Busted Halo
feature: entertainment & lifestyle
August 28th, 2010

Raking Leaves, Racked with Skepticism

The co-creator of Glee on being Catholic


The 62nd Annual Emmy Awards are being held this Sunday, August 29th. Glee has been nominated for a total of 19 Emmy awards. Ian Brennan, co-creator of Glee, has been personally nominated for 2 awards as producer and writer. The following is Ian Brennan’s acceptance speech at the 17th Annual Catholics in Media Awards at which the Fox Television show was honored.

A few weeks ago, when we learned Glee would receive this award, the other creators of the show and I sort of looked at each other and said, “Wait, really?” Our first thoughts were that, a) Catholics in Media had not seen our show, or that b) my dad, himself a former Paulist, had bribed them. Then at a certain point we all just sort of shrugged and thought, “we’ll take it”, thinking cynically that it’ll be a great to have when we inevitably begin to be boycotted by evangelical groups, which, a few weeks later, actually happened. And I hesitate to even gratify it by talking about it, but one of the cast members stumbled upon a website so inflammatory that it took several weeks to decipher that it was not, in fact, satirical. This website described the show Glee as, and I swear I am not making this up, “engayenating”, and then, in the same article, claims that the Golden Girls turned an entire generation of men gay in the 1980’s. Which is harder to argue with. In any case, we were happy to have a religious award under our belt.

But the more I thought about it, the more my puzzlement that we’d be honored with this award puzzled me. My reaction belied a division in my own perception about the Catholic Church, and that’s kind of what I’d like to say a few words about.

I think there are kind of two churches, and sadly, when people consider the church, they are forced to think of its contingent that I identify with the least. And I don’t mean to bash the Church, I identify very deeply with it, and I’m deeply defensive of it. I recently kind of stopped dating a girl because she made a disparaging remark about Catholicism.

But it’s difficult, as Catholic, to see William Donohue go on TV and claim to speak for me and all other Catholics, as if he had that right. Or watch bishops deny communion to people whose beliefs they don’t approve of. Or to hear people throw around the term “Cafeteria Catholics”, as if the tenets of the Church itself were so flimsy that they can’t withstand examination. And, sadly, I think it’s that church that most people see. But I believe it to be just a tiny, tiny fraction of the true body of the Church, the one that I grew up in, the one I feel that I know.

The tension of the dialogue

I think that being Catholic is a lot like being Jewish. I believe that it is not a set of beliefs, but a heritage, a two thousand year meditation on the very idea of belief. I consider this its enduring beauty. I believe that therefore, almost by definition, you can disagree with most things the Catholic Church does, and still be Catholic.

I think that being Catholic is a lot like being Jewish. I believe that it is not a set of beliefs, but a heritage, a two thousand year meditation on the very idea of belief. I consider this its enduring beauty. I believe that therefore, almost by definition, you can disagree with most things the Catholic Church does, and still be Catholic. I believe it is precisely the tension of this dialogue that begets the living church, and is, in fact, what sets it apart. There would be a lot of Catholics who would totally disagree, though that’s sort of the point, that they, and the Church, can be wrong, and so can I.

My mom always tells my sister and I, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not Catholic.” And I think she’s right, just as you wouldn’t say someone wasn’t Jewish because they liked ham. It’s the dialogue between different attitudes towards scripture and towards belief that begets a living church. I believe wholeheartedly that honest, deep skepticism is as holy as religious devotion. I believe that pondering the nature of God, even questioning his existence, is itself a form of prayer. I think the Catholic faith is at its most beautiful when it acknowledges we have minds. Which kind of brings me, in a weird way, to my point.

Just, like, loving us

I have always struggled with belief, as I think most honest people do, and there was day, when I was a teenager, maybe seventeen, and I actually think we may have been raking leaves, but I sort of came to my dad with the fact that I couldn’t really fathom how there could be a god. It just didn’t seem like it was at all true, and then, with just a flick of his wrist, my dad just sort of turned and offered an explanation, which years later kind of became sort of the last scene in the screenplay “Glee”, which is how our TV show sort of began its life and spent its infancy.

I’d like to read this scene to you; those familiar with the show wouldn’t recognize the characters anymore, they no longer exist, and the context may not matter, but this scene is two teenagers, the two main characters, sitting on a stoop late at night, after a show choir competition that was ruined when Kervin, who is going through withdrawal from hid dad’s prescription pain killers, drinks a fifth of vodka before the performance and projectile vomits all over the stage in the middle of a Peter, Paul and Mary song about the bombing of El Salvador. And Pepper, a freshman girl, tries to console him. Pepper speaks…

“I spent some time kind looking back at some of my journals, and I came across this passage that was like from sixth grade or something, and I found this passage where I had written something which didn’t seem to make any sense like it didn’t have anything to do with what I’d been writing about and like most of the stuff I write kinda dies in childbirth, like never quite makes it all the way out… but I had written, for some reason, I had written about this time when my mom and I were at Wendy’s for lunch and there was this old man sitting by himself just drinking a coffee and eating like just a plain hamburger, like one of the 69 cent ones with just a coffee — and I just… I felt so bad for him, or like didn’t feel bad, really, I just kinda felt for him, I wanted to like be with him, I just wanted to sit there and keep him company, and my mom and I sat there and ate and she was talking and the whole time I just like wanted to go over and sit with him, this old man I didn’t even know just sitting there alone, eating a 69 cent hamburger by himself in the middle of the day… And there was like no way he could ever know that, you know? Like there was no way he could ever guess that. That I felt that way. And like I thought to myself: just as I secretly love this old man who I don’t know sitting across the restaurant from me and there’s no way he would ever know, like I believed there could be something, like, way across the cosmos, unbeknownst to everyone, just, like, loving us. And there’s no way we could ever know it. It would just be there. And it was like this weird, incredible gift. And I think I’ve stopped even like needing that love for myself; it was enough to just stand near it and watch it and know it exists. And I think it makes the rest… I don’t know. I think it makes everything else pretty easy.”

And I don’t know, and it may be a stretch, but there’s something very holy about raking leaves, racked with skepticism, and your ex-priest dad with a flick of the wrist, explains the existence of God to you. That, to me, is the Catholic Church.

The Author : Ian Brennan
Ian Brennan is a television writer, actor and producer. He is best known as the co-creator of the show "Glee."
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  • Will

    The status quo is the way it is, only because it was once changed from the previous status quo. “The ways of the ancients were once new.” So why shun the new? Are you so sure things are perfect as they are?

  • Kat

    I think the award was given prematurely. One episode was built around a grilled cheese sandwich that looked vaguely like Jesus. Last week on the episode “Sexy” they had a nun who was formerly a pole dancer which was supposed to be funny. Haha. If they want to really be fair and inclusive yada yada, they should try to add religious tolerance to the mix. And the message of “Sexy” was… go for it, anyway, anyhow! Next up: glamorizing chlamydia.

  • John

    The Faith has been questioned further and deeper than by the likes of the Glee producers and the Church as developed rich and serious answers to real questions. Read the Catechism

    But, you know, like, I don’t really agree with the Church about much and I, like, really do pick and choose what I want to follow….nonsense. Shallow, narcissistic drivel.

  • Cowboybob

    I was criticizing the episcopal church for it’s liberal gay stance to my methodist minister. His response to me was. “have you always been perfect in the eyes of god regarding your sexual thoughts and actions”. He also mentioned that many Christians pick and choose what parts of the old
    testament they want to live by. They may not be willing marry thier deceased brothers wife or stone sinners yet they want to focus on one sexual proscription. the faith has been growing and changing as has the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Remember the huge changes from the Vatican councils. we all sin most of use rationalize and live with our sin. ( fear, sloth , anger, ect…) on some level. If an unrepentant liar can take communion why not any sinner.

  • William Grogan

    @ Brandon. Nonsense! If what you state in your post is true, The Catholic Church would still believe the sun revolves around the earth. The Church must evolve beyond its archaic doctrine as modern age and science prove its original tenets are based on falsehoods. There is no reason why women cannot be ordained or that priests may not marry other than some medieval rule passed by a misguided pope. Some of the original apostles were married. Even the Church admits today that gays have no control over sexual orientation. That is truth based on science. The next logical step is to accept that gay unions of love and monogamy are as valued as heterosexual unions. This will take time but I foresee it in some perhaps distant future. All institutions and people who do not evolve will eventually perish. The Church is no different. These rules just mentioned were put into place long after Jesus lived. They can just as well be removed.

  • Servant of the Lord

    Jesus said…”I am the truth, the life and the way.” But the question was also asked, “What is truth”. As a Catholic I know that the Catholic Church is the Mother Church, always has been and always will be. It is the Church that was built by Christ for the purpose to serve God by serving one another. This is the “truth”. The unique aspect of the “truth” is that truth is NOT based on faith. Truth simply is! For example. Prior to the 14th century, most intellegent men and women, Kings and Queens, all believed that the world was flat. If one sailed to far past the horizon, they would fall off and end up somewhere not good. This is what they believed to be the truth. But this was never the truth. We know that the truth is that the world is not flat, was never flat, the sun never revolved around it and never will. That is simply the truth no matter who believes it. Thus, TRUTH simply IS no matter what. The Catholic Church is the TRUE church not because anyone believes it to be, but because it simply is. Jesus is the Son of God not because anyone believes He is, but because He simply is, was and always will be.
    “What is the truth”? Matters not what you believe. Truth can NOT be changed, and the truth is, John 3: 16, namely that God so loved the world, the He gave us His only son, that who ever shall believe in Him will have eternal life.” Believe it or not, is simply is the truth.

  • Denis Giannelli

    For Dan O’brien-the church you yearn for was inagaurated in the mid 1960’s-you are it’s fruit.
    All of the talk in this blog is man centered gibberish! God has made clear what is plan is. We have no right to even suggest something different. The Divine Plan for our orderly return to God is membership in the Mystical Body of Christ -the Catholic Church. The Catholic Churh is a perfect society-which means it has been endowed by God with everything necessary to fulfill it’s Divine mission.The union of it’s individual members with it’s Divine Head, Our Lord Jesus Christ.Yes Mizmo we must judge and we do everyday. We judge actions-whether they be right or wrong. We do not judge motives, however, that is God’s domain.Here are just a couple of those teachings that one MUST believe in order to be saved. They are what is known as DeFide teachings (of Faith).
    Mary was conceived without stain of original sin.
    Christ gave His Church an hierarchical constitution.
    Membership of the Church is necessary for all men for salvation.
    I will leave you all to ponder this:
    “Heresy is the obstinate post baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith(DeFide),or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same…”Cat.of the Catholic Church.
    Denis Giannelli
    The Fr. Fahey Institute

  • mizmo


    “If a Jewish person likes ham then they are obviously not a religious Jew (or at least a good one). They are just a cultural Jew similar to how you are just a cultural Catholic.”

    Doesn’t the Church teach “Judge not, lest ye be judged”? Shouldn’t we think about throwing away the notions of what makes so-and-so a “good” Catholic vs. a “just a cultural” Catholic? I think faith is far too personal for anyone besides the individual in question to assess whether or not they are a “good” Catholic or not. Why not simply accept all who identify with our Catholic community with open arms and leave the judgement behind?

    Should whether or not someone eats a piece of ham or not truly dictate their relationship with God? Doesn’t a trifle like that seem a little ridiculous when so much is taught about God’s forgiveness? I believe just because a rule is written down in a book written down in a very different time and place and translated through multiple languages doesn’t mean it must dictate our relationship with God and our church community. If that were true, I don’t really think anyone living in the United States in 2010 would be a “good” Catholic according to the rules outlined by Leviticus. When was the last time you were cut off from your people for eating a hamburger that contained beef fat? (Leviticus 7,22) Or eating a juicy steak? (Leviticus 7,29) Or yes, even eating that ham sandwich (Leviticus 11,4) or exotic sushi (Leviticus 11, 10). This is just about food – things get more serious.

  • Joan Seymour

    I’m at least twice Ian’s age, I don’t enjoy ‘Glee’ and I belong to the Australian, not American, Catholic church. But I agree with everything he said – I’ve thought and felt this way for years, but perhaps it took a professional writer to give it words. God bless you, Ian – you give me hope for our poor,struggling, Spirit-impelled human church.

  • Gayle

    I enjoyed this article, very well thought out. One’s faith life is a journey. Some of those commenting do not seem to realize that. The important thing is to stay on the journey and see where God leads. I will have to rememeber the hamburger story!

  • Brandon

    @Dan O’Brien: The church you imagine is certainly not Catholic and the Catholic Church will never turn into such a Church. Many people do not understand how the teachings of the Church develop and come about. The Church doesn’t just add new teachings like a builder adds new floors to a house. The pope couldn’t change church teaching to allow for gay marriage, abortion, or female priests even if he wanted to. Rather, Church teaching comes about organically like a tree growing larger with more branches. Everything comes from the deposit of Faith (which was entrusted to the Church by Christ in the scriptures and through oral tradition).
    The Church stands for Truth and while tolerance is important, Truth is more important. The Church will always defend the deposit of faith and while new teachings will grow out of applying the deposit of faith to our changing world, you will never see the radical things you propose come about or for the fleeting trends of society to change Church teaching.
    @Ian: If a Jewish person likes ham then they are obviously not a religious Jew (or at least a good one). They are just a cultural Jew similar to how you are just a cultural Catholic. If you don’t believe in the tenets of the Creed then you are not Catholic. This does not mean that you cannot have doubts or question your faith. That is a private matter though and Catholics have a responsibility to work that out with a spiritual director or knowledgeable friend and not to publically promote their faith issues and possibly lead others astray.

  • Ivan

    Thank you for this article. This is exactly how I feel about the current situation in our Church. I to have strong issues with some of the actions done by so-called ‘man of Faith’ (who are mostly intolerant or impossible to compromise, love and understand people with different view or opinions. Where is the Christian charity in this ?).

    I guess I will continue to struggle about my faith in the years to come but I will try to remember that the Lord loves all of us.

  • Jill

    I think where a lot of people “draw the line” about what you can disagree with the Church on, yet still consider yourself to be a member would be the basic tenants of the creed. Yes, there is the “I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church” but that is catholic with a lower case “c,” as in universal. Not Catholic with a capital “C” as in what a lot of people see as a male dominated hierarchy that preaches antiquated sexual practices and has made gays a scapegoat for some of its own sins (to give an extreme opinion).

    I’m somewhere on the spectrum of being an a la cart Catholic to desperately wanting to agree wholeheartidly with all the Church’s teachings. Fortunately, my educational background has left me with a fairly solid understanding of the why behind her teachings. My own conscience, which I pray about perhaps more than anything else, leaves me with some questions and concerns about certain Catholic tenants, and unable to blindly accept.

    I will keep muddling along on my own spiritual journey, and I respect all others who are trying to do the same.

  • Zeek

    Jeremy all he is saying its more to it in belief its looking in your sole. refelcting on your experiances. learning and looking through all that you know not just what your parents taught or even what the church taught. If he wants to be catholic let him u cant tell me you agree with 100% of the bible. or even what 100% of the church says. Religious faith is a continual journey that cannot be summed up in one life time. isn’t that the point. No one can tell you what to believe and in whom. its what feels right to you. and all this talk about why cant the church be this way or that. if you want it to change go out their and change don’t just talk about it in forums. we the people can change anything we want. now that is truth.
    An ye Harm none Do as though Wilt.
    Remember the Rule of 3
    Blessed Be

  • Charman

    The Catholic Church is not a club; a pay- your- dues- and- follow -the- rules- and- then- you- get- to- belong club. It is a Spiritual Path. The Eucharist is not the prize for following rules; it is Food for the journey.
    Revelation did not end when the ink dried on the Bible. The Spirit of God continues to reveal God’s Self in our time and in our world. I am the Church, too, and I welcome all those who seek the truth with compassionate hearts and open minds. There’s lots of room in the Living Church.

  • Kelsey

    “I imagine a church someday that is no longer based on a medieval feudal hierarchy system and one that reflects the more prominent governmental process of our day and age, democracy.

    I imagine a church that has female priests, bishops, cardinals, popes.

    I imagine a church that has a whole new sacramental liturgies. Masses that resemble our current mass so little that you might mistake it for something else entirely.

    I like to imagine a new church, one that doesn‚Äôt make you feel like you have to apologize for it.”

    Amen brother!

  • Carson Weber

    Ian needs a *lot* of catechesis.

  • Jeremy Fisher

    I don’t wish to be divisive, and I do love Glee, but these comments baffle me. What exactly makes Glee a Catholic show? Where is the “Gospel message” in it? It just seems like a good show made by someone who identifies as a Catholic. I see nothing particularly Catholic about it.

    And though I think Ian is a genius, his comments are troubling. His ideas seem typical of those (many who are readers here, I take it) who want to pick the parts of Catholicism they like — the comfortable, convenient, self-affirming parts — and throw away the rest. But the church isn‚Äôt a like a political party or a public advocacy group. It isn‚Äôt meant to reflect public opinion and changing mores in order to better suit its members. It‚Äôs supposed to reflect God‚Äôs unchanging truth to people and allow them to decide whether to accept it or not. I‚Äôm afraid that too many members of my generation want the church to change the truth to fit them. Too many of us want faith to be a lifestyle accessory that provides comfort and closure, and any church that doesn‚Äôt provide them with a future where we all (except for Hitler and Stalin) dance on rainbows with Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King for eternity is a faith worthy of condemnation. That‚Äôs not faith; that‚Äôs extortion.

    Of course, disbelief and doubt are natural to anyone‚Äôs process of faith. I’m not going to say that I’m perfect or that I know God’s mind on every issue. But I also wouldn’t say that I know more than those who spend their lives studying these issues, and when you find yourself falling on the side of not believing ‚Äúmost‚Äù of Catholic doctrine, can you really say you‚Äôre Catholic? This would be akin to saying you believe everything in the Republic platform, contribute solely to Republican candidates, and vote for only Republicans but‚Ķyou consider yourself a Democrat because your parents were. No doubt, you can call yourself a Democrat, but what does it really mean at that point?

    Ask yourself this question: if you can be a Catholic without believing “most” of Catholic doctrine, where do you draw the line? Can you exclusively worship Muhammad and be a Catholic? Can you deny the deity of Christ and be a Catholic? Can you call yourself a believer if you don’t believe?

    It doesn‚Äôt make you a liar or a hypocrite or a bad person if you don‚Äôt believe official Catholic doctrine. It‚Äôs ok. You’re obviously a great artist. I just don‚Äôt know if you‚Äôre a Catholic.

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