Ever have that experience when you are listening to the radio or watching a television show and you know you are in the midst of a serious ‘water cooler’ moment?  Back in the 90’s, episodes of “ER” and “Friends” evoked such ‘water cooler’ moments: entertainment that was sold as pop entertainment yet hit some nerve in the collective zeitgeist that once you got to work the next day everyone was buzzing about it at the proverbial water cooler (or coffee pot, copy machine, to whatever collective gathering place you have in your cube farm).  For those of us working with teens and looking at the question of how teenagers are making meaning , this week’s episode of Glee entitled “Grilled Cheesus” was a water cooler moment .

[If you haven’t seen the episode – click here to watch it on Hulu.com ]

I have blogged about Glee here in the past to the way the show is lifting up the importance of anthems and ballads as theological forms for a new generation.  Already the blogosphere is a-buzz about this episode and some great discussions are occurring as to how the various teens discuss what faith is for them and showing that teens represent a large spectrum – from Christian fundamentalism to cultist wish-fulfillment  vis-a-vis a grilled cheese sandwich as an iconic cipher for the Divine to reformed and orthodox Judaism (who would have thought that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen would find a 21st century revival in the Glee characters of Rachel and Puck?) to atheism and all points in-between.   Dr. Kenda Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the great new book Almost Christian has posted a wonderful reflection on the “Grilled Cheesus” episode with some useful questions to reflect on with teens and parents – click through here for her reflections and helpful points of dialog with the show.

One of the points in the show that I found a bit disconcerting was the perpetuation of a view that public schools have somehow banned discussion of religion of any type and that teachers are being told to (in the words of Glee’s cheerio coach Sue Sylvester) “keep the separation of church and state sacred.”  This is a view that is continuing to threaten how public schools are viewed by people from religious communities and a point that needs to be challenged.

For starters, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between (unconstitutional) indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other, (constitutional) teaching about religion, which is objective, non-sectarian, neutral, balanced and fair.  In the episode, the New Directions glee club is told by the Principal that they cannot sing anything that is religious and to do so will be in violation of the law separating church and state.

Unfortunately, the writers for Glee didn’t look at the law at all…

For example, looking at the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision which continues to be upheld  in which the Court affirms the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education” means that Sue Sylvester doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on – whether in a track suit or not – if teens are singing songs found on the radio and part of our culture whether in the Gospel tradition or CCM.  True, what it means to be “objective” is not uncontroversial as many would argue that there is no such thing as true objectivity and every curricular item has some bias to it.  Fair enough.  That said, what *is* clear from Schempp is that the Court’s places a high value on neutrality…. not silence. Teachers and texts in our schools must be neutral in dealing with religion which is to say that they must be neutral among religions, and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion.

So yes, Mr. Schuester, you can have the kids sing Joan Osborne’s “(What if God were) One of Us” if they want to and the Supreme Court is there in the audience swaying along.  (By the way – I will admit an emotional tie to that song in that Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” was sung in my ordination service along with U2’s “40” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so there *is* bias on my part as well 🙂 )

On the other hand, one of the things the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did that was spot on is showing that in order for this neutrality to occur, we must cultivate a spirit of diversity and hospitality for all voices to be heard.   To be educated about religion and morality is to understand something of religions in its diversity. It is not open to public school educators  to include only one religious tradition in the discussion to silence the reality of others and this is something that the Glee writers could have teased out a bit more but was thankful for what they did. One of my grand laments in youth ministry education is that most programs – both undergraduate and graduate programs – offer no room for students to take course in World Religions nor alternate worldview courses unless these course are with a missionary bent.   If there is to be an honest assessment of faith, then all faiths must be discussed on their own terms and not as a strawman argument filled with stereotypes and ill-informed bias to be shot down without honest, deep assessment.  One of the points the teens in Glee make over and over is that part of what helps them understand their own identity is taking seriously the identity of others.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the episode, Mercedes confronts Kurt about his ‘arrogance’ at refusing to discuss faith with her given that she is his best friend at school.  She accepts that he is choosing to be an atheist and has listened to his reasons for not believing in a God, but as she confronts him and challenges him to at least come to a worship service at her church, she reminds him that to really be friends, they have to honor each other and not merely dismiss each other.  Great reminder to us all…

Time to make a grilled cheese sandwich and see what comes of it…

Few things scream pop culture like “Glee” – the Fox television show that just finished its second season.  Set in a fictional Ohio high school, the show is essentially a mash up of Le Boheme,  High School Musical, Fame, Grease, Happy Days, Saved By The Bell, Flashdance and Bring it On set to a K-Tel greatest hits 8 Track.  The story is as old as Tristen and Isolde and its Elizabethan redux Romeo and Juliet:  outcasts driven by a passion for the arts are marginalized by society and this exclusion fusions a collective that will not only conquer the culture, but will become culture itself.  Add to this a never ending search for meaning, love, and a good dance number and you have the makings of some pretty demographically hot TV property.  From a monetary standpoint, Glee has become the poster child for mass market penetration: rebooting pop songs with new voices (cover songs always work) and virtually tapping into the immediacy of this ‘new song’ by making the song available immediately on iTunes, the show has found a way to sell at multiple angles and thereby ensuring a media presence absolutely unparalleled in current television (as I write this 3 Glee collections sit in the top 10 albums on iTunes).  Yet to dismiss the series as merely a money making scheme conjured up to feed the nostalgia needs of 40-somethings (most of the music trends toward the Gen X era… guess someone figured out we still have purchasing power and weren’t slackers after all…) is to miss a more profound hunger that Glee is meeting, albeit in a pop mode which means that it is never complete and always needing to be recast.

It is the hunger for anthems and ballads.

Rock music and its cousin pop music primarily fall into two distinct categories: the Anthem and the Ballad.  Anthems are the rallying cry of the 75, 000 person stadium concert pumping fists in the air while standing close enough to the speakers so that our ears bleed like stigmata.  This is usually the lead single for the album and its track listing is often second or third – this is the “are you with us or against us?” track.  This is the “We Will Rock You”, “We are the Champions“, “Born in the USA“, “We’re Not Going to Take it Anymore”, “Baba O’Riley” [fill in the blank].  It is the music that grabs us by the shirt and shakes us like a dog tearing into a T-Bone steak after not eating for days.  This is the soundtrack to the commuter on the highway fist pumping the roof of their Prius, the iPod jogger speeding up the hill, the base thumping of the Honda at the stoplight.  Anthems speak about movement, of getting out of here, ending the nonsense job and taking a risk for a change.  In short, Anthems are bigger than we will ever be and we want to be part of something that big.  Ballads on the other hand are essentially the song of the heartbreak and remind us just how fragile we really are: this is the simple Casio tone keyboard of Yaz’s “Only You“, the pining piano and synth of Howard Jones’ “No One is to Blame“, the Sinead O’Connor cover of Prince’s “No One Compares to You” or Michael Stipe’s ode to agnosticism in REM’s “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.”  Somewhere between the Anthem and the Ballad is where many of us find ourselves – reaching for the confident booming volume and backbeat of the Anthem and the painful quiet of the Ballad.  Yet while this is true for millions (see what the top singles are from week to week and the sales figures don’t lie) is not often acknowledged openly.  In places of work, in our homes, in (yes) our churches – life is to be lived in control, measured, under wraps, and it is to be very, very predictable.  Basically, while we secretly listen to Anthems and Ballads in our cars, our iPods, and on our computers like the one you are reading this blog at this very moment… life is lived from moment of Muzak to another.  Devoid of passion, not risking surprises or unbridled emotions, millions fain a life in front of others that is merely a whisper of the Anthems and Ballads that are the soundtrack of the true, original story.

But Glee gets it and turns it up so we can’t avoid it…

Lesson from all this?

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey is more than an old recycled pop song for the Gleeks… it is actually truth in ways Steve Perry probably had NO idea it would be.  To admit not only liking but loving that song and its Glee version is tantamount to cultural suicide in some erudite circles (try suggesting a Journey sing-a-long at a university faculty meeting… see how THAT goes!)  But the hunger for more than this plain life of Muzak continues on… and so will shows like Glee.

Doubting Thomas?  Feel like you can just be the cynic and deploy all your well phrased post-structuralist firepower on all this and remain unscathed?

Enjoy the Journey-themed finale then and let me know what you think – click here, turn up the volume, and get ready to hope beyond Muzak