Whom Can We Trust if Not Lord Grantham?
Emily Nussbaum, writing in The New Yorker, describes the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey as "scarfing handfuls of carmel corn while swigging champagne." It goes down easy.
That is an apt description. The dialogue seems almost perfectly crafted at times, but the drama and scandal could almost fit daytime television . . . almost. Nussbaum continues, "Downton Abbey is situated precisely on the Venn diagram where 'prestige' meets 'guilty pleasure': it's as much cake as it is bread. And, sue me, I like cake."
Downton Abbey may be a poor man's Pride and Prejudice, but I'll take Maggie Smith's character Lady Grantham over Mrs. Bennet any day of the week. I've probably quoted Lady Grantham more than C. S. Lewis the past six months, and I don't regret it.
The show has redeemed television for many evangelicals---that is, until recently. At first, the mischievous characters were all easily identified and properly hated. The rest were highly regarded with honor and virtue. Lord Grantham is probably the most highly regarded of all. He is wise, kind, and always knows the right decision when the right decision ought to be made.
But you could almost hear the disapproving hiss a few weeks back when **SPOILER ALERT** Lord Grantham failed morally by kissing one of the maids and pulling her into his bedroom. Lord Grantham ended the encounter in a fit of guilt just short of sleeping with her, but the damage was already done.
Suddenly, Twitter and Facebook woke up to the fact that Downton Abbey is filled not only with with sex and scandal but also elitism, strife, backstabbing, and jealousy. I suppose we all expected this sort of behavior from Lady Edith and Lady Mary. But if we can't trust in Lord Grantham, then whom can we trust?
And just like that, many evangelicals have stopped watching the show and encouraged others to proceed only with caution.
I'd like to challenge this thinking with a reverse warning: if you choose to discontinue watching, do so with caution.
Steve Turner shows in his book Imagine that this sort of response is typical for evangelicals. Since the Reformation and the iconoclastic response to Roman Catholic veneration, Christians have been liberated to explore history, behavior, and morality in art without the need to create work that was recognizably religious. But when this freedom showed itself in theater, literature, and later in films, many Christians responded with disapproval. For some Puritans, it was sinful for two individuals to act out the sin of adultery, and those who watched also took part in the sin.
While I think this response to theater, fiction, and film is wrong, surely there are bounds to this freedom. Any Christian should beware of watching or reading anything that will arouse desires or ambitions contrary to the Bible. While sex is a topic in Downton Abbey, the action is assumed, rather than watched. There has been one exception, though it's tame compared to other primetime television.
Think on These Things
However, concerned viewers seem more worried that the drama revolves around jealousy, pride, the love of money, and any number of sinful ambitions. And doesn't Paul tell us to think about whatever is lovely, whatever is right, whatever is admirable, whatever is pure (Phil. 4:8)?
But as Scripture interprets Scripture, this verse must fit with the Old Testament. The best of the Old Testament heroes let us down with prideful ambition, adultery, and even incest. Turner writes, "David's life would have to be read in abridged version. Could we dwell on Job or Revelation? How could we deal with the negativity in Ecclesiastes?"
Sin is no abstract notion in the Bible. It has flesh-and-blood consequences. These dark moments reveal our acute need of repentance. To expect our literature or film to display only the flattering side of human nature is not simply a war with culture, but also with reality. As Cardinal Newman once observed, "It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless literature of sinful man."
Knot in the Stomach
Christians who care about virtue, truth, and even aesthetics should be delighted in Downton Abbey. Aside from being critically acclaimed, there is no confusion as to right and wrong, virtue and vice. We are never tempted to root for the adulterer. Meanwhile, those who make tempered, wise, and kind decisions are vindicated. Traditionalism for the sake of traditionalism is reviled, but thoughtless rebellion is never warranted.
So when Lord Grantham failed, we were supposed to get a knot in our stomach. His high virtue tempted us to believe in the human potential. But when our heroes fall, so also fall our hopes in the human potential.
If Lord Grantham can't do it, then who can?
But Christians know how to watch our heroes fail; always mourning, always rejoicing. We don't despair at the sight of the best of us failing, but rejoice knowing that there was One who never failed. The Lord Granthams and King Davids of the world disappoint us. But there is a Lord who never abandoned his bride and a King who never had to write Psalm 51.