07 July 2010

Glee promotes Catholic values?

The following is Ian Brennan’s acceptance speech at the 17th Annual Catholics in Media Awards at which the Fox Television show Glee was honored. Brennan is co-creator of Glee.

My take at the bottom...

Raking Leaves, Racked with Skepticism
The co-creator of Glee on being Catholic

A few weeks ago, when we learned Glee would receive this award, the other creators of the show and I sort of looked at each other and said, “Wait, really?” Our first thoughts were that, a) Catholics in Media had not seen our show, or that b) my dad, himself a former Paulist, had bribed them. Then at a certain point we all just sort of shrugged and thought, “we’ll take it”, thinking cynically that it’ll be a great to have when we inevitably begin to be boycotted by evangelical groups, which, a few weeks later, actually happened. And I hesitate to even gratify it by talking about it, but one of the cast members stumbled upon a website so inflammatory that it took several weeks to decipher that it was not, in fact, satirical. This website described the show Glee as, and I swear I am not making this up, “engayenating”, and then, in the same article, claims that the Golden Girls turned an entire generation of men gay in the 1980’s. Which is harder to argue with. In any case, we were happy to have a religious award under our belt.

But the more I thought about it, the more my puzzlement that we’d be honored with this award puzzled me. My reaction belied a division in my own perception about the Catholic Church, and that’s kind of what I’d like to say a few words about.

I think there are kind of two churches, and sadly, when people consider the church, they are forced to think of its contingent that I identify with the least. And I don’t mean to bash the Church, I identify very deeply with it, and I’m deeply defensive of it. I recently kind of stopped dating a girl because she made a disparaging remark about Catholicism.

But it’s difficult, as Catholic, to see William Donohue go on TV and claim to speak for me and all other Catholics, as if he had that right. Or watch bishops deny communion to people whose beliefs they don’t approve of. Or to hear people throw around the term “Cafeteria Catholics”, as if the tenets of the Church itself were so flimsy that they can’t withstand examination. And, sadly, I think it’s that church that most people see. But I believe it to be just a tiny, tiny fraction of the true body of the Church, the one that I grew up in, the one I feel that I know.

The tension of the dialogue
I think that being Catholic is a lot like being Jewish. I believe that it is not a set of beliefs, but a heritage, a two thousand year meditation on the very idea of belief. I consider this its enduring beauty. I believe that therefore, almost by definition, you can disagree with most things the Catholic Church does, and still be Catholic. I believe it is precisely the tension of this dialogue that begets the living church, and is, in fact, what sets it apart. There would be a lot of Catholics who would totally disagree, though that’s sort of the point, that they, and the Church, can be wrong, and so can I.

My mom always tells my sister and I, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not Catholic.” And I think she’s right, just as you wouldn’t say someone wasn’t Jewish because they liked ham. It’s the dialogue between different attitudes towards scripture and towards belief that begets a living church. I believe wholeheartedly that honest, deep skepticism is as holy as religious devotion. I believe that pondering the nature of God, even questioning his existence, is itself a form of prayer. I think the Catholic faith is at its most beautiful when it acknowledges we have minds. Which kind of brings me, in a weird way, to my point.
Just, like, loving us

I have always struggled with belief, as I think most honest people do, and there was day, when I was a teenager, maybe seventeen, and I actually think we may have been raking leaves, but I sort of came to my dad with the fact that I couldn’t really fathom how there could be a god. It just didn’t seem like it was at all true, and then, with just a flick of his wrist, my dad just sort of turned and offered an explanation, which years later kind of became sort of the last scene in the screenplay “Glee”, which is how our TV show sort of began its life and spent its infancy.

I’d like to read this scene to you; those familiar with the show wouldn’t recognize the characters anymore, they no longer exist, and the context may not matter, but this scene is two teenagers, the two main characters, sitting on a stoop late at night, after a show choir competition that was ruined when Kervin, who is going through withdrawal from hid dad’s prescription pain killers, drinks a fifth of vodka before the performance and projectile vomits all over the stage in the middle of a Peter, Paul and Mary song about the bombing of El Salvador. And Pepper, a freshman girl, tries to console him. Pepper speaks…

“I spent some time kind looking back at some of my journals, and I came across this passage that was like from sixth grade or something, and I found this passage where I had written something which didn’t seem to make any sense like it didn’t have anything to do with what I’d been writing about and like most of the stuff I write kinda dies in childbirth, like never quite makes it all the way out… but I had written, for some reason, I had written about this time when my mom and I were at Wendy’s for lunch and there was this old man sitting by himself just drinking a coffee and eating like just a plain hamburger, like one of the 69 cent ones with just a coffee — and I just… I felt so bad for him, or like didn’t feel bad, really, I just kinda felt for him, I wanted to like be with him, I just wanted to sit there and keep him company, and my mom and I sat there and ate and she was talking and the whole time I just like wanted to go over and sit with him, this old man I didn’t even know just sitting there alone, eating a 69 cent hamburger by himself in the middle of the day… And there was like no way he could ever know that, you know? Like there was no way he could ever guess that. That I felt that way. And like I thought to myself: just as I secretly love this old man who I don’t know sitting across the restaurant from me and there’s no way he would ever know, like I believed there could be something, like, way across the cosmos, unbeknownst to everyone, just, like, loving us. And there’s no way we could ever know it. It would just be there. And it was like this weird, incredible gift. And I think I’ve stopped even like needing that love for myself; it was enough to just stand near it and watch it and know it exists. And I think it makes the rest… I don’t know. I think it makes everything else pretty easy.”

And I don’t know, and it may be a stretch, but there’s something very holy about raking leaves, racked with skepticism, and your ex-priest dad with a flick of the wrist, explains the existence of God to you. That, to me, is the Catholic Church.


My take...

He takes pride in his right to choose which doctrines to believe and which ones to discard; rejects the function of a Church authority to set matters of faith and morals; defines his idea of Church as some vague 2,000 year-old heritage; and resents being labeled a cafeteria Catholic but walks the part. But he admits to his doubts and that makes him human, and more Catholic than the institutional Church (which he despises to represent). And for that Ian Brennan, co-creator of Glee, receives an award in behalf of his show from the 17th Catholics in Media Award (CIMA) for promoting Catholic values on TV.

Brennan: "[Catholicism is] the dialogue between different attitudes towards scripture and towards belief that begets a living church. I believe wholeheartedly that honest, deep skepticism is as holy as religious devotion. I believe that pondering the nature of God, even questioning his existence, is itself a form of prayer. I think the Catholic faith is at its most beautiful when it acknowledges we have minds."

These beautiful words capture a validly significant human experience, as well as the ethos of so-called cultural Catholics. I do have a problem though with putting skepticism on equal terms with faith, and then equating it with holiness. There is much room for doubt in Christianity, and the stories of our greatest saints and mystics are filled with periods of doubts and dark nights of the soul. The tricky thing here is when skepticism (and a dash of agnosticism) is considered no longer as a passing phase but a legitimate Catholic way of life.

There should be room for questioning, but there should also come a time for clarity. Otherwise what is the point in believing in Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. There should be dialogue of faith, but for a meaningful exchange to happen, its participants must have a firm grasp of the truth of their faith. Otherwise, it's just plain New Age eclectic individualism, with Catholicism functioning merely as a context, a cultural setting.

Perpetual dialogue is pointless. A lifetime of doubt and choose-your-own-morality is not fullness of life. Christianity, especially the Catholic tradition, among other things, is about the quest for Truth and Unity in the service of the Kingdom.

I like Glee mainly for its great music and fairly decent storyline. And according to the CIMA statement last February 2010, the show was chosen "because of its beautiful and kind heart", and that it "demonstrates how the arts integrate life and learning in a joyful way, tinged with humor and sometimes pathos, as kids and teachers try to figure out the best choices to make in life".

The show does make a stand against gay bashing and abortion, and in favor of spreading more kindness around. Then again when was it a Catholic value to ridicule the abstinence-till-marriage youth movement, promote promiscuity, rationalize divorce and infidelity, milk humor out of blackmail and drug use?

The choice is reflective of a prevailing "better to be polite than be right" spirituality and a pop religiosity that insists that Jesus came to preach only about love and universal brotherhood. Kindness is the new morality. Tolerance trumps orthodoxy.

It is not hard to see why many people find this kind of religiosity attractive. A society driven by information and consumerism creates so many choices which make people both privileged and confused. At the end of the day, people are just tired, the majority doesn't want to listen to polemics. They want the kind of choices that makes everybody just get along. After all, isn't it love that remains when everything passes away?

There is nothing wrong with being kind and tolerant. The world will be a better place with more kindness and tolerance all around. Except when you reduce Christianity to merely these two values. And leave the quest for an objective universal Truth as dated and irrelevant. Christ says "neither do I condemn you" and also "go and sin no more". He is also known not to back away from polemics to correct a wrong impression about Him and His message.

CIMA may be composed of Catholics in the entertainment industry but they are preaching an imbalanced idea of Catholic values.

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