Gleek alert: if you don’t count “Mad Men,” our family’s favorite guilty pleasure is “Glee” (Fox TV, Tuesdays, 8:00 pm EST). Yeah, we’re in it for the singing and comedy just like everybody else (Jane Lynch, anyone?). But I’m also surprised by its occasional boldness–such as last night’s episode, “Grilled Cheesus,” which put the subject of teenage spirituality front and center.
Having just finished a book that describes how hard it is for young people to talk about faith, to hear some of TV’s most popular teen characters discuss, and enact, religion was stunning—and a little jarring. One of American culture’s most persistent “null” (absent) curriculums—the significance of belonging to and living out of a particular religious tradition—was being “out-ed” before my eyes, by Fox TV, of all places. I held my breath, wondering how the show would end. Would prayer become the magic potion, solving the episode’s crisis? Would “Glee” fall back on a tired-but-easy caricature of Christians in order to make a straw argument? Or would screenwriters demystify faith, and in the process dismantle it, to make room for a more rational approach to life?
None of those things happened—and “Grilled Cheesus” may turn out to be a provocative discussion starter for churches (with teenagers and adults), launching conversations about faith, prayer, and how to be Christian in a pluralistic culture. My inbox today was full of emails from youth pastors alerting me to the episode (many of them are using “Glee” in youth Bible studies or small groups). Even my classes were marked by a Glee-full buzz. Of course, it’s not all positive. So I invited some folks over tonight, youth pastors and seminarians who had seen “Grilled Cheesus,” to talk about it. Our discussion went like this:
“Grilled Cheesus”: Here’s What Ya Missed (if you saw the episode, you can scroll down to “Where Does ‘Grilled Cheesus’ ring true?”)
So—if you’ve been unplugged for the last year–“Glee” is about a high school show choir that brings together a group of teenagers who have nothing in common except a passion for singing (and a jaw-dropping set of pipes).
Last night’s episode mocks cheesy faith (literally, when Finn discovers the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich) while holding onto the power of tradition and an intergenerational church community. In this episode, church is more than a community of people who will “be there” for you. It is a place where people believe in God as something bigger, beyond ourselves (an interesting contrast to the show’s final number). Religion acknowledges that there is more to the world than what we can see in our immediate circumstances.
For what it’s worth, I thought the most moving parts of “Grilled Cheesus” involved show nemesis Sue Sylvester. Ironically, Sue—an agnostic—is the only adult in the show who offers explicit religious guidance, by giving Kurt room to exercise his atheism. Yet the very act of discussing God with a teenager raises questions about her own faith. (Watch for those scenes especially.)
Where Does “Grilled Cheesus” Ring True?
1. The kids are accepting of all religions, including atheism. “You are welcome to believe what you want, but here’s what I believe” is a frequent refrain in the show. The emphasis is on confessing, not converting, which is refreshing. I also found it refreshing that the episode did not homogenize all religious faiths one generic form of “spirituality.” Teenagers claimed and practiced particular religious traditions that mattered to them. The question of whether all religions are created equal remains open—and atheism is explicitly called into question. Yet Mercedes questions Kurt’s atheism in the context of friendship, out of care for someone she loves; it is not a battle of abstract ideologies.
2. Prayer matters. Prayer played an especially interesting role in last night’s episode. The Glee kids, it turns out, unapologetically pray (so do 80% of American teenagers, according to a National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health—and 40% pray daily. See the National Study of Youth and Religion) The cool-but-shallow Finn prays to Jesus Christ for miracles (namely, winning a game, reclaiming his former popularity, and a quick feel with Rachel). Meanwhile, the superior-but-vulnerable (and, we learn, atheist) Kurt–a gay kid with a single dad, whose approach to parenting could anchor a study group of its own–learns that his dad has had a heart attack, and lays non-responsive in the local hospital. Kurt’s friends pray, both to comfort Kurt and because they really hope God will intervene and heal Kurt’s dad. In one scene, Kurt asks them to stop—but while they leave the hospital, they don’t stop finding ways to turn to God on his behalf.
3. Crisis makes it okay to talk about religion. On normal days (and in normal “Glee” episodes) you don’t talk about religion in public school. In “Grilled Cheesus,” Finn raises the subject of religion by saying that he has given his life to Jesus Christ. This testimony evokes skepticism among his friends, and worry among his teachers.
But when Kurt’s dad has a heart attack, the kids confess their faith, and their religious questions, readily–and no one questions the validity of this conversation. (In the interviews I conducted for the National Study of Youth and Religion, many teenagers first thought about religion in the context of personal crisis.) Struggle seems to invite religious conversation, and it lends credence and importance to faith in God (witness Jean’s simple—but not simplistic—witness in response to living with Down’s syndrome, for example). Teenagers show little interest in easy button faith, but are quite open to God-questions in the midst of suffering.
4. It’s hard to talk about religion (or anything else) that matters deeply to us—but we can sing about it. There is an irony here, accidentally surfaced by the National Study of Youth and Religion: when something really matters to us, it gets harder to talk about. Yet having a language with which to talk about faith helps us lay claim to it; it becomes very difficult to have a faith that matters without a way to articulate it. It’s a little like the dilemma faced by families who love each other but never say so: having words to say “I love you” turns out to be enormously important in healthy family systems.
The solution on Glee is to sing about what they can’t say. When teenagers find words difficult, the arts become acts of faith, providing a “secondary language” that is often more powerful than the first. The moral of the story is that, when it comes to faith, words are not the only language we have, and they may not be the most important one. So churches need to be intentional about cultivating multiple “languages” that teenagers can use to convey sighs that are too deep for words.
5. Teenagers often equate God’s presence with getting what they want. When God answers teenagers’ prayers in the ways they hope for, they (like us) affirm God’s wisdom and presence in our lives. When God does not answer our prayers the way we expect, we tend to blame God or religion for not getting what we want. Finn gets what he wants and assumes Jesus is answering his prayers. Sue, on the other hand, prayed as a child for God to stop her beloved older sister (with Down’s Syndrome) from suffering —to no avail. So now she assumes God has abandoned ship. Even Christian teenagers need help distinguishing God’s power and presence from magical thinking.
6. Religion is still a humorless topic for the media. One of the first signs of anxiety is losing our sense of humor. Presbyterian pastor and doctoral fellow Christy Lang made this interesting observation about “Grilled Cheesus”: the only time humor was used in reference to religion was to mock Finn’s shallow, unreflective faith in Jesus as a magic genie. Is the only way we can laugh at religion is to disparage it? Clearly, religion is still an uncomfortable topic, and we are asking a lot if we ask teenagers (and congregations) to become articulate about their faith. It’s just so much safer to talk about Lady Gaga or Britney Spears.
If You Use “Grilled Cheesus”…Some Possible Questions
You don’t get a bunch of youth pastors together and not wind up with a few ideas about how to use a pop culture artifact to help teenagers grow in faith. Here are a few of the questions that surfaced in our discussion; maybe you can add them to yours.
1. God and the sacred meal
The sacred meal is a theme in this episode. Kurt’s family dinner is “sacred.” When Finn finally realizes that Jesus probably isn’t residing in a grilled cheese sandwich, he “eats Jesus” – he eats the part of the sandwich where Jesus’ image seemed to be. The grilled cheese sandwich has stopped being Jesus and has become a reminder of Jesus instead. Christians have a sacred meal too, and we also ingest reminders of (and in some traditions, the actual substance of) Jesus when we take communion. This ritual communicates who we believe God is—someone sent to live, and to die, alongside us–and what we believe God does in the world, and with us.
- Who is God to Finn? What do you think Finn thinks God’s job description is?
- Who is God to Kurt? What would Kurt say God’s job description is?
- Who is God to Mercedes? What would Mercedes say God’s job description is?
- Who is God to you? What do you think God’s job description is?
- Does your family have a sacred meal? What makes it sacred? Is it sacred to you?
- Does our church have a sacred meal? What makes it sacred? Is it sacred to you?
- What do Christians mean when we say we partake in the “body and blood of Christ” during communion? Does this matter to being a Christian?
This episode focuses a lot on prayer, including the consequences of prayer. You can’t talk about prayer without also talking about what happens when you pray, whether your prayers are answered in ways you don’t expect (Finn) or are not answered in ways you hope for (Sue, maybe Kurt). When the kids gather around Kurt’s dad’s bedside to pray, each in their own tradition, Mercedes explains that if they all pray in their own way, one of the prayers is bound to get through to God.
- Does God hear some prayers more than others? List all the different ways people pray in this episode. Is there a right way to pray?
- Is Finn’s prayer that Jesus “owes” Artie because God “kind of screwed him in the leg department” a good prayer? Why or why not? Is it significant that Artie has virtually no lines in a show about religion?
- Do you think the show leads you to conclude that Kurt’s dad starts to recover because of prayer?
- How do you feel about Jean’s offer to pray for Sue? Did you expect her to be a faith leader?
- Have you ever prayed for a friend who was struggling, and let them know that you were praying? What did they do? Did you really think God would do anything?
- Do you think Kurt’s dad became responsive because of prayer? Does prayer do anything?
3. Adults and teenage faith
The adults in the show respond differently to New Directions’ interest in “spiritual” music.
- Describe the different ways Will, Emma, Sue, and Sue’s sister respond to issues of spirituality. Who do you think is the most helpful? Why?
- How would adults in your school (church) respond?
- Are adults more uncomfortable than teenagers in talking about faith?
- Do teenagers need adults to talk about their faith? Or is it better for adults to keep quiet and just give kids room to believe what they want to?
- What’s the difference between talking about faith and talking about religion?
4. Walking the Talk
Some youth pastors think that “Grilled Cheesus” explores conversations that teenagers want to have—but may not be having because they lack peers and adults who are “safe” enough to broach the subject. Others think teenagers lack the confidence to practice faith by lighting a candle, or gathering around a hospital bedside to pray—but they might if they had a trusted adult to guide them, or a group of 3-4 like-minded peers to practice faith with them.
- Do you think the conversation about spirituality in the New Directions choir room would happen with your friends? Where would it take place? Who would have to be present (or absent)?
- What language do you use to express your deepest connections to God? Words? Songs? Art? Dance? Film? Writing? Something else? Explain or give an example. Do you ever need words to talk about faith, do you think? If no, how do others know who you are communicating about?
- Kurt feels guilty about arguing with his dad before the heart attack. Do you think Christianity makes you feel more guilty, or helps to relieve you of guilt? Have you ever prayed because you felt guilty about something? What happened?
- Where does Glee go from here? Once Kurt’s dad recovers, will it be done with religion? Do expressions of faith end for teenagers (or for us) once the crisis is over?
5. Religious pluralism and the church
For kids like Mercedes, who are grounded in their faith—who know who they are and what is important to them about Christ– “Grilled Cheesus” could be used to talk about how we go into a conversation about faith with people who are different from us. She tells Kurt, “I know you don’t believe in God, and that’s okay—each to his own. But you have to believe in something.” Then she goes on to say what she believes, using a song because words are difficult.
- What do you think of Mercedes’ approach to evangelism? Should she work harder to make Kurt want to be a Christian?
- Is it significant that Mercedes brought Kurt to worship instead of to youth group?
- What do you think about the way people in the church respond to Kurt when he comes to worship? How would your church respond to an atheist teenager who came to worship?
- Is it really okay for people to believe whatever they want to – “to each his own”? Are all religions the same?
- How do you talk about faith when you can’t find words to express it? Do you just say nothing? Do you turn to the arts (like music) for an alternate language? How hard is it for you to talk about God?
- If you had a friend from a different religion (or who is an atheist) who is struggling, how would you pray for them? Would you let them know of other ways your faith community could help them?
6. For parents and youth leaders:
- “Grilled Cheesus” might help open a discussion about a lot of the things many youth don’t like about Christianity—cheesy faith, attitudes toward homosexuality, faith versus magic, naïve Christians, whether things happen to punish me, etc.
- Show the episode to parents (separately) and ask them how they would answer some of the questions raised by the show. Ask them how they think their teenagers would answer these questions. Show the episode to teenagers (separately) and ask them the same things in reverse – so parents and teens can have a common discussion in the week ahead.
- As one person in our discussion noted, Mercedes is the kid we all want in our church. How do we challenge and nurture her? How do we help her faith grow to the next level?
(With deep thanks to Ashley Coates, Ashley Birk, Megan LeCluyse, Lauren Evans, Emily Chudy, Kristie Finley, Cathie Capp, Mandy McNeil and Nancy Hagner.)