The (Flawed) Theology of Glee

Glee is —  without a doubt — my favorite TV series of all time. Much like the musical Hairspray, I resonate with its message and worldview on an emotional level.

Glee is a TV show about the outcasts, rebels, and misfits at an Ohio high school. But more than that, Glee is about coming to love and value yourself, no matter what other people say about  you, and coming to love and value other people, no matter what the world might say about them.

It’s a show about the triumph of the underdog. And while the very idea would probably make the Glee creators want to sic an American Horror Story character on me, I also see deep Christian spiritual themes coursing through its veins, pulsating through its very lifeblood, with each heartbeat.


When Jesus was on earth, he spent much of his time with the misfits, the outcasts — those ignored by, not valued by, or patently misunderstood by society. His mission was to give power to the powerless — to subvert the powerful social and political structures of his day — and to teach a radical love and justice for all who chose to follow him.

Glee did its best teaching when it wasn’t trying to be preachy. It spoke the most truth, and lived out selfless, unconditional love most clearly in its relationships — in life — not when it was trying to teach a message, but when it modeled its message instead of preaching it. So while Glee‘s after school special-like episodes on the dangers of underage drinking, or texting and driving, felt like awkward trying-too-hard teaching interludes, its organic, sweet, slow-building, and consistent relationships and its understated moments of kindness spoke volumes.

The few times Glee tried to tackle the concept of religion, it fell flat. Jesus showed up as a face burnt onto the side of a grilled cheese sandwich — and Glee attempted to portray a balanced, even-handed case of the arguments for an against God, a bulleted list of checkboxes for a viewer to think over and assess — or later, in the presence a tattooed and dreadlocked hipster teenage Jesus who preached love unconditionally, but forgot the costliness, complexity, mystery, and world-flipping, mind-spinning, trope-crushing power of the gospel.

Capturing a feeling

Knowing God is like falling in love. Until you’ve experienced it, there’s no way to ever understand. One it becomes your reality, everything changes. Nothing else matters. And you’ll give anything to never be without it again.

When Glee tried to teach about religion, it was like a journalist trying to scrupulously document a mystical, powerful phenomenon she’s never actually seen. Like a poet trying to copy another’s soul-animating, world-redefining artistic work, and wondering why his wrote, vacant replica isn’t moving his audience to tears.

At its core, Glee failed to communicate religion. And like so many in our world, its ability to feel the transformative love and joy of Christ feels to have likely been stomped out by the brash, cruel, and blood-hungry manipulation of power hungry men and women. It’s no secret that religion, and the life-altering devotion that it both prompts — and requires, if one is to truly experience its deepness of power and joy — has long been used as a tool that corrupt, power-hungry people use to control, scare, abuse, and manipulate people around them.

Vision clouded by human malice

When human manipulation of God is all one ever knows of God, how can truth ever inch its way in? Human beings are conditioned to run from our abusers — to flee at all costs — so how is Light to ever perform its cleansing and healing work when corrupted people have, for years upon years, sought to transform what is light to darkness, and darkness light?

Boundaries between fiction and fact

To everyone who loved Glee, it was no secret that the line between cast and characters — between story and storytellers — was fuzzy, at best. Star Lea Michelle was Rachel Berry. Rachel Berry was written for Lea. Quarterback Finn Hudson was actor Cory Monteith. Finn might not have been created for Cory, but the two quickly merged to become one and the same.

Actors were cast because they embodied the characters they portrayed. Mark Salling was Noah “Puck” Puckerman — gorgeous and suave, yet self-absorbed, irreverent, and lacking a pull of morality. Naya Rivera was Santana Lopez: a beautiful, brash, fearless women who wouldn’t back down from a fight, and who were willing to do whatever it took to accomplish their goals.

Writing characters so deeply true to life knit the cast together in a comforting-but-frenzied, all-consuming, love-and-hate, family sort of way. And when their world came crashing down off-screen, the fictional show never quite recovered.

Glee‘s line between art and reality was so blurred, it often didn’t exist at all. Actors’ struggles showed up onscreen: from insecurities about their nose, their weight … life was fair game for art.

And then, one life ended, abruptly.

What do you do when your leading man relapses? When his drug addiction grabs control of his beautiful life and beats it to dust? What do you do when the star of your hit TV show is suddenly dead?

What do you do when your cast is mourning, and the lines between life and art are so blurred, that the art is drained of all its hope, joy, passion and vitality when the artists must — for their own survival — emotionally move on?

What do you do when your beloved rebel — cocky and lovably amoral — is convicted of a real, cold, crimes that steal the innocence, joy, and hope of our world’s most precious and naive? What do you do when one of your stars perpetuates unspeakable harm?

Glee was a call for love, from those deeply hurt and scarred by hate. (To be clear, I don’t know this for sure, I’m only gathering from interviews — and from seeing the greater scope, messages, and themes of the work it’s primary creators have gone on to create. And this show, by its nature made viewers feel like we knew it personally. That was its strength and weakness: its double-edged sword: we all shared the same quirky, beautiful, feverish dream, and were strangely connected to each other.)

At its core, Glee couldn’t understand religion, because the only religion it had ever experienced was the selfish abuse — cloaked in a veil of religion, delivered by demons masquerading as angels of light —  which evil men have, for centuries, twisted to fit their own abusive ends.

God’s call for people is to follow God. To leave behind lives lived for ourselves, and to live every day as Jesus did on earth — loving those the world is determined not to love, serving and caring for those who are poor in spirit, in belongings, and in love — but ultimately dying to ourselves so that we might have life in something bigger than us: hope in something greater than us. Giving up everything to get the only thing that ever mattered.

It’s a life of healing. A life of wholeness. A life of boundaries. And it requires giving up past pain — forgiving abusers, not trying to best them — but also not giving them any power or control in our lives. It’s turning from what we want, and not putting our hope in anything of this world.  Not trusting in anything temporal to save us; not giving anything temporal the power to crush us.

The world needs love.

But we need wise love.  We need boundaried love. We need love motivated by the Originator of Love, not by our human desire to make up for all the wrong that our cold, evil world has perpetuated against us.

Love without God can accomplish great things — Glee changed the world, much for the better, with its messages of love, acceptance, and valuing all. The crucified, nail-scarred Christ showed up many times in its storytelling, whether intended or not.

But Glee‘s love wasn’t love eternal — it was a love born out of human will, human pain, and human desire to right the world’s wrongs. It set to correct the world without following the Great Guidebook that details how. And like an IKEA bookshelf build without following the directions, it was strong — and did good  work — for a time. But it wasn’t build to last. It didn’t have the fortitude to accomplish all that it meant to. It burned bright, and then burned out. A powerful flash that wasn’t connected to a greater source of power.

So much of my life — of how I view the world, and how I’ve chosen to interact with it — was molded and shaped by Glee.

But when the world fell apart, my Theology of Glee crumbled. It couldn’t hold up. It couldn’t give me hope. Everyone fled, searching for re-birth — searching for the next great art and inspiration under which to devote their life.

I didn’t want to leave this story behind. I needed to stay with it,  but I knew it desperately needed a new source of power.

Then I saw Glee in the real world.

I met people at a high school for teenagers in danger of falling through the cracks. I experienced a school filled with teachers and staff who cared deeply about their students: who encouraged, taught, fed, prayed for, counseled, cried  with, laughed with, equipped, and tossed dodgeballs with them.

Standing in the middle of the gym one Friday afternoon — dodgeballs whizzing past my head — I realized: this was the Glee I had been searching for.

These were real high school students. They faced the same struggles: with identity, body image, value, worth, money issues, family problems, academic success, hope for the future … as the fictional teenagers on Glee had. But this was the real world, not a musical comedy. These were real stakes, not fictional ones.

As much as I love the cheesy, hyper-realism of Glee, I ultimately found that I needed reality. I longed for the real, costly, messiness of life — not the cheesy, pop music-infused, feel good messages about growing up.

I found hope in the everyday moments of life — community in the midst of pain and joy; of sorrow and hope — not one or the other, but together, in one beautiful, complex harmony. I’d rather be standing in a room, praying through pain, waiting with hopeful patience for a God whose Ultimate Future is in some ways already here … but also very much not here yet. I’d rather lift cares, fears, pain,  and hopelessness before God, and trust in what I can’t see. Because trusting in what I can see — again and again — always lets me down.

I’d rather be connected to the deep, mysterious and inexplicable power that always was and always will be — even if it’s not a simple, catchy, or glamorous as what my favorite TV show made the world out to be.

To me, the Theology of Glee is realizing the pointlessness of putting our hope in joy that isn’t connected to the Source of Joy. It’s learning to appreciate entertainment  for entertainment — to see where God shows up in  art — but never to put our hope in the reflection.

Finding the source is much more difficult that putting our hope in the reflection. But once the reflection fades, or breaks down, or falls apart … we can choose to either lose hope, or to begin our search for the source of the thing  that brought us so much joy in the first place.

I will forever love, and forever be grateful to Glee. But my hope can’t be found there. My hope — true hope, joy,  peace, and life-changing direction — is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

At the heart of Glee, is Rachel Berry’s firm conviction, the glee club mantra, that “Being a part of something special makes you special.”

But trying to be special — only for the sake of being special — is a dangerous quest, and it can cause us a whole lot of pain. From now on, I only want to be a part of what special things God has planned. That is the only thing that’s held up under all the junk our world has tossed my way. It’s the only way I’ve learned to emerge stronger than before.

The only true way I’ve found to be a part of something meaningful is to give up my quest to be special, and let God direct where God has for me to be. It’s light years better than anything I could have planned, anyway.

I was drawn to Glee because I believe that every single person is loved, unique, and valuable. That hasn’t changed, even now that Glee has fizzled and faded away. I’ve simply connected that belief to a different source —  a brighter, more complex, brilliant, terrifyingly beautiful power — and one that I’m working every day to better understand.

Don’t stop believing.

Keep holding on.

It might not be what you want, but if you keep on trying, and searching, and don’t ever give up … I am sure you’ll find it.

God will always give you what you need.

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