I’ve haven’t been able to get the implications out of my mind. Last weekend, I watched a recent episode of the television program, “Glee.” The show was titled “Grilled Cheesus,” and it offered a fascinating glimpse into the public perception of faith / religion / spirituality in America these days. The show featured some beautiful music — haunting stuff, really – and a bizarre mix of comedy and tragedy that brilliantly demonstrated the good, the bad, and the ugly of American Christianity. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the possible implications for my own life of faith in this post-modern, pluralistic culture of ours.
Wikipedia offers the following summary of the episode, which seems quite complete and comprehensive — so, instead of trying to do it myself, I’ll just quote directly its entry on “Grilled Cheesus” (in order to familiarize those who might not have seen the episode for themselves):
When glee club co-captain Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) believes he has found the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich, he asks for three prayers to be granted: the first is for the school football team to win a game. He promises to return the favor by honoring Jesus in Glee Club that week. When his first prayer comes true, Finn asks the glee club to pay tribute to Jesus through song.
Club member, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), is devastated when his father Burt (Mike O’Malley) suffers a heart attack. His best friend, Mercedes (Amber Riley), sings Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You” to him, hoping he will find strength in faith. However, Kurt reveals he is an atheist. Cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), also an atheist, takes umbrage at the glee club singing religious songs and has Kurt make a formal complaint. When confronted by guidance counselor, Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), Sue admits that as a child, she prayed that God would cure her sister Jean (Robin Trocki), who has Down syndrome. Her prayers went unanswered, leading her to conclude that God does not exist.
Mercedes, Rachel, and Quinn (Dianna Agron) pray for Burt, with Rachel singing “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from Yentl at his bedside. Kurt is resistant, and at glee club rehearsal sings The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, stating that at his mother’s funeral all he wanted was for his father to tell him everything was going to be ok. Instead he simply took his hand, he then states that his faith takes the form of love for his father. He accepts an invitation from Mercedes to attend her church, where the choir sing “Bridge over Troubled Water”. At the church service, Mercedes asks the congregation to pray for Kurt and Kurt’s father.
Finn’s remaining prayers, for his girlfriend Rachel (Lea Michele) to let him touch her breasts and for him to be reinstated as quarterback, also come true. However, his reinstatement as quarterback occurs when his replacement, Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet), is injured during a game when a member of the opposing football team tackles Sam and dislocates his shoulder. Finn feels responsible and confesses his guilt to Emma, who tells him it is unlikely God is communicating with him through a grilled cheese sandwich. A despondent Finn doubts his new-found faith, singing R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”.
At Burt’s bedside, Kurt tells his still unconscious father that while he is an atheist, he feels he should have accepted his friends’ prayers. As Kurt cries, Burt begins to regain consciousness and is able to squeeze his son’s hand. Meanwhile, Sue visits Jean in her residential home and discusses God with her sister. Jean asks Sue if she may pray for her, and Sue accepts. Later, the glee club comes together to sing Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”. Sue watches the performance, but tells Will she will not report him for allowing a religious song. At home, Finn eats the remainder of the grilled cheese sandwich.
It’s a really well-done episode, which can still be found on Hulu (though, unfortunately, this means of accessing the video is only available if you have an American IP address). If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend that you give it a try. If you’re an American Christian, be warned that you might be inclined to feel offended… Glee’s natural view towards Christianity is not very positive (i.e. one of the lead antagonists on the show is a vindictive cheerleader who wears a cross around her neck and heads up the school’s Chastity Club — all while hypocritically getting herself pregnant and regularly terrorizing the show’s protagonists). But I think it’s an instructive process, all the same.
Anyway, within the storyline of “Grilled Cheesus,” I’m particularly intrigued to notice three examples of “Christians,” responding to the situation with Kurt’s father in the hospital and Kurt’s natural antagonism towards faith (it’s probably also be significant to note that Kurt is gay). In particular, the characters of Quinn, Finn, and Mercedes offer markedly different approaches to the situation which can be highly instructive for people within the church today.
Quinn (the pretty, hypocritical cheerleader) is snarly, snarky, defensive. When Kurt suggests that he’s bothered by the idea of faith in the supernatural, Quinn snips back at him and talks about the protection of her religious rights. She doesn’t offer much sympathy to Kurt’s situation but rather seems to care more about herself than others. It seems to me (as much as I don’t like to admit it) that Quinn represents the majority of active Evangelical Christians in America.
In contrast to Quinn, Finn (the quarterback and male lead in the glee club) is dopey, superstitious, and easily swayed by the circumstances. He prays to a burned grilled cheese sandwich, and believes that the sandwich is genuinely working for him. Though he doesn’t seem to be as malicious as Quinn, his prayers are primarily self-centered. His response to Kurt’s situation is superficial and ineffective. And when the silliness of some of his beliefs are pointed out, he swings to the opposite extreme and renounces all traces of faith. It seems to me that Finn represents the majority of “cultural Christians” in America.
Representing a third (and better) alternative, Mercedes is a Christian who is firm in her convictions, who responds out of relationship, and who invites unashamed interaction without apology. She’s the only Christian who is a genuine friend to Kurt, even though he is proudly gay and atheistic. She genuinely seems to care about his situation and pleads with Kurt (out of the context of their relationship) to not block out people who are sincerely trying to help him as best as they know how. When she invites him to a worship service at her church, she asks her spiritual family to pray with her for Kurt and his father, and the church reaches out to include Kurt in spite of his disbelief. In the end, Kurt comes to appreciate the heart behind Mercedes’ Christ-centered actions — even if he cannot fully embrace the life of faith for himself — and their relationship is strengthened for future interaction. It seems to me that Mercedes offers an ideal for those of us meaningfully trying to follow Jesus and represent Him to the outside world.
But what do you think? How would you react if you were one of the members of the William McKinley High School Glee Club, in the midst of all these events? How can we learn from Quinn, Finn, and Mercedes? And what do you think about that dramatic arrangement of “I Want to Hold Your Hand?”