Like many people I’m hooked on Downton Abbey, the new “Masterpiece Theater” now showing on PBS. I’m so engaged that it’s hard to imagine that some people still haven’t heard of this stunning TV show about the inhabitants of a Great House in Yorkshire just before and during the First World War.
What makes the show outstanding is not only the brilliant script or the acting or the ravishing costumes that make you want to wear hats again and change into gowns for dinner; what is exceptional is that each of the characters is behaving as far as possible from the highest moral and ethical code, each one striving to do what is right when it is not always clear; and that it is in the clash of ethics that dramatic conflict arises.
The plot does not turn on uncovering a murderer or solving a senselessly rapacious and bloody crime, but on the tiny choices we each of us make in our daily lives. Two sisters hate each other; the cook is terrified of going blind; the youngest daughter is involved in suffragette politics; the dowager Countess is challenged to be generous.
This is a long introduction for what I want to talk about: the media’s fear of spirituality or prayer. It’s curious. I’m baffled by it. On the one hand, the media (by which I mean books, TV shows, films, newspapers) glomb onto Tim Tebow, evangelist quarterback, kneeling on the field to pray in public before a football game; and since the Broncos are in a winning streak his prayers are apparently being answered. (On this topic, I refer you to a wonderful article by Dr. Brian Lee, “How would Jesus pray for Tim Tebow” that you can find at Tim Tebow | How would Jesus pray for Tim Tebow? | The Daily Caller). On the other hand the media shy as if in terror from any expression of the spiritual. Is the secular our fashionable religion? But let me back up and give the context of what made me start puzzling about prayer, secular humanism and the media.
It’s curious for example, in Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham and his family do not attend church. This at a time at the end of the Edwardian age when it was a duty of the landowner to support the Anglican church. But there’s more. There’s even a reluctance to think about prayer.
Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter, Mary, is in love with Matthew Crawley, now serving in France during the WWI, at a time when the average life-span of a British officer at the front lines was about four months. In Part I of the new Season II, we see her kneeling in her nightgown beside her bed, her hair pulled back in a long braid down her back. Her sister, Edith, knocks and enters, looking for a book. “Were you praying?!” Edith exclaims in derision. Coldly Mary hands her the book, closes the door and goes back to her knees. She pulls out a photo of Matthew (who by the way is engaged to another woman), and now the camera pans to show her full-face, and we hear her prayer. I don’t remember the exact words, but it is something like, “Oh God, I don’t know if you are there. I don’t know if I even believe in you, but if there is a God . . . .”
From this we know that Mary is a) intelligent enough not really to believe; she’s got an admirable, healthy skeptical streak, b) that she loves Matthew and is frightened enough even to pray to something she doubts, and c) her sister ridicules both Mary and prayer; the family, we realize, are not religious—despite the fact that the end of the Edwardian Age was a time of deep Anglican faith. We never see them on a Sunday morning attending a service.
Taking just this dramatic scene:
Why was it necessary for us to hear Mary’s doubt? Would the scene have been less effective if, kneeling in front of Matthew’s picture, we saw her whispering words that we did not hear? Why is the expression of doubt important to this story?
Of course concerning God, everyone has periods of doubt. That’s why we speak of faith—which kicks in, presumably, when we are stricken by emptiness. Even the great saints struggled and wrestled with the mystery of God and their own persistent lack of faith: St. Augustine, St. Theresa of Avila, Mother Teresa, to name just three. But in moments of our most intense need, does Doubt crop up? I can only speak of my own experience. I may go along for quite a while, self-reliant, proud, confident of my ability to handle my problems, but sure as night follows day I’ll be thrown to my knees by life, and then vulnerable, fragile, frightened, I find myself pouring out my fear without hesitation or debate: Oh, HELP! Two simple words that translate into: God help me. Hold me. Help.
In my anguish I have no time for doubt. Afterwards my intellect creeps in and I can question everything. But not while in the grip of pain and need.
Downton Abbey is produced for an English audience, and England is largely secular today – unlike the period during the Great War when this play takes place. I can’t help being confused that not even the servants have a religious or spiritual life. And if they did, why is the media uncomfortable with that?
You are right Sophy, it IS very odd. I believe that the original Upstairs/Downstairs upon which this genre is based DID very much involve the church. I suspect the script writer just got it wrong. This family is all about Duty Above All and that Duty would have included going to church on Sunday. Staff would have gone also. Very odd.
I totally agree. Duty would have included going to church on Sundays, being seen in your (paid for) pew, having your servants attend…. but what it says about OUR AGE is what I find so fascinating. Have you heard of “When Atheism Becomes religion” byu Chris Hodges? Google him and read a review of his 2009 book, V E R Y interesting about what it says about US today.
Sophy, I was wondering the same thing about Downton Abbey: why no church life? I am happy to have gotten your email about this blog, it is very good and it is now on my favorites list. Best wishes, Ole
What a great article you’ve written. So thoughtful and sober. Too bad the so-called evangelists can’t be this lucid.
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We also don’t see them go to the bathroom…so what? In the following episode, we had a Christian deathbed marriage and Mr. Bates taking Anna to church, during the week no less, to pray. Lady Edith is clearly meant to be the “bad daughter” so her cynicism and derision are not unexpected. I think the audience sees a lot more prayer (and FWIW, the concepts of Christian “duty” and “charity”) than they do in the average trashy series on television. I guess it’s just not enough for some people…
Yes, I noticed that as soon as I posted my comments on this wonderful show, by golly, there was a deathbed wedding and also the the scene with Mr. Bates and Anna praying in church. ust to prove me wrong. Obviously Lady Edith and Mary will be reconciled at the end., and Edith is already maturing and becoming a kind of heroic figure.. In my original blog I did not mean to suggest anything except that I find it curious that the media in general (and not only in Downtown Abbey) are dismissive of “church” or “prayer.” Just a comment, and this show is so good that it’s enough for this person!
I saw what you saw and had the same sense of surprise at the deathbed and wedding scenes. But these two scenes involve the faith of the servants, not the Crawleys. The basic lack of religious commitment on the part of the Crawley family in this series is obvious. I would like to know more about the research the writer might have done on the kind of religious ambience that actually prevailed among such families at the time. Or, as you suggest, is this simply an effort on his/her part to revise and recreate an England sans religion or spirituality, which seems very artificial to me.