Wednesday, November 3, 2010

God, Glee, and Grilled Cheesus

A few weeks ago, the popular television show Glee tackled the issue of religion in the episode "Grilled Cheesus." Among representations of traditional religion, Finn's character was depicted as following a sort of unconventional lived religion. One day while making a grilled cheese sandwich, he believed he saw the image of Jesus in the toast's burn marks (images and episode synopsis can be found here) and thus set aside the "sacred" meal with an authoritative "DO NOT EAT" note and continued to pray to the "Grilled Cheesus" throughout the rest of the episode. While Finn was giving authority to a traditional Christian depiction of Christ, he was reshaping it to fit his personal, postmodern understanding of the divine (it should be noted that among his prayers was a desire to be high school quarterback again, in order to selfishly regain his former popularity). Finn's seemingly kooky understanding of religion was a clear parody of such real-life phenomena. In 2004, a similar sandwich supposedly depicting the image of the Virgin Mary was auctioned off for a whopping $28,000 on eBay.

As Elizondo (2005) argues in his analysis of "The Virgin of Guadalupe as Cultural Icon" in
Quoting God, religious symbols--a form of "popular" religion--are not rejected over time, but rather reinterpreted as a means for a new understanding between the faith of the people and "faith in Christ, which appears to be the religion of the intellectual elite" (p. 201). As Our Lady of Guadalupe came to be a symbol of a new era and power granted to the oppressed for St. Juan Diego and thousands of Mexican Roman Catholics, so too, does the Grilled Cheesus grant liberation to Finn's interpretation of religion. For him, the holy sandwich is a sort of hotline to heaven, an indication to him that God reaches out in contemporary times to ordinary people in simple ways.

However, as Ammerman states in her introduction to
Everyday Religion, "individuals' definition of their own experiences may or may not be recognized as religious--either by the culture around them or by the scholars who study them" (p. 14). Fittingly, Emma, the school's guidance counselor, informs Finn that "God works in mysterious ways. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't spend a lot of time trying to speak to us through sandwiches," shattering Finn's newfound faith, as highlighted by his performance of REM's "Losing My Religion." But is his faith in Christ as revealed by the Grilled Cheesus a less authentic version of religion than, say, his girlfriend Rachel's more traditional participation in the Jewish faith?

Ammerman would argue no, that "the study of a much more complicated (or interesting) manner than simply measuring a given set of ideas or counting places of worship and members" (p. 14). Contrastingly, in the book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Miller states that when religious symbols are "abstracted from their traditional contexts and engaged as free-floating signifiers, put to decorative uses far removed from their original references and connections with other beliefs and is less likely that they will impact the concrete practice of life" (p. 32). Accordingly, Finn's confession that he has "found and accepted Christ" does not affect his lifestyle. He continues to aspire for popularity and further sexual intimacy with his girlfriend, values in direct contradiction to traditional Christian morals of humility and purity. Just as the Grilled Cheesus conveniently appeared to him as a sign of God's existence, so does it become "
a decorative function of providing private meaning to fill in the voids left by the structures of everyday life" (p. 91). The sandwich allows Finn to make sense of things in his life that simply don't otherwise--Rachel's refusal of his sexual advances, his demotion from quarterback, and later, Mr. Hummel's troubling post-heart attack condition. Through his faith in the Grilled Cheesus, he is able to navigate each of these challenges.

Although he does eventually abandon his faith, symbolized by his consumption of the once-revered sandwich, for the brief period in which he recognizes the sandwich as "set apart" and designates private prayer time in devotion to it, he is practicing a very much authentic form of "lived religion."

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