Thursday, October 7, 2010

Glee and Spirituality

For those of you who are diehard Gleeks and haven’t seen this week’s episode, I have two things to say.  First, this post is filled with spoilers, so stop reading at the end of this paragraph.  Second, if you haven’t seen it yet, I get to take away your Glee card and your gay card. 

I spent a previous post examining the development of Kurt and would like to return to that for a moment.  Arguably, he’s one of the most three-dimensional characters on the show.  Despite accusations that he remains a gay teen caricature, Ryan Murphy’s genius lies in the fact that he’s managed to do the opposite, getting at some phenomenally ground-breaking observations on homosexual subjectivity.

For Gay Mormon Gleeks, this latest episode (titled “Grilled Cheesus”) chiseled a new and prominent dimension of Kurt’s character into understanding.  In examining this aspect of spirituality, the episode takes an effective strategy of balancing Kurt’s serious assertion of non-believe with Finn’s silly grilled cheese-worshiping foray into belief.  The result is equally balanced. 

Early in the episode, Kurt explains his distaste for religion: “The reason I don't go to church is that most churches don't think very much of gay people.  Or women.  Or science.”  In the wake of Boyd K. Packer’s General Conference talk, we can viscerally identify with Kurt’s statement; however, as we’ve been conditioned to walk the line and find a compromise between sexuality and religious authority’s hostility towards us (as well as principles such as polygamy and race), the connection with Kurt is not a complete one.

This is where the episode gets deeply philosophical.  While some might see Kurt’s disbelief as an affront to his religious classmates, Murphy draws a very even-handed picture playing out in school politics, Kurt’s father’s mortality, and attempts at reconciliation of diversity among friends. 

Emma confronts Sue

Kurt’s storyline has two foils: Sue’s mysterious childhood experiences and the aforementioned Finn plot.  Frustrated with Sue’s ambiguous motives and successful ban on spiritual songs after Kurt’s father collapses and is taken to the hospital, Emma  marches into Sue’s office demanding, “Please tell me Sue what horrible, horrible thing happened to you that made you such a miserable tyrant.”

Sue’s response as she closes the door for a moment of sincerity echoes Kurt’s sentiments of concern over spirituality being foisted upon him:

Since I was a little girl I've had exactly one hero.  My big sister.  You know how much I worshipped her?  She was the sun and the moon to me. 
And while I was still very young, I noticed that other people didn't feel the way I did.  People were rude to her.  They were cruel.  They laughed at her. 
And so I began to pray.  I prayed every night for her to get better.  And nothing changed.  So I prayed harder.  And after a while I realized that it wasn't that I wasn't praying hard enough. 
It was that nobody was listening. Asking someone to believe in a fantasy however comforting isn't a moral thing to do.  It's cruel. 

Just as the show demonstrates range in emotion, tone, and musical genre, this scene establishes a range of motivations for disbelief which a lot of us struggle with.  How many gay men and women have you known who have attempted to “pray away the gay” or faced ridicule in Sunday School for effeminate gestures?  Sue’s revelation shines light on Sue’s even more complex character as well as her paradoxically sympathetic motives for her supposedly cruel actions:

Emma: (interjecting) Don't you think that's just a bit arrogant?
Sue: It's as arrogant as telling someone how to believe in God, and if they don't accept it, no matter how openhearted and honest their dissent they're going to hell.  Well, that doesn't sound very Christian, does it?
Emma: Well, if that's what you believe, that's fine.  But please keep it to yourself.
Sue (sternly):  So long as you do the same.

Simultaneously, belief and non-belief are put in balance with each other as the show’s attempt to reflect true diversity comes to light.  As these two ideas are placed in opposition with one another, they are also placed on equal footing.  This is evident in the warm  conversation between Sue and her sister later in the episode:

Jeannie and Sue Playing Checkers

Sue: Do you believe in God, Jeannie?
Jeannie: Do you?
Sue: No, I don't.
Jeannie: Why not?
Sue: Because when we were little girls you were perfect in my eyes and and I watched the world be cruel to you.
Jeannie: God never makes mistakes.  That's what I believe.Do you want me to pray for you, Sue?
Sue: Yeah.  That would be nice.

While Sue might not agree with her sister, she loves, respects, and even values her beliefs.  Interestingly, that’s the utopian vision of the show in a nutshell as presented via its primary villain: you might be a certain type of person, believe a certain way, or prefer a certain style of music, but despite any differences we might hold, you are loved, respected and valued because of who you are and who we are. 

Kurt holding his dad's hand

Kurt realizes this very lesson as he learns the value of his father’s love and his friends’ beliefs at his ailing father’s hospital bedside:

“I should have let those guys pray for you.  It wasn't about me.  It was about you and... it was nice.
“I don't believe in God, dad.
“But I believe in you.
“And I believe in us.
“You and me—that's what's sacred to me. 
“And I am... I'm so sorry I never got to tell you that.”

In the wake of all of the pain and misery caused by differences in beliefs and understandings of homosexuality, I hope everyone might take to heart the message of valuing others for their differences not only in character but also in faith.  The lives of many would be enriched and saved from the tragedies to which we’re slowly growing accustomed.


(NOTE: This is an timely message as today marks the 12th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard). 


Phunk Factor said...

I knew u'd cover it so I watched the episode as soon as it aired....i loved this episode immensely because it showed how varied our reasons fr disbelief can be!!

While there are many reasons to hold belief in the man upstairs, there are just as many in not believing in him....and each to his own, we should not enforce our beliefs and opinions!!!

I can't begin to applaud Ryan Murphy's genius at planning out this episode...even the songs featured are soooo appropriate!!

Glee ROCKS!!!!

Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

This is what I love about Glee. It's not just a silly, fun high school show. Even some of the most well-written comedy I've seen since The West Wing doesn't stop them from tackling the most serious and important issues teenagers face today.

And there really aren't any stereotyped characters. Some of them might slip into a stereotyped role, but much is done to give them all depth and make them real. Sue is one of my favorite characters. Because she's not actually a villain. She almost always has a valid point to make about her problems with the Glee club - for instance her tirade about obesity and lack of physical activity when trying to give more funds to the Cheerios. When it comes down to it, she's not the heartless monster she appears to be at school.

In reality, that's what everybody does. We all put on a public face to cover up our vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Pablo said...

Thanks GMB! It was one of the best episodes they've ever done. Your review was perfect. It makes me want to watch it again even more now.

Some people will call me a bad parent for doing this, but I watch Glee with my kids. They love the music, first of all. (It does my heart good that I've passed on some of my musical genes to them). Some of the material goes over their heads, but not much. Kids are almost always smarter than many adults give them credit for.

The way Ryan Murphy, his crew and the cast deal with some pretty deep topics gives my kids and me a chance to have some amazing conversations that would have been much more difficult to have otherwise. I'm in awe of how beautifully the show has portrayed the relationship between Kurt and his dad (Burt). And the scenes between Sue and her sister (Jean)are sheer brilliance. It's some of the best TV being produced, because it's not just entertainment. It's thoughtful, provocative and speaks to the heart.

Gleek on!

naturgesetz said...

I didn't see the episode, but as you present it, the message is that there are good and valid reasons for not believing in God, and no good and valid reason for believing in him; but those who have realized that there is no God should be tolerant of the poor benighted souls who still believe.

naturgesetz said...

P.S. The reason I see it as I do is that when the characters express their reasons for unbelief, there is no response that suggests the inadequacy of their reason. Plus the fact that faith is portrayed, in one instance at least, as resting on something as stupid as Jesus in a cheese sandwich.

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

@Phunk: I’m glad you get at the idea of balance here. I know strongly religious and staunch atheistic persons who did not like this episode. I give it credit for its balance.

@Carla: Excellent point that Sue really isn’t the villain because there are no genuine villains, just people with genuine motives acting in their own and other people’s interests. BTW—I’m constantly being told that I need to buy The West Wing and watch the whole thing in one go since I’m such a TV nut. Don’t spoil anything for me before I get a chance to do so in Feb. or so.

@Pablo: I firmly echo your take on the scene with Sue’s sister. There’s something to say about a show that features characters (and actors) with disabilities.

@nat.: Great comment!
Nerding out in 3, 2, 1…
Though it’s not a view I hold myself, that has been one of the three major complaints against the episode (the second being the song choices—you’ll note I didn’t mention any of those for that reason, and the 3rd I’ll get to). I agree that the episode did treat belief in a less-favorable light than belief (because that’s simply where the focal point lay), but I def. wouldn’t go to the extreme to say belief is treated as something to be tolerated by those who don’t believe, though that’s how the episode starts out. I genuinely think that Sue values her sister’s belief because it sustains Jeannie and makes her genuinely happy even though Sue can’t find reason to do so herself; likewise, Kurt regrets not appreciating his friends’ spiritual efforts to help his father in his father’s darkest hour. Religion, to him, becomes the way his friends find and express love as he finds it less of an alienating force.
On the flip side, the other major complaint was that Kurt’s friends don’t respect his beliefs, praying in his father’s hospital room after he asked them not to. At the conclusion, a middle ground is reached effectively compromising both sides of this belief/non-belief debate. I’ve found the fact that both sides have such similar, mirroring criticisms fascinating.

Linds said...

I love Kurt. He's my favorite character. He is awesomely brave to be just who he is which is such a challenge to him, but he doesn't back down. (Plus who doesn't love a man who can sing like him? oy).

Popular Posts