our Holy Goddess of Pop, hymns and hallucinatory visions included, I wasn’t expecting Glee to go all soul-searching Millenial on me.
Bryan: I walked in right at the moment our St. Sandwich convert, Finn, was on the receiving end of counselor Emma’s “God is real, but he’s not the God you’ve made up” debunking speech. “God works in all kinds of mysterious ways,” she told Finn. “But I’m pretty sure He doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to speak to us through sandwiches.” The just-grilled Finn then complained that people were “just floating” through space. He’d lost his faith – something that his ritualistic eating of the Hoagie Father at the close of the show seemed to cement. The last image we see is his hand chucking a Jesus-greased napkin onto an empty plate. He’d thrown in the towel, and was now enlightened. Right?
Chris: Maybe so, but either way Emma’s “counseling” of Finn made me very uncomfortable. She had a winning line that could very well be the thesis of this episode: “The big questions are really big for a reason. They’re hard. But you know what? Absolutely everyone struggles with them.” But when she looked up with her big, wet anime eyes and told Finn that his beliefs were wrong, she crossed an inappropriate line, turning his new-found Gouda News into nothing more than shredded cheese. As she offered her own theological ruminations on how God works in mysterious ways, I cringed.
Bryan: Though, part of me wonders if she recognized something even more dangerous budding in Finn and this is what prompted her strong, redirecting words. Finn starts off harmless enough as the throwaway joke-jock – praying to “Grilled Cheesus” and asking for things like God was a rich Aunt looking to spoil her only nephew. So, in one sense, Emma’s instinct to point out his God-delusion was a good one. She was trying to stop childish fundamentalism from becoming threatening. In reality, the prayer, “God, protect me as I car-bomb the Infidels,” is just a grown-up version of “God, help my team win the game.”
There’s more to this moment, but let’s look at some of the other narratives weaving through an episode hinged on holding hands, letting them go, and making for a desperate grab again at the end.
Chris: For me, the atheist narrative was the strongest; I was taken aback to see such vocal but vulnerable atheists in Sue and Kurt. Based on how her character is so often an unreasonable force bent on destroying the sacred heart of Glee Club it would have been easy to make Sue a Richard-Dawkins-in-a-tracksuit caricature. But Glee managed to, dare I say it, humanize these humanists. At one point, Sue makes an impassioned case for her atheism: “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an immoral thing to do. It’s cruel.” Emma suggests that Sue’s being arrogant – a criticism often thrown at atheists. Sue’s response is firm but honest. “It’s as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God, and if they don’t accept it, no matter how open-hearted or honest their dissent, they’re going to hell. That doesn’t sound very Christian, does it?” Emma sits there shell-shocked – grabbing for words outside her experience.
Bryan: And grabbing runs all through this episode. Finn grabs a boob, and Kurt’s entire arc is bound by the symbol of holding hands while he grasps for some kind of understanding as to why his comatose father was dealt such an unprecedented almost-fatal blow. His song for the episode is then a fittingly somber version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – chaste romance traded for a deep longing for connection and meaning.
Chris: As much as Kurt is so often an overacted, melodramatic fondue (see: every time he tries to resurrect his father vis-à-vis hand-holding in the hospital), I have to admit that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the emotional high point for me. Overproduced as it was, his song cut through the cheesecloth draped over Mercedes and others’ religious piety. Kurt’s the beating, bleeding heart of this episode. Many of his fellow Gleeks are dismayed when he announces his atheism, offended by the very idea that he does not believe in God. I’ve known that feeling well; in fact, the night after this episode I was meeting with a group of Christians and at one point had to say, “no, not everyone in this room believes in God.” They all turned red. It felt like coming out, a recurring theme for Kurt on this show. But Kurt’s own comfort in his big revelation doesn’t mean his atheism won’t prove a stumbling block for him.
There were painful moments where Kurt pushed away his friends who were praying for him and his father because that’s the only way they could think to help. I understood Kurt’s frustration; the others can’t comprehend why it would bother him, just like there are many right now who do not understand why Christopher Hitchens adamantly asks that no one pray for his health. But I wanted to reach through the screen and tell Kurt, from one gaytheist to another, that his friends meant well and that he shouldn’t try to stop them from supporting in their own way (a conclusion he comes to on his own). Still, this raises an important question: is Kurt really supposed to be the bigger person here? His father is in a coma. Shouldn’t his friends be trying to meet him more than halfway? Instead, Mercedes brings him to church, baiting him with the allure of wearing feather-adorned hats, and says it is okay that he doesn’t believe in God, but c’mon, he has to believe in something. But never mind that – some woman grabs his hand, and all is well.
Bryan: It’s as if this Sistine-Sister Act moment of hand-snagging is enough to bridge the troubled water. And even though Kurt doesn’t swoon with conversion like I feared he would at that moment, the epiphany he creates feels false and unrealistic. There are some divides that even a soul-punched version of Simon & Garfunkel can’t cross.
Instead, I’m more concerned with the ‘brotherhood’ that is subtly woven between Kurt and Finn. In the end, it is their worldviews that contain the most poignant recipe for not just interfaith dialogue, but interfaith action. At some point, the talking stops, so what then? Kurt’s story is clearly the focal point here, and in a surprisingly nuanced take for a primetime pondering, Kurt’s budding atheism and humanism is not reduced by religion, but enhanced by it. Even though we don’t know how long Mercedes’ church would hold his hand after the service, the experience empowers him to deliver the episode’s boldest identity-forming line: “I don’t believe in god.”
Finn’s story is less discernible. After Emma’s theistic throwdown, he admits to feeling like he’s “just floating.” Ah – and now he’s ready for dialogue. He is able to admit his doubt – that if there is a God, S/he’s not there to prove us right in everything we do. Finn is outside of his own perception – floating, but open to the possibility of connection. And this is the same place, via a different road, that Kurt ends up at when his father’s held hand wiggles back to life on cue. The brotherhood between the Atheist and the Seeker is not only possible, but can continue forward.
Chris: As a gay atheist and straight theist, we know this duet well. We may not be blood brothers, but hell, neither are Kurt and Finn. And as we’ve both done, Kurt and Finn wrestle with the idea of a Big Cheese. In their own way they negotiate what it means to parley the crisis of The Grilled Cheesus, grease be upon him. But Finn’s just a freshly born-again football cheesehead, his faith conceived by a Big Maculate conception that returns on the third day as heartburn. Kurt’s faith, on the other hand, died along with his mother, and so his atheism is both sturdily aged and pliable – allowing him to eventually let the religious beliefs of others play an active role in his life. Sue, who also became an atheist years ago, has a similarly meaty and ambiguous exchange with her Christian sister that reveals that her beliefs are both sensitive and solid.
The atheists in this episode give us a lot to digest; the religious, not so much. Mercedes believes in “something” and thinks that everyone else must, too. Rachel needs Finn to affirm that her “children will be free to worship in the way that [she] decide[s] is right.” Quinn believes in God because she didn’t have a lizard baby. Finn models the prayer maturity of most ten-year-olds. Sure, cheese is just glorified, tasty mold, but it would’ve been nice to see someone with a deep and dynamic faith on this show. Instead, all we get is Velveeta.
Bryan: And to make things worse, Finn eats that lab-grown American cheese that, days later, had melted and reconstituted who knows how many times. It was an odd action, but we’re left with that empty plate, not Kurt in the hospital room. It is entirely possible that he’s just getting over his delusion and moving into a godless chapter. But, perhaps what he’s really done is partake in his own communion. Christ has died, Christ-crust has risen, Christ will come again – as what? Indigestion? Or, as the nutrients needed to question everything daily, why we’re floating, and why it’s not our faith, but our honesty to admit that folding our hands in prayer isn’t what it takes to touch someone else.
About the Authors:
Chris Stedman is the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter–Religious Dialogue™. Chris received an MA in Religion from Meadville Lombard Theological School at the University of Chicago, for which he was awarded the Billings Prize for Most Outstanding Scholastic Achievement. A summa cum laude BA in Religion graduate of Augsburg College, Chris is the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. Previously a Content Developer and Adjunct Trainer for the Interfaith Youth Core, Chris is a secular humanist working to foster positive and productive dialogue between faith communities and the nonreligious. He is currently writing a book on this topic and serves on the Leadership Team of the Common Ground Campaign, a coalition of young people standing up in response to the recent wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence in America.
Bryan Parys is an adjunct instructor of writing at the University of New Hampshire, and reviews instrumental music for The Silent Ballet. He holds a BA in English from Gordon College and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from UNH. His Master’s thesis, Wake Sleeper, chronicles his upbringing as a Christian, and how this journey was marked at age four with the passing of his father. The images of waking and sleeping show up throughout to suggest the literal and metaphoric struggles between night/light, life/death, and faith/doubt. His blog of the same name serves as an active forum for parsing the disparity and mystery behind endings and eternity.