God, Grilled Cheese, and Glee

Fox’s hit TV show Glee waded into the fraught waters of belief and disbelief last night, with mixed results.  Three separate storylines focused on the faith or lack thereof of the characters.

Story #1: Most prominent was the story of Kurt, the gay son of an auto mechanic.  Kurt’s dad has a heart attack and goes into a coma, and we subsequently learn that Kurt is an atheist when his friends begin to offer religious assertions as comfort.

The Good: Kurt is unapologetic and consistent in his disbelief.  When challenged that he “can’t disprove God,” he gets in a zinger involving Bertrand Russell’s Celestial Teapot (although Kurt jazzes it up a bit by putting a dwarf that shoots lasers from its boobs inside the teapot).  The show closes with a great human moment when Kurt tells his dad that he doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe in their family.  I thought it was refreshing to have a character so openly profess his disbelief, and NOT be converted by the end (and I was nervous at a few points it might go that way).

The Bad: Kurt violates the Phil Plait rule, and sometimes comes off as a dick.  He calls the class “mental patients” for believing in God, and tosses several of them from his dad’s hospital room when they show up to pray.  (I defend him on this point, though.  If you make your views known and people shove their religion in anyway, I think you’re entitled to be pissed.)

Story #2: Finn, the dim but earnest football player, makes a grilled cheese and, due to a fluke of the George Forman Grill, ends up with Grilled Cheesus.  After carefully excising the half of the sandwich without the lord’s countenance (because Finn was, after all, really hungry), Finn begins praying for various selfish things: to win a football game, to get to second base with Rachael, to become quarterback again.  Every wish comes true, and every time Finn expressly gives credit to Grilled Cheesus.  It all unravels, however, when Finn realizes all that happened was for completely explainable reasons, and his newfound faith dissolves with a rendition of “Losing My Religion.”  And the consumption of Grilled Cheesus.

The Good: First, it’s just funny as hell to watch Finn pray to a grilled cheese.  Best line: “I never went to Sunday School, so I don’t know if you’re like a genie and I get three wishes.”  Also interesting to show a shallow but common form of Christianity, what Kurt called “Santa Clause for adults.”  Nice scene when Finn gives credit to god for his romantic success with Rachael, and is reminded that Rachael let him touch her, because she cares about him.

The Bad: Not much to complain about here.  Finn’s a nominal believer, then an earnest but selfish believer, then decides it’s all crap.  Works for me.

Story #3: Cheer coach and villain extraordinaire Sue Sylvester gets wind that the Glee Club is singing religious songs and takes Will to the principal’s office for violating the separation of church and state.  We also learn that Sue prayed as a child for her sister, who has Down’s Syndrome, to “get better,” and when her prayers weren’t answered and people treated her sister cruelly, concluded that “it wasn’t that I wasn’t praying hard enough.  It was that no one was listening.”

The Good: Sue is also unabashed about her disbelief.  And it’s one of the “sincere Sue” moments.

The Bad: She comes off as a “bitter atheist.”  Her disbelief seems more of an angry reaction to her sister’s situation than a considered position.  Toward the end, she appears to soften toward belief for no other reason than her sister offering to pray for her, which again makes her disbelief seem shallow.

All in all, I think the show offered a mostly fair portrayal of atheism and atheists.  Despite his snippish moments, Kurt is sympathetic and grateful for his friends’ concern, even if he doesn’t share their beliefs.  Sue provides a genuine emotional critique of religion, if it is isn’t all that philosophically sophisticated.

And Finn? Grilled Cheesus.  Hee hee.

5 Responses to God, Grilled Cheese, and Glee

  1. Tom Ryberg says:

    Thoughtful reflection. I think, given my own perception (progressive Christian) that the believers were portrayed primarily as overbearing, vapid, and pretty inarticulate at best, that the show’s creators did about as good a job at tackling a diversity of religious viewpoints as possible, given that it is Glee, and on prime time.

    That said, I thought that perhaps the most significant take-away was actually not about a particular brand of atheism or belief, but rather about how people with widely divergent beliefs can relate to one another. And that is a message we don’t get often enough.

    In peace,
    TR

  2. Tricia says:

    Hello there, I saw your blog on the Friendly Atheist discussion about this very episode! I, too, thought that the episode was done well. It was clearly an ambitious task for the writers and the actors, considering how sensitive people get when you portray their beliefs. Although many of the portrayals were over the top, in typical glee fashion, there were some truths that I think viewers could find in the show, or at least ideas of things to think on.

    Cheers!

  3. Sophie says:

    Good review. I must admit, as an atheist I was kind of offended at the portrayal of atheism as a result of ‘rejection/loss in faith’ rather than a belief based on thorough research and logic. I agree with your “bitter atheist” conclusion regarding the opinion of Sue Sylvester, but I felt that Kurt was portrayed that way too – He is atheist because the church doesn’t accept homosexuality. I was also extremely annoyed at the persistent badgering of the one ‘real’ atheist on the show by those who are religious. I personally find that behavior intrusive, offensive and obnoxious in my own life, and don’t want people thinking they should try to “convert” atheists into believing what they do. I guess I may be extreme, but if we, as atheists/agnostics have to tolerate fanatical religions (and schools/work/government constantly making exceptions for them), they should have to tolerate our beliefs – or lack thereof – as well. Being such a popular show, Glee had the chance to represent religious/nonreligious tolerance and acceptance, but instead came across as preaching gospel instead.

  4. @Tom Ryberg

    I’m sympathetic to your thoughts on the perception of believers on the show. Kurt’s friend Mercedes was particularly portrayed as pushy in her beliefs. There is, however, a grain of truth there. Christians are enjoined to “make disciples” and share the Gospel. I know many progressive Christians don’t really act on this, but it’s because they’re picking and choosing the parts of the Bible to act literally on, not because it isn’t there. And there really isn’t any way to “make disciples” without being somewhat pushy. I mean, a Christian believes they have the truth and that their friends need that truth to avoid eternal damnation. How can they NOT be pushy about it, if they love their friend? It’s a feature of the belief system. But I agree with you, the message of “live and let live” that finally came through in the show is much appreciated.

    @ Sophie

    I actually LOVED Kurt’s line about “The church isn’t exactly comfortable with gays. Or women. Or science.” Three big problems summed up in a punchy nutshell.

  5. TR says:

    Hello EA,

    Sorry I missed this until now. Appreciate your response. I just wanted to respond to your observations that progressive Christians “[pick and choose] the parts of the Bible to act literally on.”

    Three things. First, let’s be clear: there is no Christian, from the squishiest progressive to the most Bible-thumping literalist, who doesn’t “pick and choose” which parts of the Bible to apply literally and which to set aside. In my experience, Christians who do not subscribe to biblical literalism simply tend to be more honest about what they are choosing to follow, and why. Second, there is no reason that Christians must adhere to biblical literalism in the first place. Just because some Christians (and, oddly, atheists) would prefer that all Christians be literalists, doesn’t make it so, and it’s not somehow inauthentic to Christianity to be a nonliteralist. In fact, the notion among Christians that the Bible should be interpreted literally only arose in the last two hundred years. Third, everyone “picks and chooses” what they believe, from a variety of sources, and runs it through a variety of filters. Obviously, agreeing with Aristotle in part doesn’t mean you have to sign onto every last thing he ever wrote. Why exactly must I seek to follow every last thing in the Bible? Is that what you believe, or what you’ve heard Christians should believe? (Or what you want Christians to believe, because it’s more convenient for your arguments?) But for those who have a listening spirit, our holy books can reveal so much more than mere literal truth and application, thank God.

    Peace to you,
    TR

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