Tuesday, October 12, 2010

GLEE: "Grilled Cheesus"

"I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as you don't eat my Grilled Cheesus."

Okay, so nobody said that in the episode. But we did get a certain satirical bite at misplaced religion in this episode in the same vane as "Plastic Jesus" (a great song, and one that satirizes people, not religion). Sorry this is so late in getting posted (as if all three of my readers really care). Anyway, Glee takes on the notion of religion in the episode, but casts the net so wide that it's hard to really do any justice to one idea in 4o minutes. That said, there was some good stuff, and some missed opportunities.

In an obvious connection to those news stories where people start seeing Virgin Mary in everything, Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich that seems to have Jesus on it. He takes this as a sign, and decides to devote his life to Jesus Christ. ...sort of. He ends up funneling his faith into the sandwich. He prays to it. He calls it "cheesy Lord", praising it for being delicious and asking it to grant his requests. There's a lot going on here. First, the absurdity is funny, but also sadly kind of true. Unlike other shows that have done similar episodes about religious manifestations, it doesn't have drastic consequences for others; only Finn. And even though it's an extreme to start praying to a sandwich, Finn has never been religious and there's a part of him that really is seeking God. There's something endearing and disturbing about it. And lest we pick on Finn, it's really no more ridiculous than other Christian extremism. Is praying to a grilled cheese sandwich with Jesus any more bizarre than Catholics praying before the "Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament"? For those who don't know what I'm talking about, sometimes after a priest blesses the "host" (that is, the plasticky wafer that's laughingly called bread), and thus transubstantiated it -- Catholics believe somehow it BECOMES Jesus in some sense -- they put it on display in a golden thing that looks like a sun. Then people pray in front of it. I'm not kidding. They even genuflect while walking past it because that bread in there, that's Jesus. So I'm just pointing out one can have a sincere faith in Jesus but also go in for some really wacky religion with it.

Kurt's hair looked really good in this episode. I don't usually comment on men's hair, but I thought it looked better than his usual 'do. I have a thing about hair.

Finn asks the glee club if they can use glee as an opportunity to sing songs that glorify Jesus (I think this had something to do with some deal Finn made with the sandwich. It's been a week and I don't remember exactly). Mercedes and Quinn like the idea. Mr. Shue is sufficiently dubious enough to broaden it to "spiritual" songs that aren't necessarily Christian. Don't want to get into a church/state argument -- though one comes up later anyway. Most are open to the idea of singing about belief or whatever, but good-hair Kurt will have none of it. He rags on the church. One reason being that he's gay and the church excludes him and then damns him for it. There's a sense in which I feel for Kurt. And the kind of vitriol spewed by the Westboro Baptists and the like (the "God Hates Fags" types) is uncalled for. But Kurt also mentions how they view homosexuality as a choice, and then he says "Like anyone would choose to be a social outcast on a daily basis." What's interesting about this is how Kurt is being both insightful and blind. I do think "choice" is bandied about far too much; most Christians don't believe people just wake up and say, "I think I'll be gay today." However, there ARE people who live their lives choosing to be social outcasts on a daily basis: Christians! Christians are maligned by people like Kurt every day. Despite the "Christian nation" rhetoric, it's socially tolerated to believe in a god, but Christians are constant objects of ridicule in the media for believing in miracles or resurrection or Creationism. Kurt himself even rags on how they are opposed to science. And yet they put up with it. Nobody's born a Christian, they choose it as a lifestyle. And yet they choose to be ostracized. In many parts of the world it will get them killed. In this way, Christians and gays have something in common and it has bothered me since I was very young that this is overlooked.

Puck also isn't down with praising Jesus in glee. He breaks into a performance of Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young". What I liked about the song's use here is that it's anti-Catholic message is actually on display. Often you hear it as a catchy tune, but Glee dared to present it in its proper context. I did not however like how it was choppily edited for length. Puck also claims the song was another in his string of "only performing songs by Jewish artists." Wait a tick, Billy Joel is Jewish? Really? Because I though I had read he was raised Catholic. I distinctly remember reading quotes about his opinions of Catholic guilt (which obviously feature in the song). If he is Jewish, I guess I learned something. Oh, and if Puck's only playing songs by Jews, can we pleeeeease get a Dylan song one of these days?

As in many such television episodes, some tragedy strikes to make people question their beliefs. Here, Kurt's dad has a heart attack and goes into a coma. With him in the hospital, many of the kids start praying for him, but Kurt wants none of it. Mercedes sings an inspirational song for Kurt. He appreciates the sentiment but doesn't believe in God. He's correct that he has as much right to talk about his atheism as the rest do their faith. Atheism is a faith of sorts after all. Then Kurt says something that I was hoping might come up: "I think God is like Santa Claus for adults." This is a perfect analogy for what I think is wrong with how we present God sometimes, and why Santa Claus is dangerous to Christian society. God is NOT Santa Claus. He's not some jolly bearded man in the sky who gives you whatever you want when you ask for it. Many believers do see God as that sort of figure. They are deluded. This all really should be a topic for a separate post, but what hurts God in so many eyes I think is that Santa turned out to be a lie. It's a cushy story told to children until their old enough to know none of it is true. This leads many to think NONE of the wonderful things they've been led to believe are true. If you can logically disprove Santa, what's to stop atheists from trying to logically disprove God? I think especially Christian homes should avoid the Santa Claus nonsense because it muddies things. Also, it oversimplifies belief into something warm and cuddly. But isn't Santa supposed to know if you're good or bad? Doesn't he punish the bad people with coal?? How come no kid you've ever known ever got coal for Christmas? That whole thing leads to a theology where everyone is ultimately good, and therefore why do you need a God figure anyway who is watching you so you better not mess up? I don't agree with Kurt's assessment of God, but I definitely agree that's how many people think of Him. It's a notion that I find just repugnant and silly. I don't believe in a sunshine and unicorns kind of God. Kurt then goes on to say if there is a God that he's kind of a jerk. Well, I guess that's a matter of interpretation, but when was the last time you accused Santa of being a jerk? Food for thought.

Rachel and Finn go out to a field so that Rachel can pray for Kurt's dad, Yentl-style. It's really just an excuse to get Rachel to sing "Papa Can You Hear Me" on the show.

Finn continues to pray to Grilled Cheesus at school. He says he doesn't know if prayer is different from a genie granting wishes, but asks that he be able to touch Rachel's breasts. Wouldn't you know, shortly thereafter, he slides into second base. Of course, this leads Finn to believe in the awesome power of Grilled Cheesus.

The above scene features a discussion between Rachel and Finn regarding religion. She wants to be sure that Finn's newfound Christianity doesn't clash with her Judaism. She wants her future children raised Jewish, to which Finn humorously replies, "our kids should totally go to Jew church and wear those little hats and eat that salty stuff on bagels." Rachel says both her gay dads are Jewish. This led me to ask the question... is Rachel really Jewish then? I know that it's a tricky thing defining Judaism as cultural or religious or what, but on a certain level, isn't it inherited from the mother? Was Rachel's mother Jewish? Does she even know? Just wondering.

About half-way through the episode, with all the talk of spirituality and characters ragging on God and/or the church I started hoping for the Christians to get a little more representation. The Jews were respectfully presented via Rachel and Puck. But so far the only Christian is Finn, and he's praying to a sandwich. He's not a real Christian who's lived in the faith for awhile. I was bummed that the episode didn't go any further towards having a rounder view of Christian faith. Quinn is something of a hypocrite, though maybe she's more penitent this year, and her dad's a hardline fundamentalist. Mercedes is Christian, but we only get Josh Groban-type stuff from her. Is it so offensive for a character to be normal and still believe in a resurrected Jesus? I know popular kids in schools who are good Christian kids. I just felt like it would have been nice to have one in the episode. Not saying that the show was wrong for dealing with questions of atheism or everything else, just that it was starting to feel a little one-sided.

Kurt comes to the hospital to visit his father, only to find that several of the girls are praying there for him. Kurt throws them out, and brings in a Sikh to do some acupuncture on his father. Basically, Kurt trusts science rather than God. But this is a curious moment because Sikhism IS a religion. Secondly, acupuncture in its own way is scientifically nonsensical. It doesn't exactly follow what western science knows of anatomy, and yet it seems to work in its own way. Is this really that far removed from any other faith that on the surface makes no sense but might still have effect? Kurt, like many atheists, is more angry at church-based institutional religion than all religious thought, whether or not he admits it.

Later in glee club, Kurt asks to sing a song for his father. He is reminded of a time when he was young and is father held his hand, so he sings the Beatles song "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It's reasonably effective, but the arrangement of the song was blatantly stolen from the movie Across the Universe. The slowed down ballad take on the song is nice, but I've heard it before. The song was intercut with footage of young Kurt and his daddy. The casting department did a great job casting a kid who really looked like Chris Colfer.

It was around here that I started wondering just when did glee club become a karaoke bar? That's all they do now! They show up, say "I have a song to sing", then the band magically knows it while they sing it and their friends applaud. Don't they have actual rehearsal? Is Shue still assigning them things?

Finn learns the hard way the old axiom "be careful what you wish for". After the success of the Rachel mammary prayer, he asks the sandwich to make him football captain again. Well, in the game, Sam gets pummeled and Finn is made captain. Finn feels very guilty about this and talks to the guidance counselor. She tells him that these things didn't happen because a sandwich had magic powers. They just happened. At this point, Finn sings "Losing My Religion". I thought that was a fun choice of song. Though if this is how Finn really feels, I shudder to think how his faith would have been challenged when Grilled Cheesus started to get moldy.

Finn's story though does illustrate other problems people seem to have with prayer. Prayer is not supposed to be just wish-granting. It's communing with the divine. Many also seem to equate "answered prayer" with "result I want". That is, a prayer is "answered" if you get what you asked for. That goes back to Santa; I didn't get my Red Ryder BB gun so prayer doesn't work. But as Finn learned (I hope), God is not just a genie granting wishes. But I also want to take this opportunity to bust another prayer myth. Some believe that prayer doesn't do anything and stuff just happens. To counter this, the religious make a case of always saying that "God always answers prayer." They'll tell you sometimes he says no, sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says wait. Let me rock your world for a minute; according to the Bible, God does NOT always answer prayer. So while I do believe in prayer and that it can be effective, I also don't want people believing an oversimplified lie. There are times God gives people the silent treatment in scripture and says "though they cry out to me, I will not hear." I wish I had specific references to give. But trust me; for the most part God does indeed answer prayer and indeed he does sometimes say no. But every now and then, he doesn't answer at all. Again, this is its own topic. A good book on prayer is Phillip Yancey's recent book Prayer, if you're curious. He's also on my side with this issue.

Mercedes invites Kurt to church with her, saying that even if he doesn't believe in God he should believe in something beyond himself. Kurt agrees to go, since he gets to wear a fabulous hat (also a topic for another day...). Mercedes sings in the choir, and they do a gospel rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water". It's a nice song, but of course ends up being more about people helping each other than God or anything. This is not wrong necessarily, a part of Christianity is "bearing one another's burdens", but again I wish there were something a little more.

Meanwhile this whole episode, Sue Sylvester wants Mr. Shue to stop doing spiritual music because of church and state separation. We learn that she doesn't believe in God because her sister has Down Syndrome and kids made fun of her when they were young. What kind of God allows that? Later, Sue visits her sister and asks if she believes in God. She says, "Yes. God doesn't make mistakes." It's sort of left there. Really, this is another fair point and one that's nice to see debated on TV. Many young people really do have questions about this sort of thing, and I think that it's just as important to discuss them as it is to discuss oral hygiene. I wonder though about the God doesn't make mistakes thing. Maybe mistakes is too strong a word. ...But God certainly does REGRET certain actions throughout Old Testament scripture. God is sorry he ever made man, and sends a flood. God is sorry he made Saul king and anoints David. The list goes on. Again, just my somewhat subversive Christian two cents.

In the end, Kurt visits his dad and realizes that it was wrong of him to send the praying girls away. They were just trying to help. He says that he doesn't believe in God, but what he does believe in is the connection between him and his father. At this point, Mr. Hummel squeezes Kurt's hand. He's awake and everything will be okay.

The episode ends with the group singing Joan Osborne's "One of Us". It's another interesting choice, but in this context seems to be more about espousing the secular humanist ideology than anything else. "What if God was one of us?" plays right into the preceding scene. Kurt comes to believe in people, but little else. When you take what Mercedes was saying too, it seems that ultimately after throwing a lot of ideas out there, the show settles on a "let's all believe in humanity" conclusion. I don't really know how to feel about that. It almost felt TOO humanist to me. I completely understand Kurt feeling that way. It troubled me a little more when it came from Mercedes and ended the episode. Funnily enough, on the IMDB message board for this episode, a user named EducatedAtheist thought the episode was far too Christian, and was hoping for a message more about the connection between all of us. Um... did we watch the same show? That was exactly what I got from the show! What Christian message was there? Don't pray to grilled cheese?? I hope not all atheists have such blind rage.

So overall, I thought it was worthwhile discussion. There are so many different ways things could have gone. I'm actually impressed that Kurt didn't suddenly find God in the end. Not that I don't want him to, but because that cheapens the show. Like on Boy Meets World when Shawn suddenly prayed because Mr. Turner was in the hospital. Of course, that episode was more about cults. Anyway, I expected it to be a TV cliche; the dad is in the hospital, and you have to come to faith. When television shows do religion, it's always a tricky thing. I remember as a boy being very excited about the Family Matters episode when Steve Urkel "got saved" as we might say. That is, he went to church with the Winslows and "accepted the Lord" into his life (his words). It's hard to express what something like that meant in an evangelical community. Anyway, I hope that the things here follow through the series and don't drop off. I hope that Finn continues seeking in some way beyond a sandwich, and that Kurt is able to be civil with those he doesn't agree with.

While the song choices were mostly good, I did think of several missed opportunities.
"The Seeker" by The Who.
"Reason to Believe" by Rod Stewart
"God" by John Lennon -- this would have actually worked pretty well for Kurt. If you don't know the song, you probably at least know the reference to it in Ferris Bueller. John lists things he doesn't believe in, including Jesus, Bible, mantra, tarot, Hitler, Nixon, culminating in "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Maybe it would have required substantial rewriting, but it seems to me that sort of humanist conclusion is just what Kurt comes to.
"Jesus Walks" by Kanye West -- not a fantastic song, but Glee likes to do the hip hop stuff, and it would have been cool for a Christian character to present their own faith somehow. "The way Kathie Lee needs Regis, that's the way I need Jesus."
"I Believe in You" by Bob Dylan -- a hard song to sing, but a good basic "I have faith in something" song. I actually would have preferred if Mercedes had sung this instead of "I Look to You", but that's just 'cause I'm a Dylan fan.

I'm just glad nobody got up and sang "Jesus Take the Wheel".

Songs in tonight's episode:
Only the Good Die Young
I Look to You
Papa Can You Hear Me?
I Want To Hold Your Hand
Losing My Religion
Bridge Over Troubled Water
One of Us

Next Week:
I don't really know. The previews were vague. But we know Sam is back and joining glee club and that Brittany seems to have taken an interest in Artie... my my.


  1. I think the biggest challenge any media faces in presenting a Christian is the number of different belief systems that define themselves as Christians. We exist in the cultural mythology that we are a 'Christian nation' by keeping the details deliberately vague as to what that means. It is the ability of humans to unite under vague sweeping phases that is one of our strengths as a species. I have witnessed too many people split by the need to nail down the details. I think this is the basis for the saying 'the devil's in the details.'

    Glee did a good job of navigating a topic filled with options to 'jump the shark.' Which would be a shame for this excellent show to do so soon. After all, as a Christian, which is my self definition, my beliefs do not exactly coincide with you, Flinn or Mercedes.

  2. that's true enough. but would it be so hard for a Christian to state they believed in a Christ who was not also a sandwich? I don't need great theological debates beyond that.

  3. Addendum: I'm not sure that a human capacity to unite under sweeping vagueness is a strength. From "Yes we can!" to "arbeit macht frei", I think simple jingoism is a failing, especially when vague. Which is probably why I respond more to 613 or so commandments from God rather than Santa saying "be good for goodness sake!" like the dirt parking lot said, give me concrete any day.

  4. I saw the episode just now and I was researching commentaries about it. I stumbled upon your blog and found it quite insightful. On the whole, I agree with your evaluation. I think that the average Christian would not have identified with the characters portraying the smorgasbord of spiritual beliefs. All in all, as you said yourself: food for thought.


  5. I agree that the episode was food for thought. I may be simplistic but I believe 10 commandments are enough with special focus on the top 2.
    I see the vagueness as a strength in that we can live together with variation without killing each other over narrow concreteness that would force us into narrow lockstep regarding things we cannot be divinely sure of the ‘rightness.’

  6. Jessica, thanks for reading!

    clotrip: part of what leads to the wars of narrow-mindedness is interpretation. Like that scene in Life of Brian http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uywIYQEHZLs
    I think that's still borne out of vagueness or a human desire to block out specificity so as not to cloud our personal interpretation. "And everyone did what was right in their own eyes." - Judges 21:25