Real American Spirituality: What “Grilled Cheesus” Really Means
(This post is about a recent & controversial episode of Glee, titled “Grilled Cheesus.” You can watch it here: Grilled Cheesus)
The world “Grilled Cheesus” aside
Most American Christians likely felt a little alienated or at least alone at some point in their lives. Unless you went to a Christian school or lived in the Bible belt, it was not popular (socially or numerically) to be a Christian. We were not the norm. So we grew to believe that those around us weren’t interested in God or Jesus or spiritual things, and started to think they had it all figured out for themselves. When told to share the Gospel, we figured the best thing to do is put “Christian” as our religious view on Facebook and then be a good person, hoping some non-Christian would notice our “different life” and then ask us about Jesus-y things. Only then could we speak about Him. God was abnormal, or even unnecessary.
Why? Maybe because the things we saw on TV or in movies made it seem that way. Where is God in the movies? Nowhere. Does a real God ever show up in Chicago, Casino Royale, Inception, The Notebook, 101 Dalmatians, Anchorman, Forrest Gump? Don’t take this to mean that I think all art and media should be all Christian-y things, but I don’t prefer the present extreme atheism. There’s no room on screen for people who want to know God or think He might actually be a big deal. The normal portrayal of American life is one without God, a God-absent world, a literally non-theistic universe. It wasn’t even a debate about God vs. no God. It was a given, taken for granted, that God did not exist.
People joke the Disney gives people unrealistic expectations of romance, but it isn’t all a joke. Our formative stories, our narrative benchmarks come from what we see, and what we saw told us that not-God was normal. When the TV world never showed us God, we got used to a never-talking-about-God world outside of church. He’s known by proxy at best when Christians are mocked. But He doesn’t even get to have a name or acknowledged existence.
In Simply Christian, N.T. Wright explains that Western society for the last two hundred years now has been ruled by a philosophy of skepticism, “making most people materialists by default… The goal was to make religion a small subdepartment of ordinary life, safe and separated off from everything else in the world, whether politics, art, sex, economics, or whatever… Live as if the rumor of God had never existed!” (Wright, 20). So that’s why. So where is God? The only place “safe” to put God is in fantastical supernatural-realm stories.
On TV: the CW show Supernatural is about a pair of good-looking brothers who kill monsters and demons. Occasionally, an angel from heaven will enlist their help in fighting evil (Buffy the Vampire Slayer redux). Some movies I can think of: Konstantine or Legion are about evil forces. God is a violent warmonger who is busy with His cosmic machinations. Why can God exist here? Because this is where we put figments of fantasy. Yes, these works portray God prominently but they aren’t really, for lack of a better term, normal. These are paranormal. Their God is fiction only, not a real God, not a real anything for real life.
What “Grilled Cheesus” did
Before we get into why it matters, we have to understand what the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did. While Glee isn’t a realistic drama, its caricatures are of normal people in normal life with normal problems (sex drives and popularity), not paranormal problems (portals to the underworld). “Grilled Cheesus” gives us three stories of real-enough folks. It is not that these stories boast excellent theology, or good acting (though Sue Sylvester never disappoints). But together they offer something meaningful, even necessary: it portrayed the closest thing to real people who expect real things from a (potentially) real God. It may not sound like much, but God is permitted to have His own name, and to have some real (or real people’s) expectations placed on Him – Finn needs the Provider, Kurt needs a Father, and Sue asked for a Healer. God is portrayed as God of the normal world.
Finn’s prayers – win the football game, get to second base with Rachel, become quarterback again – are base and selfish, but they are probably the prayers of many. His disillusionment in Emma’s office is the experience of many people trying to find their way. Kurt’s issue with God is that “[He’s] kind of a jerk. First he makes me gay, then has his followers going around telling me it’s something that I chose, as if someone would choose to be mocked every single day of their life.” Kurt met some of God’s people and they treated him badly and he has no interest in the One who purportedly told them to do it.
Sue’s desire was for her sister to be cured of Down syndrome so that the teasing and mocking would stop. Her bitterness is the tough side of hopelessness and helplessness. When she plays checkers with her sister Jean, Sue is the one who asks “Do you believe in God, Jeanie?” When Sue explains why she can’t believe in God, Jeanie responds, “God doesn’t make mistakes, that’s what I believe.” Sue has no words. Jean asks, “Do you want me to pray for you?”, and Sue replies, “That would be nice” with tears in her eyes. Her bitterness is the leftovers from an aching heart. What they exhibit is like real-life for once.
I seriously cannot remember another time where the heaviness of God was allowed to have its weight in the media like this. “Grilled Cheesus” doesn’t save us or fix anything, but on national television (whether the writers meant to or not) it gave God His name, and His role in a proper place. What the episode doesn’t do obviously is present to us an image of the Gospel. If anything, its virtue of choice was consideration and tolerance. But Real American Spirituality as it is isn’t a perfect understanding of the Gospel, it’s a perfectly complex confusion of everybody’s issues and information.
The wrong response
What do we do with this then? Didn’t I just admit up there that “Grilled Cheesus” didn’t change the world? I do have some thoughts that I’d like to share. But before we get there, it’s here that I’m forced to make some comments about what many Christians did when they saw this episode: they got mad.
Here are two real comments I found on the Glee Facebook page when posting of the “Grilled Cheesus” episode (names redacted): “Not one of them confessed Jesus was and is God. What a lame episode” (JL) and “Very bad and disrespectful episode…some people still consider God sacrid [sic] and not to be mocked by some brainless teen praying to a sandwich… (AK). From the Call & Response blogpost by Amy Thompson Sevimli, some pastors she knew did not like the episode; “Pastors wrote things like: ‘Terrible episode.’ ‘The theology wasn’t very good.’ ‘Watered-down Christianity unrelated to the real Jesus.’” The other Call & Response blogpost by Beth Felker Jones, intended as critique, asserts that the episode portrays stilted views of God, not the real and living YHWH, then reminds us that we need more than these puppets. To conclude, she quips: “the incarnation is a great place to start.” What she means by the “the incarnation” is probably good, but vague, and her thoughts bear no clear connection with the episode’s material. Her whole piece just seems to state the obvious instead of providing an insightful criticism.
Safe to say, some Christians are mad because the episode was irreverent. Would it help them to know that the writers didn’t intend to be really sacrilegious? They were as fair and even-handed as they knew how to be: “We went through and counted it word by word and line by line. Every time somebody said something anti-religion, we made sure somebody said something pro,” said the show’s founder Ryan Murphy (Entertainment Weekly). What Murphy et al attempted was their honest and fair representation of American spirituality. Or were we hoping for something more orthodox?
I do not expect that the secular media establishment is going to preach the Gospel better than Billy Graham. JL’s comment (“What a lame episode”) indicates a very entitled view of Christianity, as if the unbelievers are the ones who ought to know how to behave or what to believe. I’m all for people professing Jesus as Lord (I’m committed to this professionally, for not a lot of money), but “what a lame episode” is a very unchristian posture to maintain – in 1 Corinthians 5:14 Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” I really like it when the secular media produces images, icons or stories that echo Christian faith/themes, but I don’t think it’s righteous to condemn them when they don’t. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14) If they don’t know Jesus, how can we expect them to act like new creations?
Calling the unbelievers unorthodox is a tautology, wasted energy that could’ve been spent on something else. Paul doesn’t bother to issue an opinion on the non-Christians’ sinfulness or heterodox beliefs, he gets on with his life and God’s mission to share Christ with them. Do we blame soot for leaving stains? It’s obvious that the episode does not represent the Real Christian Faith. Thus, the first lesson is to stop expecting the secular media to do so – it’s not productive, nor is it a very Christian understanding of the world.
A better response
I mentioned at the beginning that many Christians believe that the non-God world is the norm where nobody wants to talk about God. I’m returning to it now. This episode offered us a rare snapshot from the real world as it is, and it told us that it wants God, it longs for God, and it needs God. Not in so many words, but enough to be heard. And that should remind us of truths we tend to forget very readily.
In fact, we shouldn’t even have needed the Glee episode to tell us that people are eager for God. Jesus already told us this in Luke 10:2 and Matthew 9:37 – “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” It is a statement of fact. Right now, the harvest is plentiful, and God knows this. The question is do we know it? Or are we still fooled into believing that the normal world is a non-God world? Jesus says, “take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Who will we believe – God and His Son, or the culture around us? Jesus promised us that He will be with us to the very end of the age as we go out and make disciples. But He has more grace for us. And just when we forget the Scripture, He beckons us to reap the harvest with things like this this episode.
For pastors who bothered to tweet inanities like “Watered-down Christianity unrelated to the real Jesus” or “The theology wasn’t very good,” please remember, God saved and commissioned you into service not to judge the unbelievers, but to bring them to Him so He could save them from the same sin you and I were all under. Jesus demonstrates that each sin or shortcoming (heterodoxy included) is a chance for Him to introduce Himself anew – the Wedding Feast of Cana or the would-be stoning of the adulteress come to mind. You could’ve tweeted, “I’ll buy coffee for anyone who wants to talk about this week’s Glee episode.” We do not get an opinion, what we get is the opportunity to advance His Kingdom, to be made into His likeness, to feel compassion and pain for the lost.
Rarely do I call something “refreshingly honest” but that’s what comes to mind for “Grilled Cheesus.” It didn’t preach the Gospel proper but maybe, subconsciously, quietly in that art-oriented darkness of the mind, it reminded unbelievers that their questions, anger, or confusion are permissible. Maybe it reminded Christians that the need is there; it may be hidden underneath a patina of materialism or generic agnosticism, but it is there. God desperately desires to meet every Finn, Kurt, and Sue if only someone would introduce them to Him. Is it offensive to ask God for help in hooking up with someone, to compare God to a dwarf in a teapot, or to say God doesn’t listen to prayers? Yes. But does God love Finn any less for his impertinence, Kurt any less for his rejection or Sue any less for her bitterness? Not at all. In fact, God loved Finn, Kurt and Sue so much that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life. For every Finn, Kurt and Sue in our lives, we ought to let them know that too.
Finn praying to the Grilled Cheesus before a football game.