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Stories in 'Downton Abbey' offer relief, and inspiration

January 6, 2013 12:10 am

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The popularity of PBS series 'Downton Abbey' reflects our longing for a world of order, beauty, love, and family ties.

TONIGHT, the critically acclaimed, lavishly beautiful "Downton Abbey" returns for its third season on PBS. A costume drama set in post-Edwardian England, the series follows the fictitious, landed Crawley family, led by the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), as they struggle to maintain their estate in the midst of 20th-century trials.

In the U.S., the Emmy award-winning show is a runaway hit--Season 2 averaged 4.2 million viewers per episode. But why do we egalitarian Americans love it so much?

The show, which aired in England in the fall and America beginning in January, began with the sinking of the Titanic, and has continued with World War I and the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic providing the backdrops against which the Crawley family and their servants play out their personal dramas.

Love, intrigue, death, and the possibility of financial ruin are the undercurrents that sweep rapt fans from one episode to the next. Only their good manners keep them from searching the Internet for spoilers from British reviews.

From time immemorial, mankind has loved a story, from ancient legends to sophisticated plays and novels, and now, movies and television shows. Stories provide not only escape and entertainment, they inform us of others' manners and customs and help us make sense of our own lives.

The best of them offer slices of transcendent truth--the deeper, eternal things of life--along with their plots. For as much as we may try to escape the real-life struggles of our homes and our news headlines, we cannot. We long for answers and we look for them in stories. That is the secret behind the perennial popularity of such massive works as J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and "The Hobbit," as well as C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." Beyond the story is reality, a reality that strikes a chord in the deepest parts of our souls.

As we watch "Downton Abbey" or "The Hobbit" in this new year, our real stories are playing in the background. We are living in the shadow of a contentious election, ruled by a dysfunctional government, threatened by fiscal calamities, and, most heart-wrenching of all, torn by episodes of terrible violence: the Newtown school shooting with 20 innocent children lost, the ambush of firefighters in upstate New York, and more. We hear the drumming of the hoof beats of the Nazgul, Tolkien's Black Riders: Evil is in the land. What are we to make of it?

Ravi Zacharias, a philosopher born in India, a descendant of high-caste Hindu priests, now an American and a widely respected speaker who argues for the Christian faith on platforms all over the world, wrote sensitively and convincingly after the Newtown tragedy (you can read his entire piece at rzim.org/rzim-news/tragedy-at-newtown): "Hate is the opposite of love, and while one breathes death, the other breathes life The seeds of hate sooner or later bear fruit in murder and destruction. We are living in a society that nurtures hate on many sides with the result that lawlessness triumphs." Warning that "the fiscal cliff is tame by comparison to the moral devastation ahead," Zacharias goes on to cite "political leaders and media elite" who "take the most sacred privilege of democracy and transform it into the language of aggression." He decries the entertainment world "calling for gun control and then entertaining the masses with bloodshed."

Ironically, "God is evicted from our culture and then He is blamed for our carnages," writes Zacharias. But without Him, "America is lost on the high seas of time without chart or compass. The storms that await us will sink this nation beyond recognition if we do not awaken to the rapid repudiation of the values that shaped this nation. The handwriting is on the wall. Freedom is not just destroyed by its retraction. It is destroyed even more painfully by its abuse."

Tonight, we will tune in to "Downton Abbey." We will root for Mary and Matthew's marriage, cringe at the duplicity of Thomas, hope for justice for Mr. Bates and his new wife, sweet Anna, wonder at the beauty and grandeur of the house.

We will take comfort, I believe, in proper behavior: the gentle courtesy conveyed, the respect given to others, the etiquette observed. Even Sybil's "rebellion" (her pursuit of a career and then marriage to the former chauffeur) is undertaken with class.

We love "Downton Abbey" in part because we long for a world of order and beauty, love and family ties. But behind those desires is an even greater theme: We long for connection with God, the one who created order and beauty, the one whose very essence is Love. In a chaotic world, he is the keel we are missing.

Linda J. White is an editorial writer for The Free Lance-Star.





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