Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Free for CAPC Members
In Imagine, Steve Turner proposes that Christians ought to learn to understand art better and should feel able to participate in the arts more freely.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that winter in New England, where I live, can be cold and long and dark. This is why, for the last four Januaries, I have looked forward to the return of Downton Abbey with the same level of anticipation that I imagine my ancestors brought to the lighting of an oil lamp on winter evenings: a bright spot of warmth and light to ward off the cold, dark night.
The misery outside my window is mitigated by the televised images of attractive people in custom-made Edwardian clothes milling about a beautiful—and massive—English country house in Yorkshire. From inside my climate-controlled 21st century house, I peer at the relics of a way of life, now a century past, that have retreated from memory into fantasy.
I’m not alone in my love of costume dramas, generally, and in my fascination with Downton Abbey, specifically. The show has been a critical and commercial smash hit for PBS, a combination unheard of until Downton Abbey came along. By any standards, commercial or otherwise, the show has been a blockbuster as millions of people tune in season after season—a tremendous feat in this era of fractured viewing—checking out the operatic machinations of aristocratic family life upstairs and prosaic servant life downstairs.
Downton Abbey is a sort of playhouse, its characters manipulated by writers in the way paper dolls are manipulated by children: one-dimensional figures propped up on various pieces of furniture, the primary function of which is to show off regular costume changes and to serve as mouthpieces for whoever is controlling them.What makes the viewing especially compelling, besides its enchanting cinematography (including the picturesque scenes set during the First World War), is its cultural setting. The show takes place during a time of enormous upheaval in England, from 1912 to 1924, the year in which the show’s present season takes place. Social change is Downton Abbey‘s bread-and-butter. No episode is complete without at least two characters complaining about how much things are changing and two others cheerily proclaiming that change must be embraced.
The funny thing about watching Downton Abbey—and I’ve watched it with an almost embarrassing level of attentiveness from the first night the show aired in the United States until this past Sunday’s most recent episode—is that there is really nothing much to watch. Downton Abbey, like several recent Masterpiece series, isn’t based on a time-tested work of literature, but was created and written expressly for the small screen. Maybe this is its problem.
Downton Abbey is utterly a product of today, and this dissonance is revealed in the script as its writers wander in our 21st-century moral wilderness while comfortably making pronouncements on the moral failings of people who lived in the previous one. These failings aren’t the same as our own; we are far more enlightened these days than those numbskulls who lived one hundred years ago, locked as they were in the British social hierarchy. No, their failings are ones of race and class and gender and sexual freedom, stuff we’ve since figured out. More or less.
Downton Abbey is a sort of playhouse, its characters manipulated by writers in the way paper dolls are manipulated by children: one-dimensional figures propped up on various pieces of furniture, the primary function of which is to show off regular costume changes and to serve as mouthpieces for whoever is controlling them. So it is for all the various characters that populate Downton Abbey. No matter how many are added or taken away with each successive season, every player, from the head of household to the lowliest undercook, is trapped in their own set of behaviors, reduced, in laymen’s terms, to having “issues”—issues which are understood with total clarity by 21st century viewers, existing as we do in our enlightened age.
We the viewers are the diagnosticians, armed with all the knowledge contained in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or at least its reddit-ized version, and the characters on Downton Abbey are our patients. We understand each character’s motivation immediately: this one suffers from PTSD; that one suffers from being a repressed gay man. That rich white girl would be so much happier if she could just make out with the black jazz singer judgment-free. The family patriarch’s problem is that he is patriarchal. If only the mother could find her voice, she would stop being so vacuous. If only the girl working in the kitchen could find the time to learn algebra, she would never make another cake for rich people again. And so on.
It’s not that these elements of Downton Abbey’s characters aren’t true or historically accurate; it is that these elements constitute each character in his or her entirety. There are no depths to plumb. Nothing to see here, except how dull or stupid or fractious a character behaves—due to his or her issues of course.
The implication is that, if only the characters trapped in the Downton Abbey of early 20th century had the chance to live the way we do now—what with our sex and science and internet—their happiness would be realized. They would be so much more functional. Far from making the characters on the show relatable by showing their struggles (which I imagine is the intent of the writers), viewers are placed at a remove, unable to relate at all to what is happening in the lives of the characters, since the challenges they face are limited to social change and defying convention—artifacts of an era that has little to do with us. The characters are trapped in their own time, their moral dilemmas used as props to tell, not a universal story of internal moral fortitude, but a very specific tale of how Lady Mary will get away with sleeping with men without marrying them in 1924.
When a story is told the way it is on Downton Abbey, told in such a way that the only option for viewers is to condescend to its characters in order to understand their moral struggles, then the storytelling has failed. The whole point of reading or listening to a narrative is identification, which leads to empathy, which leads to humility and appreciation (there but for the grace of God. . .). Good storytelling requires some such unifying theory of human existence, which is to say of human suffering.
If we are to bear one another’s burdens, we need to understand what we have in common, not what we don’t. Identifying with a narrative does not mean that the listener or viewer literally shares characteristics with the people in the story. It means that the story carries the power of recognition with it—a sense of identifying with the nature of the characters in the narrative, the struggle toward good or away from evil—or of confusing the two. A storyteller makes his characters real not by making them realistic, necessarily, but by revealing their nature, which resonates with our own.
This is why ancient stories still manage to hold so much appeal. And the not-so-ancient stories too, from Breaking Bad to Andy Griffith to Pride and Prejudice to Hamlet to The Iliad. What each one of these tales, and the tales within the tales, have in common is the capacity to speak to what it means to exist, to what being alive—or its alternative—encompasses.
Three thousand years later, we can read Genesis and see its stories, shimmering with narrative resonance, containing truths about ourselves apropos of every human being who has ever lived, truths extending all the way back to the First Man in the garden, clutching an apple, choosing to hear God or to be god.
But whoa there, reader, let’s just take a step back. Listener, let’s break it down, Downton Abbey-style. What is really going on in this story? Let’s examine the elements: the tyrannical, impetuous god, the oppressive man, the temptress, the powerless animal, nature violated. It’s just so clear now that we’ve had a few thousand years to diagram it. If only Adam and Eve and the Snake and God had understood power structures, things might have turned out differently. The oldest story is now completely understandable, the immaterial reduced to the knowable. And now it is all so clear, all the stories are just puzzles to be solved, a matter of pulling apart structures down to the last unimaginable particle. It is a relief to know that all of humanity is nearly at a point of resolution through the power of physics. And just like that, the vision of what it means to be human as told by Euripides and Jane Austen and Zora Neale Hurston dissolves into the literal.
As far as Downton Abbey is concerned, I will still watch it, because there is so much to look at, even if there isn’t much to see. The show still has the power of its stage set, and costumes, its melodrama and period perfection, but it is the narrative equivalent of stuffing my face with cotton candy: a lot of fun while it lasts, but woman cannot live on sugar alone. So I will need another sort of narrative to sustain me as I prepare for the day ahead and the day after that and so on, until I draw my last breath. For that sort of staying power I’ll have to look elsewhere.
The story of the First Man, for instance, the pre-diagrammed version. I will return to this story again and again, and when that moment in the story comes—the point at which Adam is clutching the fruit, poised to take a bite—I’ll experience a flash of recognition. I’ll say to myself: Ah! I understand! I have tasted the fruit myself, and it was bitter, and I have been in the wilderness ever since, listening for the immaterial, the voice of God, calling me back to Himself as he walks in the cool of the evening, alone in the garden.
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