Gleefully faithful

If you haven't heard yet, Glee tried to drum up a bit of controversy last week by focusing the episode on religion. The provocative show regularly takes stereotypes to the extreme, and last week's show was no exception. Nicole Neroulias has a nice roundup--essentially, one of the main characters discovered that his burnt grilled-cheese sandwich looked like Jesus, inspiring the glee club to sing about faith.

Yes, this post is a delayed reaction, but I'm a big believer in the power of Hulu. Television should not dictate people's schedules, so I fit in episodes when I have spare time over the weekend. We don't do television critiques here, so if you're interested in that, I will point you to the Atlantic's Kevin Fallon for a sense of the dialogue on religion.

The episode featured a host of dramatic cliches: a montage flashback of father and son playing together, a teary-eyed hospital scene, a slow motion run through a hallway to deliver bad news. The ways the glee clubbers expressed their views on faith—dialogue like "It seems to me that true spirituality is making the most of the life you've been given"—were not only untrue to the ways the show's characters speak, but to how any teenagers, anywhere, voice their opinions.

Religious reaction to the show appears mixed. Jonathan Acuff made Glee a recent target on his "Stuff Christians Like" blog for "loving or hating Glee."

1. You’ve got to watch it!

In church on Sunday a friend described to me some of the Christian undertones and discussion that often peppers the script of Glee. Then someone else tweeted me and implored me to not only watch it, but write about it. "It's awesome! You would be crazy not to be watching it!" That's what some people tell me.

2. I can only assume that satan is the executive producer of Glee.

Worst show ever. In addition to butchering Journey songs, they're pushing a really horrible agenda on us. It's garbage. I would sooner slow dance with the Golden Compass or share a sleeping bag with a bunch of Harry Potter books. I hate that show and all Christians should.

There's no middle ground. You hate it or you love it. Or so it would appear. I've not watched a whole season and don't have a firm opinion on Glee. (I don't love it as much as I love the new music from Mumford and Sons for instance or Alpha Rev.)

Some of the stereotypes are reversed to surprise the audience. Amy Julia Becker wrote at Beliefnet about how she was pleased with the way the episode portrayed someone with Down syndrome.

The episode centered around questions about God's existence, and Coach Sue explained that she had stopped believing in God when people made fun of her sister in spite of her prayers. When she admits this to her sister, her sister simply smiles. She says, "God doesn't make mistakes." And then, as Sue is leaving, her sister asks, "Would you like me to pray for you, Sue?" ... Sue's sister was the only one who demonstrated any kind of spiritual maturity. She loved her sister without browbeating her. And her faith remained strong in spite of what Sue perceived as adversity.

Glee creator Ryan Murphy hinted ahead of time that the show would deal with some sensitive issues.

"I love when people see Jesus in bird droppings on the windows and then there are lines out the door and that seems to happen so often now," says co-creator Ryan Murphy. "To me, it just shows everybody in our society, particularly young people, are just desperate to believe in something."

"Grilled Cheesus" is also the series' most provocative episode to date, and is almost certain to spur controversy. Murphy has always been able to push buttons (hello Nip/Tuck!), but he says that he (and his co-writers Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan) really wanted to provide a balanced depiction of faith and spirituality. "We went through and counted it word by word and line by line," says Murphy. "Every time somebody said something anti-religion, we made sure somebody said something pro."

Given his interest in religion, wouldn't it be great if we knew a little more about Murphy's own religious background? Remember how the New York Times dropped the ball when it got the chance before Eat Pray Love's release? TV Guide took a little stab at explaining his faith in its preview.

As for Murphy's own beliefs? "I do believe in God," he says. "I think religion gave me great structure and discipline and order... The older I get the more I feel like God Is a collective good. I think that's what the episode is saying. That's what all these kids are desperately trying to find in their lives."

In a lengthy interview with NPR's Terry Gross in 2009, they discuss his Catholic background, reaction to his coming out, and how he wanted to be the Pope. Here's part of the exchange.

GROSS: Yes whatever you know. But so when you came out and making your little kind of officially persona-non-grada in he Catholic church, did it hurt to be rejected by the church or were you already done with the church by then?

Mr. MURPHY: I was already kind of done with the church in an early age, but I'm very very glad that had that religious upbringing because you know it really taught me about storytelling and it really taught me about theatricality. I mean you know the Easter services and the idea of people being raised from the dead and curing leprosy and the, you know, the stations of the cross and all that stuff I was really drawn to and I realize now that I was probably drawn to it because it was just about a way to tell a story.

And so, I feel like I was very well served by that. And I still go to church, you know, even though the church is not very embracing. As a whole, I think if you look at individual archdiocese, you see that, you know, many of the priests and the nuns and the people who work at the church are so, I do go to church. I go to church, you know, here in Los Angeles and I have always been embraced in the church. The different kind of churches that I go to seem to have a sort of large gay contingency and no one says anything. So, I just think that it's a different world than it was. I don't think anything is black or white anymore.

In the Times profile, Murphy said he saw himself in the character Kurt. I'd like to know whether he sees himself in any of the characters in the religion episode. Something tells me that if the audience knew more about the man behind the curtain, the episode might have been more compelling.

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