What TV Teaches Teens About God

Imagine the cliques of Breakfast Club, the sexual tension of Grease, and the show tunes of High School Musical thrown in a blender. Add a dash of MTV and a pinch of young Britney Spears and you’ll have made “Glee,” a bubbly, boisterous musical comedy beginning its second television season.

Despite its effervescent swirl of tunes and archetypes, the high school stars of “Glee” have tried to sing their way through some serious subjects, including parental death, adoption, homosexuality, broken homes, disabilities, and teen pregnancy. The show’s bright-spirited, sequin-sprinkled approach prevented last season from crashing under such weighty themes. But this fall, bolstered by their success, “Glee’s” creators have strained their Emmy-award winning formula to the breaking point, fumbling with subjects such as racism, and recently, religion.

Last week’s episode, “Grilled Cheesus,” is a grab-bag of religious mockery. It opens with the endearingly vacant Finn, football and glee club star, making a grilled cheese sandwich. The charred result resembles the face of Jesus, and the impressionable Finn begins to offer prayers to the product of his Foreman Grill.

Elsewhere in Glee-land, Kurt, a gay student, faces the possible loss of his father. As classmates attempt to console him with prayers, Kurt lashes out, “most churches don’t think anything of gay people. Or women. Or science.” But, all is not lost, friend Puck reminds him, because “true spirituality is about enjoying the life you’ve been given. I see God every time I make out with a new chick.” Bring on the sacred!

The club members, much like average teens, try to cope with the episode’s challenges through the common cultural mantra that all paths are equal, or as one character pedantically puts it during a hospital prayer session, “We’re from different denominations and religions, so we figured, one of us is bound to be right.”

Even the students most adamant about the need for religion are cloudy about the respective merits of their own faiths. Mercedes, a sassy, junior Jennifer Hudson, convinces Kurt to attend her church, but once he’s pew bound and ready to hear a story of divine redemption, he instead gets a text-book pep talk on religious universalism. The message is that something is better than nothing, so whether it’s a god, a guru, or a grilled cheese sandwich, worship on.

This spiritual melt isn’t the only myth pervading “Glee.” Cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, the school’s scheming Joseph Goebbels, threatens to have glee club director Mr. Schuester fired for permitting the students to sing their self-chosen religious songs. Principle Figgins, practicing Christian and comic relief (he believes one of his Asian pupils is a vampire), admonishes Schuester to stop the students or face losing his job.

Here “Glee” misses a primetime opportunity to inform viewers, and instead perpetuates common myths about church and state in the classroom. By law, students are allowed to proselytize and use religious themes in their schoolwork, precisely what the glee kids try to do through song. Schools, meanwhile, can teach about religion in a neutral way (such as permitting students to sing about their various faiths). But on the show, Schuester’s job is saved by the magnanimity of a fellow teacher, not the proper exercise of the law.

Predictably, Finn eventually experiences a crisis of sandwich faith, and decides to perform R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion for the glee kids with the school’s blessing. In a rare moment of insight, Mercedes pipes up to ask, “Evidently, we can’t sing about faith, but we can sing about losing faith?” It’s a prescient question, and one that goes unanswered.

The one message the show does get right is that faith is essential to the human experience, and efforts to regulate and restrict it harm children instead of helping them. The show’s kids, like many public-school teens, are hurting and hungry for help, but the wizened grown-ups know better: It’s better to suffer in silence than risk causing offense.

Ultimately, the only student with freedom of expression is atheist Kurt, whose complaints prompt administrators to silence the other students. The rest of the cast are portrayed as hopeful, yet foolish, as they cling to their sandwiches and spiritualism. For a show that purports to be sensitive and insightful, it’s a message that is very off key.