David Lose: Downton Abbey and Cultural Christianity

I love Downton Abbey. (Or at least I did until the season finale. I'm rather undecided going forward.) I love it for many of the reasons I love Mad Men. In addition to strong characters and the elements of love and betrayal and power and suspense that are part and parcel of good narrative, both shows are also period dramas set at particular times and places which aren't just interesting in general but are experiencing great tumult and change and so help us understand not just something of where we came from but also who we are and where we are going.

When we watch the debate over the women's vote in Downton Abbey (or women's pay in the workplace in Mad Men), for instance, it causes us to think about the place of women in our own culture and evaluate some of the advances and question some of the setbacks women have experienced more lately. When we peer into the Irish uprisings we're reminded of just how long "the Troubles" have persisted. When we watch the aftermath of war and how that changes everything for the characters, we wonder about our own wars and notice, I hope, how much less present war seems to be in our age of drones and an all volunteer army. And so on.

But I've also found Downton Abbey has prompted me to think about the place and nature of the church. There's been a fair amount written of late about the role of faith - or really the absence of faith - in the show. Apart from the Vicar showing up for baptisms and weddings, or the anti-Catholic sentiments that are stirred up by the prospect of Tom and Sibyl's baby being baptized Roman Catholic, there is little explicit mention of faith.

Some have found that troubling, even historically inaccurate, but I wonder. I mean, as one historian quoted in an article I read said, upper class British took their membership in the Anglican Church for granted, but that didn't mean they talked about it.

I realize, of course, that Downton Abbey is a drama (really a lavish soap opera, if I'm to be honest), and I have no idea just how much research went into this aspect of 1920s British culture or if the writer and producers are even particularly interested in religious questions. But I think it nevertheless sheds some light on our own situation of living with what probably is best described as a form of "cultural Christianity." The Vicar/Pastor is there for weddings, baptisms, funerals, and such. And the faith is a comfort at times - when Cora assures her family that Sibyl is watching her daughter's baptism, for instance, or when we invoke God's presence after tragedy - but, by and large, it is assumed rather than confessed.

While I was taught in seminary to critique, if not despise, cultural Christianity, there is something quite comforting about it. I mean, at least it's there. Can one ever live out the revolutionary impulse of Christianity without it becoming somehow part and parcel of our everyday lives over time? And aren't there other elements of our lives as well - political, familial, and the rest - that our faith shares, rather than dominates?

Maybe comforting isn't quite the word. Maybe it's just realistic. The observation, I mean, that some take to religion more fervently than others, but that on the whole religious faith serves as part of the glue that holds a culture together. Sometimes it does more than that, but at least it does that.

Which is why it's so hard for the characters then, or we today, when that changes. Robert's children aren't concerned that their niece will be baptized Roman Catholic, debating the vicar concerning whether God could really be displeased by all the people living in all the countries outside England. And many of our children take a similarly lackadaisical stance toward participation in a religious faith community today.

When we ache for the church of our youth (or of our parents' or grandparents' generation, depending on where we live), are we not aching at least in part for the passing of cultural Christianity? For whatever its shortcomings, we could at least count on the faith as playing some role - even if at times peripheral - in our lives, and I suspect we took some comfort that it was part of the glue that held our lives together.

But it is passing. Not yet passed, but surely moving on. And, as a result, there is little question that the church as we know it will be quite a bit smaller in the years to come than it is today.

The question, however, is will it be more vibrant? Will the passing of our own cultural Christianity yield way to more intentional forms of Christian community, of lives that are more fully - if never completely - shaped by the revolutionary character of, not just Christian faith, but by Christian hope and love as well.

These are questions the characters of Downton Abbey aren't likely to address in Season Four or probably ever. But we will. And much turns on how we address them.

Taken with permission from David's blog, "...In the Meantime"