The Gospel According to Glee: The Shaping of (Post)Modern Identity

16 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

I gotta admit: I don’t get it.

When one of the greatest hit shows on TV is a musical called “Glee,” I have to admit that I’m just not that excited.

Oh, sure, I’m certainly not against it or anything; I just don’t understand the appeal of musicals.

And, of course, Glee ain’t the only act in town; you surely remember the success of the whole High School Musical franchise. Casual prediction? If they ever make Twilight: The Musical, it will produce levels of excitement so great that many will suspect these young women had eaten a hefty bag full of Skittles.

But wait, it’s not just young women, either. The phenomenon of musicals has been catching the attention of men and women of a variety of age groups (some have noted that Glee is actually a much more mature show, containing some content not suitable for the High School Musical audience).

So yeah; don’t get it. But others do get it. On the one hand, it’s not an entirely recent trend: I can name several people who have always been into theater and Broadway, long before the recent bandwagon rolled into town. But you can’t argue that there hasn’t been a recent mega-trend toward musicals – even Green Day has gotten in on the action with a musical version American Idiot.

So what’s the appeal?

WHAT’S THE APPEAL?

Humans have many needs, including a need for identity. This is provided through a variety of means, but musicals provide a unique stage for the shaping and invention of personal identity. In many ways, they provide an experiential means of self-discovery, not far removed from the days of dress-up when we were all kids.

David Kamp, in an article appearing in the New York Times, calls these young fans “Broadway babies.” He writes:

“The Broadway babies are not the passive, bused-in tourist young people of yore who went to see “The Phantom of the Opera” or “A Chorus Line” simply because it was what one did when visiting New York. They’re true believers for whom love of musicals brings happiness, transcendence, and, strangely enough, social acceptance.”

Kamp quotes Cindy Samuelson (owner of Stagedoor Manor), who suggests that today’s generation is unique in its ability to express these issues:

“’Kids in this generation have a greater acceptance of who they are and what they want to be,’ Ms. Samuelson said. And, [Kamp adds]:, a greater acceptance of who others are. For all the horrors attributed to modern children — cyberbullying, sexting, Justin Bieber-esque sideways- hair-brushing — they are far more supportive of diversity and difference than any generation before.”

THE MAKING OF (POST)MODERN IDENTITY

Philosopher Charles Taylor suggests that people have always struggled with the question of identity – it’s no wonder his text on Philosophy was called Sources of the Self.

Today’s generations struggle with figuring out who they are, and often allow their identities to be shaped by the world around them.

Barry Taylor, author of Entertainment Theology writes:

“Whence, then, do we derive identity today? I content that it is largely derived from our imagination. We shop for ‘ourselves’ in the marketplace of ever-expanding ideas brought to us when we enter cyberspace or media culture, or when we engage with the seemingly endless possibilities presented to us by a global consumer culture.” (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 46)

Taylor quotes David Lyon, saying that in today’s culture,

“people flitting like butterflies from store to store, and from symbol to symbol, constantly constructing themselves, trying on this fashion, this lifestyle. A sort of pastiche persona results, so the self – and life itself – becomes transient, ephemeral, episodic and apparently insignificant…flexible, amenable to infinite reshaping according to mood, whim, desire and imagination.” (Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 47)

I’d suggest that musicals, including Glee, work just like that: through the characters, through song, through the entire experience, both the actors and audience can identify with what’s happening on stage, become lost in it, and in the whole process shape their own sense of self-awareness and identity.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GLEE

Sure it ain’t my style, but I really have no problem with the whole trend toward musicals. In fact, some elements of this trend can be affirmed, even from a Christian perspective. The Bible itself is a collection of writings interwoven with truth and art, from hymns sliding into Paul’s letters (Philippians 2:5-12) to the blues-y writings of King David.

Genesis 1:26 tells us that men and women were created in God’s “image,” meaning we share certain characteristics with God. In the immediate context of Genesis, this means God’s creativity as well as His ability to relate.

In theology we have a fifty-dollar word called perichoresis. If you squint hard enough, you’ll see the word choreo from which we eventually get the word “choreography.” The word perichoresis literally refers to dancing around (though I’m not so sure it’s the kind of thing you’d see on Glee…). God, rightly understood, exists in a mysterious relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, relating to one another in balance, harmony and beauty. And if man is created in that image, than not only are we to relate to one another, but to do so in a way that reflects this divine dance.

Where the gospel really hits home is here: we tend to (wrongly) assume that this whole journey towards identity is one of self-discovery, when the real journey is one of self-transformation. Our identities will be shaped by one of three things: (1) what we do, (2) what others do to us or (3) what Christ has done for us through the cross and inviting us into relationship with God and our neighbor in that eternal dance.

Personal significance is therefore not something you arrive at through personal exploration, but found through the transformative power of God, a transformation made vivid in the rhythms and syncopation of our daily lives.

16 June 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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