When Ryan Murphy was an altar boy, he was obsessed with the Shroud of Turin, a centuries-old piece of cloth said to bear the face of Jesus. On Tuesday's episode of Glee, Finn will see God in his grilled cheese sandwich. (He proceeds to ask the "Cheesy Lord" to grant him three wishes.)
Having the glee club wrestle with matters of faith could be controversial. Outside of 7th Heaven and similarly earnest shows, religion is a rare presence in primetime television. Could Glee, with its brand of biting, often politically incorrect humor, be sensitive enough to do justice to the hot-button topic?
On the surface, Finn's divine discovery is just another way to mock the sweetly dim character. But in the same episode, Glee delves deeper into serious questions of faith when a tragedy prompts Kurt to reveal that he doesn't believe in God. Some of his classmates tell him he's wrong; others pray for him in their own ways.
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Murphy says the writers wanted to address religion in a responsible way. (The show has already dealt with such issues as teenage pregnancy and homosexuality.) He compares the episode to the socially conscious Norman Lear shows of the '70s, thematically challenging TV he was inspired by while growing up. "I don't think people do that kind of thing anymore; I don't think they're allowed to in many regards," he says.
So Glee goes for a balanced debate: "On one hand, you have Kurt saying he doesn't believe, but it's just as important to hear Quinn say that when she was pregnant, she prayed to God and it helped her through. For Mercedes, her faith gives her great solace," Murphy says. In support of Kurt's struggle, Rachel sings "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" from the film Yentl.
Coach Sue, in a rare display of feeling educational responsibility, will come down hard against the idea of performing spiritual songs on school grounds. (Murphy calls Sue's philosophical argument with Emma over the matter "the scene I'm most proud to have been involved with in my entire career.")
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"Sue's an atheist, but I love that she doesn't want to be," Murphy says. "She and [Kurt] are both saying to the world, 'Prove us wrong: If God is kindness and love, make me believe in God.'" Finding a way for Kurt to express his beliefs — or lack thereof — through music didn't come without effort. "It would have been easy for him to sing a song that's anti-faith," Murphy says. Instead, Kurt will sing about his faith in love to a slowed-down version of The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
"It's a very honest take on how we think about religion today," Glee co-creator and executive producer Ian Brennan says. "Some of the kids don't know yet what they believe."
"It's all very provocative, but not insensitive," adds actor Cory Monteith, who will sing R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" in the episode. Finn's edible encounter with Jesus may have been inspired by Murphy's childhood obsession, but Murphy says the idea, while played for laughs, isn't so unique. "You read stories about it every week. People see the face of God in, like, bird droppings or corn flakes. To me, what that says is that in our society right now, people are just so desperate to believe in something."
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"We know some of it is comedic, and we laugh. But we also know the episode could touch a lot of people," he continues. "The actors took getting it right very seriously."
As for Murphy's own beliefs? "I do believe in God," he says. "I think religion gave me great structure and discipline and order... The older I get the more I feel like God Is a collective good. I think that's what the episode is saying. That's what all these kids are desperately trying to find in their lives."
Part of what he calls the gift of Glee is its ability to start a dialogue among young viewers. "I wish there had been something to launch conversations about feelings and emotions in my household when I was younger," he says. "When the show is at its best, that is what I think we're doing."
In case you missed the preview following last week's "Britney/Brittany" episode, check it out below:
Glee airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on Fox.