Monday, October 11, 2010

Glee - Bridge Over Troubled Water

Bridging spiritual waters

Faith and spirituality are subjects TV shows most often will not touch. Public schools, sensitive to the line between church and state, which is not always clear, tend to be fearful of the subject. That is why last week’s episode of “Glee” was profound. Here was a TV series that explored those very subjects and did so in a meaningful, intelligent way, which for television is uncharacteristic and astonishing.

In the recent episode, Burt Hummel, the father of openly gay high school glee club member, Kurt, suffers a heart attack. As he lies unconscious in a hospital bed, Kurt’s friends try to solace him, saying they will pray for his father. Kurt doesn’t want any of it, however, saying he doesn’t believe in God. Some of his friends in glee club, namely church going Mercedes, find this to be unsettling. Meanwhile, fellow glee club member, Finn, whose mother has been dating Kurt’s father, has something of a spiritual moment of truth that could only happen to the dim witted Finn. Thinking he sees an image of Jesus burnt into a grilled cheese sandwich he made, Finn saves the sandwich and starts praying to “grilled cheesus.” However, after Finn expresses his new found devotion to Jesus (in Glee style, through song), it raises tension with his Jewish girlfriend, Rachel, and Jewish best friend, Puck. Known for singing songs by Jewish pop stars, Puck performs a rousing version of Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” with its rebellious lyrics, “They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait. Some say it’s better, but I say it ain’t. I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”

The conflict between Christianity and the political football of homosexuality sour Kurt on the idea of God. In the best line of the show, he says, “God makes me gay and then makes His followers go around saying it's a choice, as if I'd choose to be mocked every day of my life.” It is an issue worthy of examining. Actress Kristin Chenoweth,who won an Emmy for her role in the short-lived series, “Pushing Daisies” and played a guest role on a “Glee: episode, has been vocal about being a Christian and supporting gay rights. I heard her talk in a radio interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" about her conflicted feelings. She said,“I know what the Bible says,” but also acknowledged that she does not know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a gay person. I could identify as this is an issue I haven’t reconciled within myself. I am a Christian, but I’ve always minded my own business and never cared how others lived their lives as long as they didn’t hurt anybody else. Well, my church says I should care. I know what the Bible says, but I also know about scientific studies that show gay men had a lack of the hormone androgen in the womb, while lesbians had an overabundance of the hormone in utero.

Then there is the question of why God allows bad things to happen. Sue Sylvester, "Glee's" deliciously wicked and hillarious coach of the “cheerios” can’t believe in a God who would let her sister, who has Down Syndrome, be tormented by cruel people. Yet, in a poignant exchange, her sister, Jean, asks if she can pray for her, and Sue answers "will you?" The scene reminded me of people who don’t believe in God, but wish they could, of how people who have no faith derive comfort, being around those who do. Again, I’m reminded of a “Fresh Air” episode. In this show, Teri Gross interviewed Rick Rubin, the famed music producer who resurrected Johnny Cash’s recording career in his final years with the classic “American recordings.” Rubin recalled having a meal at Cash’s home, in which the man in black had everyone join hands as he said a humble, reverential prayer and read a few passages from the Bible. There were people there who were atheists, yet everyone was moved by Cash’s sense of innocent, child-like sense of faith.

I don’t have all the answers. That was one of several themes in this “Glee” episode – the question of relying on faith when answers to deep questions elude us and whether believing in God or something bigger than ourselves brings comfort. Early in the show, I thought I had the ending figured out. Finn was going to pray to grilled cheesus to save Burt's life. Burt would come out of his coma and Kurt would start to believe maybe there was something to this God thing after all. But this show didn’t conclude with the predictable cheesy ending. I’m glad I wasn’t able to accurately predict the ending, as I would be with so many shows of a lesser caliber. “Glee” is smartly written television. Religion, unfortunately, tends to divide people through all parts of the world, but “Glee” managed to touch on this sensitive area in a manner consistent with the show’s overriding themes of inclusiveness and harmony.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Lennon and the lost art of conversation

A certain amount of media attention has been
focusing on how today would be John Lennon’s 70th birthday. Actually, Ringo was the first Beatle to reach the three score and 10 milestone last July, but that’s okay. The Beatles practically invented youth culture and exerted more influence over a generation than any musical act had before or likely ever will again. Lennon was the most outspoken of the four musicians in both his years with the group and in his post-Beatle life so this anniversary is noteworthy.

Following his murder 30 years ago, Lennon was martyred as this man of peace brought down by an assassin’s bullet. In reality, Lennon was more complex. He was a man of contradictions – a peace activist, but also someone with a violent temper; an amiable, fun-loving person capable of showing great generosity toward friends and strangers, but also known for being caustic and abusive with the people closest to him. When looking at Lennon from the balanced perspective of both his flaws and strengths, he comes across as a much more interesting human being.

He was a man who wrestled with demons, most internal, but a few external as well – namely J. Edgar Hoover and Tricky Dick Nixon. A true artist, Lennon confronted those demons through his work. He brought a brutal, honest sense of introspection to rock that was unheard of before. Imagine was a work of genius on a level with Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, but it was only one side of Lennon, the sanitized pop version of his politics. Much of his early ‘70s solo work was angry, punk and abrasive as he took on subjects like feminism and political prisoners in songs like John Sinclair and Woman is the Nigger of the World. Yet, his compositions could also be tender and naked: Love, Grow Old With Me and How.

Today we sorely lack the kind of cultural criticism and inspired voices that emerged in the ‘60s. There is no John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Hunter S. Thompson, Bobby Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Studs Terkel, Shirley Chisholm, Allen Ginsberg, George McGovern…All we get today is ubiquitous talking and shouting, yet we are starving for substance. Everyone’s online, everyone’s a celebrity, but there is no strong voice for reform or social consciousness penetrating the mainstream. The important voices saying the things we need to hear are relegated to the fringes of our fragmented society. We are diverted by an overabundance of newer technological gadgets, the internet and people humiliating themselves over 500 television channels. In his classic, Working Class Hero, Lennon sang, “They keep you doped up with religion, sex and TV.” It’s all the more true today.

That’s why I was amazed when I came across a YouTube clip of John Lennon with Yoko Ono on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970. They were talking about things like overpopulation, the rights of Native Americans and the Black Panthers. Nobody talks like that today. Lennon and Cavett sounded articulate and well read. Today, if people discuss politics in the commercial media, it always erupts into shouting and interrupting. I am shocked to find that there was a time when issues could be discussed intelligently before a mass, mainstream audience. The level of discourse has definitely deteriorated in the past 40 years. That is evident from this clip. I have since watched more clips of The Dick Cavett Show and become a fan. In today’s broadcast world, the art of ratiocination is only kept alive by public TV and radio. Lennon’s 70th birthday is an opportunity to re-examine our cultural landscape and try to elevate it.



My favorite John Lennon song: