Is God the Missing Character in Downton Abbey?
- Thursday, February 14, 2013
(RNS)--The third season of the megahit PBS series Downton Abbey wrapped up on Sunday February 17, capping another must-see run of ruin and redemption at Lord Grantham's stately English manor. Yet some are still left puzzled over the absence of what should be a leading Upstairs player in this colorful cast: God.
Writing last month in the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, Todd Dorman wondered why -- despite the heart-rending melodrama and all the "divine trappings" that gild the 1920s scenery -- "God is a peripheral presence at best."
"There are numerous fascinating blog posts... that search for implicit Catholic and Christian themes in the show -- good and evil, suffering for cause, various types and grades of love and devotion," Dorman wrote. "At some point, though, especially with a vicar in the family's employ, it seems odd for such connections to remain unnamed, unspoken, and, for all we can see, unperceived."
The Rev. Ian Markham, president of (Episcopal) Virginia Theological Seminary and a big Downton fan, also discerns serious spiritual themes beneath the surface of the narrative. Yet as Markham told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, faith itself is "relatively invisible. But you would expect religion to be more present in their lives."
It's "a bizarre omission," Telegraph columnist Robert Colvile wrote after the second season wound up. "Perhaps it's this godlessness, rather than any malice on the part of writer Julian Fellowes, that explains why Downton's residents appear to have such a peculiarly cursed existence?"
There are, to be sure, a few glimpses of spiritual pathos, as in Season Two when Lady Mary -- eldest daughter of Lord Crawley, the Earl of Grantham -- beseeches God to keep her beloved Matthew safe in the trenches of World War I. "Dear Lord, I don't pretend to have much credit with you," she says. "I'm not even sure that you're there. But if you are, and if I've ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe."
Still, that doesn't really rise to the level of what American viewers, in particular, might consider an appropriate religious response to the circumstances. What about a dark night of the soul that leads to enlightenment and conversion? A personal relationship with Jesus, perhaps? Sharing that faith with others?
"They wouldn't do that, good Lord, no," said Michael Walsh, a British author and church historian who has been following the series. "And they certainly wouldn't do it in public."
As Walsh said, that's just not the way the English -- namely high-church Anglicans like the Crawleys -- did religion then. (Or now, for that matter). And if the Brits of the age were devout, he added, they "tended to turn to Catholicism." In fact, English Catholicism at this time was enjoying something of a countercultural revival.
Catholic chaplains had distinguished themselves with their battlefield ministry during the Great War, and major writers like G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh converted in the 1920s and '30s along with a number of other well-known figures.
Waugh's most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited, was set in this era and also focused on the travails of English aristocrats, though chiefly on their struggles with Catholicism and "the operation of grace," as Waugh put it. That formula proved to have an enduring appeal when the 1981 BBC adaptation became a trans-Atlantic phenomenon that prefigured the success of Downton Abbey.
Indeed, doubt plays at least as big a role as belief, which reflects the real disillusionment of the post-war era, at least for some. The jailed valet and veteran John Bates seems to dismiss faith at one point, and Lady Sybil does as well, which is especially poignant given her fate.
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