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What TV Has Taught Me About Religion Lately

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Lately it seems like all my favorite sitcoms have become obsessed with religion.

It started with Glee. First, former football star Finn saw Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich and started praying to his new "cheesy Lord," and his prayers were all answered -- which was great at first, until suddenly it got a little scary. Then the father of aspiring diva Kurt had a heart attack and ended up in a coma, and Kurt's atheism was put to the test when all his friends tried to comfort him with spiritual music and prayers.

Next, on Modern Family, no-nonsense dad Jay announced to his wife Gloria "I'm done with church!" and headed to the golf course on a Sunday morning. His 10-year-old stepson Manny skipped church based on Jay's assurance that "there is no hell," but later, when Jay admitted he couldn't actually prove that hell doesn't exist, Manny was propelled into a full-scale religious crisis and started to hyperventilate. "You're playing pretty fast and loose with my soul!" he wheezed.

And then, on Community, baby boomer community-college student Pierce turned to his religion for comfort when his mother died. The only problem was that Pierce's New Age faith involved believing that his mother was still alive and had been turned into a lava lamp, and all his friends thought he was just in denial and needed to learn to face up to reality.

So what's going on? What is my TV trying to tell me about religion? And is there some kind of spiritual take-away point here that can help me justify my sitcom addiction?

What all these shows have in common is a concern about the relationships between believers and non-believers. Whether at home or at school, the differences between religious and secular people create comedy and conflict, and the shows try to dramatize and defuse this conflict with greater or lesser success.

Community continues to be a very smart show that is not so smart about religion, and it does the worst job at making sense of religious difference. It doesn't help that Pierce characterizes his belief system as Buddhist, even though its tenets apparently have nothing to do with Buddhism and seem to have much more in common with Scientology, if anything. But for the purposes of the show this doesn't matter because in the world of Community all religious beliefs are pretty much interchangeable. In this episode, as in the inter-faith holiday episode last season, the ultimate message seems to be that we might as well tolerate each other's beliefs because all religions are equally stupid and crazy. This moral works much better on the show than it does in real life.

In Modern Family, the religious conflict between Jay and his wife and stepson is conflated with their ethnic difference: Jay is Anglo-American and Gloria and Manny are Latino. Jay's easy, common-sense agnosticism is represented as the all-American voice of reason, while Gloria and Manny's faith is portrayed as a kind of lovable Latin superstition. Religion thus becomes simply one more inscrutable cultural quirk that needs to be navigated in an interracial, intercultural family. As so often happens on the show, Jay realizes that the best way to handle Gloria and Manny is just to humor them. When Jay realizes that Manny is not going to be at peace without church, he decides to start a new tradition of dropping Manny off at Mass before hitting the golf course. "I'll put in a good word for you," Manny promises Jay. "I've finally realized what matters to me," Jay tells us. "My family. My family and golf." This modern family's solution to religious conflict is heartwarming and believable, but it avoids dealing with many of the religious issues it raises (Manny's overwhelming questions about heaven and hell remain unanswered), and it risks conflating religious belief and race.

Glee's religion episode gains major points for taking on many of the most important issues that religious and non-religious people fight about, and refusing to shy away from the controversy. The show dramatizes the problem of evil (why do bad things happen to good people like Kurt and his dad?), the relationship of religion and sexuality (why would God make Kurt gay and then condemn him for it?), the separation of church and state (should the glee club at a public school be allowed to sing religious songs?) and the role of divine intervention in human history (was it really Jesus who let Finn touch Rachel's boobs, or is there some other less-supernatural reason why Finn finally got to second base?).

But Glee loses some points for making black people and disabled people the exemplary bearers of religious belief. Kurt's African American friend Mercedes and cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester's sister, who has Down's Syndrome, are God's main defenders in this episode. This is a problem because all too often people of color and disabled people are portrayed as "naturally" religious. They are expected to embody a kind of effortless, intuitive faith that white and able-bodied people can live through vicariously. The reality is that each of us has our own spiritual or religious work to do, and pop culture needs to stop expecting African American Christians and disabled people to provide other Americans with all their religious epiphanies. Ideally, pop culture should show us that when it comes to our national spiritual life, we all have a part to play.

And at its best, the Glee religion episode does manage to rise above its racial and religious clich├ęs and do just that. For me, the TV highlight of the week was not supplied by Mercedes or Sue's sister, nor was it a strictly religious moment at all. It was the moment when Kurt explains to the glee club that even though he doesn't believe in God, he has deep and unshakable beliefs of his own. He believes in the power of human connection.

The unlikely but deep affection between Kurt, who likes fashion and falsetto, and his relatively macho mechanic dad, who likes junk food and sports, is the emotional core of the show, and unlike some other parts of Glee it never rings false. When Kurt sings a slow, yearning version of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to a montage of old home movies of him and his dad together over the years, holding hands and having tea parties, Kurt's religious classmates learn that his beliefs are as deep as theirs. Kurt's song is a hymn to humanism that allows his beliefs to hold their own alongside Christianity, even in an episode that has Mercedes singing her heart out with a full gospel choir.

Like Kurt's classmates, I'm a religious person who sometimes needs to be reminded of the beauty of non-religious belief, and of the need for sensitivity and open communication in my friendships with people who believe differently than I do. I'm glad that TV was there to remind me this week.

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