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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  • Tom

    WOW!!! A Catholic media award….in America! Congratulations! Keep up this work of faith!!!
    What I love about the responses is that most see through the conflict and division that may arise as a result in such an award. Most respondents praise the effort of the producers. Most respondents see the Holy Spirit at work and that is what I believe!
    The working clergy and religious speak of their grassroots work sometimes as operating “under the radar”….that is, without the hierarchy having to “bless” or scrutinize every local parish program and effort to spread the Gospel message. Thank God for this forum!! Ian’s journey is similar to every human’s urge understand their individual purpose! His method of expression comes through his efforts in media. Those who would view the award as controversial are misinformed. God is certainly at work in the show, on this website and in the hearts of all who doubt and question!!

  • Kenny

    ” You can disagree with MOST things The Catholic Church does and still be a Catholic.” I think not. Few agree with everything, but I think to agree with MOST of what the Church teaches would be a prerequisite to membership.

  • Kenny

    ” You can disagree with MOST things The Catholic Church does and still be a Catholic.” I think not. Few agree with everything, but I thing to agree with MOST of what the Church teaches would be a prerequisite to membership.

  • William

    Loved the article and love the show Glee. The diverse characters are all to human but find acceptance and tolerance with each other no matter what. Isn’t that what religion is supposed to be about?

    I’m sure some of the letter writers above will disagree, but rules and regulations without love and compassion for differences in others are worthless. And just so people know where I’m coming from, I was raised Catholic but have since left the church. I find its teachings to judgemental and intolerant at present.

  • Catholic

    First and foremost – the example of the man eating the hamburger was deeply moving. I hope we can all relate to moments like these. Moments of an almost completely overwhelming compassion. Moments when you wonder if your heart grew any fuller, you might not be able to breathe. A moment when you are utterly unclear if you are going to fall to your knees and explode into tears and tremble. May we always be open to the Lord begging us and showing us how to LOVE our fellow man!!!!!!

    As far as the article, and the above comments — I have not seen the program, and I know nothing about it. But I do know this:

    From the Catechism #166 Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith.

    We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth of all that is seen and unseen.
    We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven; + by the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. + For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered died, and was buried. On the third day He rose in fulfillment of the Scriptures; He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
    We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

  • Abigail

    I absolutely loved this. It speaks to the idea that Catholicism is just more than a set of rules, and more than how we are perceived by others. Sure, I don’t agree theologically with everything he said, but the fact that he’s saying it is extremely important. I too think there are two Catholic Churches in existence, and if we want to be united as one as Catholics – and not constantly fighting – then dialogue and opinions like these need to be shared and listened to.

  • dan o’brien

    This message board is the most exciting thing that’s happened to me all day. The conflict in the church, In humans, In our country, Red Blue, Conservative Liberal, Is first and foremost conflict. The opposite of Christ’s peace, his gift to us. What’s not good about the conflict is our desire to be a part of it. It’s exciting to stand by your beliefs, fight for what is in your opinion right. perhaps this is in the territory of sin? Blindness cause by pride in our defense of the tenets we hold dear? Why is the reaction so strong. One person says, I’m right, and in the same instant takes pleasure that everyone else is wrong. Another person says your wrong you haven’t seen the light, and takes pleasure in already acheiving enlightment while others have not. It sucks, because all that’s left is a fight. Conflict. American Catholics are a fantastic breed. Educated, talented and wealthy. Really we are the catholics that must change the face of the church. I think artists like Ian play a crucial role in elucidating the variety of ideas American Catholics have. The church is an institution in constant change, which is exciting but can also be frightening. Like say you tell someone a woman is going to be a priest, that might be so upsetting and challenging to what was presented to them as correct other beliefs that should never be called into question, are doubted. Like abortion being the murder. Or murder in general. It’s a slippery slope. But without doubt there is no faith. And perhaps if you’ve never doubted, your faith has room to grow. I can’t wait to see the church of tomorrow. It’s a fact that the church will always reflect the views of it’s people. And it’s people’s views are evolving all the time… not in a bad way, but in a way the is more perfect, more truly reflective of the Holy Spirit that lives from age to age in God’s people. That evolution is painful. Christ gave us the example we are to follow which includes pain and sacrafice for the truth. Galileo probably didn’t much appreciate living in captivity as a heretic for the final years of his life for pointing out the Sun does not revolve around the earth. Just as Jesus didn’t appreciate his persecution for pointing out things like working on the sabbath isn’t a sin. Simple truths being doubted can really shake the foundation of those who have held those truths so dearly even though erroneously for so long. And in that type of situation I think we are dealing with sin of inflexibility which I think derives again from pride. Something in our nature needs to have something to hold onto though. Otherwise we go crazy.

    If anyone is still reading this, thanks for hanging in there the spirit is moving me and I’m enjoying it.

    Ian Brennan, write us a tv show about the catholic church! There’s some rich material! Perhaps as Joseph Campbell suggests artists are the ones to lead the way.

    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’t make you feel like you have to apologize for it.

    But it’s up to us American Catholics to get involved and start the ball rolling. The church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and South America, but in America and Europe it’s at a stand still, because the catholics who have evolving views that differ from church teaching, simply decide they must no longer have a place in the church instead of working to take the church along with them, to update the church. And anyone who might find this upsetting, I ask you hasn’t this always been the way of the church? It’s an institution that changes, just often slowly. But We’re due. The tragedy of the sexual abuse of children by our priests, not just in one area or culture or demographic or country, but ALL OVER THE WORLD, the same horrible tragedy is a cry for help from a deeply flawed system. A system that is capable of creating this same casualty in priests in America just as it does in Europe. A system that needs changing. Those priests were failed by their church and in turn extracted horrendous damage. There’s an argument for Married religious if I’ve ever heard one.

    Hey Fox television how about a tv show about The Catholic Church? I know 40 million amercians that would tune in!

  • Adam

    While Glee is by far one of my favorite shows, I have never in anyway ever felt a spiritual side to the show at all. In fact if anything, I’ve felt it has bashed religion more often than support it.

    As for questioning the faith, as a Senior in college now, I had my major Faith experience back in high school following the death of my grandma. Going to a Jesuit HS (Gotta love the Jesuits) we were constantly told to question everything. Which is exactly what I did. It was through these questions that I found out that everything I asked, had been asked before and answered by someone much much smarter than I could ever be or hope to become. There are reasons why the Church has stood for the same things for years upon years. It’s because they are Truths. Just because we feel an emotional pain or disagree with something doesn’t mean that the Church hasn’t thought about it before and are simply ignoring people. Aquinas, Ignatius of Antioch and dozens of others have argued and debated these things for millenia. Society doesn’t get to change the Church for she is Truth.

    While it is important to question, you also need to ensure that the answers you seek and the answers you find are the answers of the Church and not those who are pretending to represent it.


  • Jo

    Chris, we are Catholic through our baptism. That’s it. We don’t get to “opt out”. Now, there is always the question of “obedient” or “practical”, but we are always Catholic.

  • Chris

    Oh yeah, his Father was a Paulist, that explains this nonsense.

  • Chris

    Although very sentimental, it is wrong. Every Mass we profess exactly what we believe in. For instance, you cannot support abortion and be a catholic, period. You excumunicate yourself. We as Catholics have love for everyone, gay or not, but we must hate only the sin, not the sinner. And the bishops are the bishops for a reason, we give them our obedience, and at the same time should practice healthy hermenutics, not hermenuticus suspicion.

    As for Mr.John S Evans, all 23 rites of Catholics are obedient to the Pope, not just Roman.

  • John S Evans

    OOOps, I meant to include my comment that your “sight” is quite excellent and gives one much food for thought. Love the title “Busted Halo” thanks for all that you are attempting to do!

  • John S Evans

    Aught not “Roman Catholic” be used rather than only “Catholic”? The Catholic Church would include most Christian Churches, whereas those Churches that choose submission to the Roman Pontif are rightly known as “Roman Catholic”!

  • ml

    That little scene about the man with the hamburger is incredibly beautiful.

  • MW

    I think this is wonderful! I, too, appreciate Ian’s honesty about his spiritual journey. As Amiehartnet says, even our most highly-respected Catholic leaders and saints experienced periods of great doubt.

    I am also disappointed to read Anonymous’s criticisms. The Christ who I know through the Church accepts ALL people, regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion, past behavior. As Catherine said, the TV show Glee is about young teens striving to be individuals in the midst of a conformist environment. And, as many teens do, they sometimes make decisions they regret; they are truly human. The Christ I was raised to believe in would accept each one of them!

  • Jennifer G.

    Thanks Ian. First of all, I’m your biggest GLEE fan, and believe you and the whole group deserve much recognition for the show. I had a similar experience about the way faith in one’s creator was explained (having to do with a car, not comprehending the car designer, because it’s not within it’s capability…). It helped me accept things and I felt the scene you wrote was a beautiful way to accept more things.Thank you…and keep up the great work!

  • Catherine

    While I disagree with your opinion that the article is gibberish, I was really glad that you posted it. It shows one of the many reactions that can come from people that have received the same sacraments. We are all part of the same Body of Christ surrounded by the Holy Spirit and are also allowed to have conflicting opinions: as long as we fulfill the requirement to love each other.

    I believe that constantly questioning my Catholic faith brings me to a closer relationship with God, understanding my relationship to God and living the life Jesus required of us. I am a human being with an individual mind that God blessed me with and refusing to follow the masses “because that’s what you’re supposed to do” has served me well in every aspect of my life.

    Further, Glee celebrates making right choices in an environment where you are surrounded by the masses making bad choices. It embraces individualism and being true to yourself, regardless of how everyone else is telling you how you should be. Thinking back to my teen years, to have had a community that accepted me and helped build the individual confidence that is rare in teenage society would have been life changing in the right direction.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for opening a perspective of our Catholic faith to me. The more I read through this article the more my guilt about not believing 100% in everything Catholic subsided. Maybe this is a church for me and my friends. Maybe there is some one out there who is just sitting beside me in my crazy yucky day just loving me. Loving me for who I am and all my faults and unbeliefs.

    Thank you Busted Halo for helping me see the light of love in our often dark church.

    May the Lord continue to bless you and your ministry.


  • amiehartnett

    Some of the greatest Saints of our Church have questioned and challeneged (often, to their demise) the status quo all because of their deep faith in the the example set by Jesus.

    If we are to never question and be blind followers only, then we are betraying the wonderful gifts of wisdom and understanding bestowed on us at our confirmation by the Holy Spirit.

    I love that Ian is honest about his faith journey and really appreciate the idea of “heritage.”

  • Anonymous

    What a sad, sad example of “catholic” media. Glee celebrates not only homosexual behavior, but immoral sexual behavior of teens in general.

    Reading the statement, “I believe that therefore, almost by definition, you can disagree with most things the Catholic Church does, and still be Catholic” saddened me the most. This kind of relativism is exactly what Pope Benedict XVI has been speaking out against. What’s right for you may not be right for me. I can pick and choose what I want to believe. That’s all gibberish, and it’s so sad to see a Catholic organization celebrating this outright heretical blabber.

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