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'Glee': A Model for How Different Religious Traditions Can Unite for the Environment

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As students return to school this fall, the high school drama "Glee" offers perspective on reconciling the united and divided fronts presented by religious traditions in recent headlines. The lesson for believers: Let our common values shape the stories that define us.

This summer, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill brought together diverse religious leaders around care of creation in the Gulf Coast. Only weeks later, we watched the drama of what become known as the "Ground Zero mosque" reveal and then perpetuate harsh divisions between faiths. As one example, arsonists destroyed construction equipment at the Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

How do we explain this intolerance toward the Muslim faith, so soon after Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders joined together to tour the Louisiana coast and denounce the oil spill as a sin against creation?

For understanding, I turned to the FOX TV show "Glee." If you think you can't gain insight into human behavior from a high school drama, it's been too long since you've been in high school.

Here's a crash course in "Glee." The main characters are students who represent "the bottom-feeders" of the popularity food chain at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. These high schoolers come together to revive the once-famous show choir at McKinley High.

Let's face it: narrative about the human experience is a critical element in religion and TV drama, whether the story begins with the phrase "in the beginning" or "once upon a time." In his book "The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community," David Korten writes, "The key is to change the stories by which we define ourselves." Telling life-affirming stories about our faith may be the first step toward redefining religion as a united force that promotes sustainable living in our society.

In a HuffPost article entitled "America's Crucial Choice: Religious Division or Unity," Eboo Patel reminds us that the targets for religious division have shifted over time, from Catholics in the late nineteenth century to Jews in the early twentieth century. But the guiding values of this country are grounded on religious unity, not conflict. He calls for an interfaith movement to resurrect one of our core principles: E Plurbis Unum -- out of many, one.

As the crisis in the Gulf Coast showed us, the environment is one place where believers share the common value to care for God's earth. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found strong consensus across religions for environmental protection, in contrast to issues like abortion and gay marriage that create divisive headlines.

Three themes from this high school musical provide compelling frames for the stories of different religious traditions uniting around care of God's creation.

Inclusion and Tolerance

Stereotypes drive McKinley High: Rachel, the diva; Mercedes, the ingénue; Kurt, the gay male; Artie, the nerd in a wheelchair. But the shared passion for music overcomes the painful hierarchy of high school. As the narrator explains, "Rachel is a bossy, egotistical perfectionist. But the other Gleesters put up with her because she's an amazing singer."

In the religious-environmental movement, the moral imperative to care for God's earth has brought together faith traditions that don't typically worship in the same space or eat at the same table. Across the country, the oil spill propelled thousands of interfaith services from Fairhope, Ala. to Newark, N.J. In Illinois, an interfaith organization called Faith in Place has created strong connections between Muslims in Chicago and Christian farmers who provide organic meat during Ramadan.

Persistence Over Time

The abrasive adult, Sue Sylvester, who leads the Cheerios cheerleading squad, believes the Glee Club will never bring together the popular students and the "kids playing live-action druids and trolls in the forest." But the challenge to compete in the regional competition becomes a long-term test of persistence for the students, who build musical skills, momentum, and cohesion as a group.

The campaign to harness our spiritual connection to the earth takes incremental work over time. People of faith are taking progressive steps along the way, as evidenced by the Power Wise program of Georgia Interfaith Power and Light. This program will involve 400 diverse congregations in conducting energy assessments and then improving the energy efficiency of sanctuaries. Likewise, organizations such as the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program are investing in the long-term training of religious leaders in understanding climate change.

Love and Transformation

The lyrics of the Glee Club feature wide-ranging selections like AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and the Judy Garland classic "Over the Rainbow." When the students sing, we don't see Artie's wheelchair or Kurt's lipstick. We see faces transformed by the joy of music.

As believers, the love for God's earth can transform congregations -- Jewish, Christian, and Muslim -- into a powerful force for the environment. At La Capilla de Santa Maria, an Episcopal church in Hendersonville, N.C., the undocumented parishioners face the daily threats of deportation. Yet a focus on energy efficiency, green jobs, and the construction of a cob oven has made the church a model for more affluent parishes in Western North Carolina.

People of faith need to tell and retell these stories that have a collective force greater than headlines and actions filled with hatred. We must share stories of solar panels on churches and gardens next to synagogues. We should talk about the fact that Muslim leaders plan to use green building techniques for the "Ground Zero mosque," which will be the first LEED-certified mosque in the country.

Our narrative features bold acts transformed by grace. We are united in prayer, a love of God's earth, and joy (some might even say "glee").