“Grilled Chesus,” the burned afternoon snack turned divine revelation on last week’s episode of Glee is now ranking as one of my favorite pop culture Jesus icons along with “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma and the “Missionary: Impossible” episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, who is being compelled against his will to go to Southeast Asia to be a Christian missionary says, “I can’t be a missionary. I don’t even believe in Jebus.”
The opening of this Glee episode features Finn, the well-intentioned, but somewhat dim-witted jock turned Glee club star making a grilled cheese sandwich as an afternoon snack. Removing it from the George Foreman grill, he sees the burned image of … Christ. He sees it as a personal revelation from God, refuses to eat the half of the sandwich with Jesus’ image and begins to pray to it AND begins to get everything he prays for.
Finn takes his new religious fervor back to his glee club friends and asks that the week be devoted to religious songs. Needless to say, arguments ensue among this diverse group of young people. Some are religious, some are unsure of their beliefs and one character, Kurt, professes atheism at least in part because, “church doesn’t think much of gay people … or women.”
Soon after this initial conversation, Kurt’s father suffers a heart attack and ends up in a coma. (Bear in mind that Kurt’s mother died when he was a young boy.) His friends immediately try to comfort him with their religious beliefs and prayers. Kurt’s avowed atheism does not waver, perhaps it is even inflamed temporarily because of their efforts.
I admit that watching this episode of Glee, a show I usually watch as pure escapism, felt a bit like a punch in the stomach. I’ve certainly had these kinds of questioning conversations with young people (and adults) before, but I didn’t expect to see it so viscerally and accurately portrayed on my favorite feel-good show. I pride myself on being realistic about how outsiders view Christians, but I didn’t like being hit in the face with it.
No one in the church wants to hear these things. We don’t want to hear about people’s disbelief or their questions about the church’s hypocrisy or the struggles with how God does or doesn’t answer our prayers. These things are hard because they hit home — force us to deal with the ways in which the church fails to live out Jesus’ message of radical love and our own spiritual struggles with a large and mysterious God.
But, we can learn from what this television show depicts about contemporary American culture. The reality is that most people struggle deeply with their faith and few church fold are equipped to reveal their own misgivings in an honest way or listen without judging the questioner.
If a few more people in church could do that, our youth ministries would be a lot better off. As we know, teenage life is full of questions — about faith and a lot of other things. If adults don’t show young people that the church is a community of the struggling faithful, they will end up as more adults who see church as irrelevant and judgmental.
The reality is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is full of faithful questioners. We are in good company. When God tells Jeremiah that he will be a prophet to the nations, he responds, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak for I am only a boy.” (Jeremiah 1:7, NRSV) When the angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will be the mother of God, she asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34, NRSV) And, perhaps most famously, when the apostle Thomas is told that Jesus has risen from the dead, he replies, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.” (Luke 20:25, NRSV) Despite their doubts and questions, these folks become faithful followers who live out God’s call on their lives. Perhaps they are even more fervent because of their doubts.
Let us all become these kinds of believers and welcome more of them into our midst.