The iconic television series Downton Abbey, set in early twentieth century England, has much to teach us about the culture wars in America today. And here’s the lesson: remnants of Christian culture in society collapses with the loss of Christian convictions.
The show centers on the Crawley’s, an aristocratic family facing the challenges of a changing society between the years of 1912 to 1926. Beginning with the Titanic sinking, followed by the First World War, we watch as the Crawley’s, and their household servants, struggle with the rapid changes taking place in England and most of the Western world.
One of the subtle, yet repeated storylines, is the changing moral norms played out in the lives at Downton Abbey. We watched as Mary Crawley, the oldest daughter of the family, sleeps with a household guest. The man dies in her bed, and others discover her act. This event marks her reputation throughout the show. She was ashamed by her decision, but several seasons later, as the culture is changing, she spends several days with a man who she’s considering marrying, but doesn’t want to marry until first knowing if they are sexually compatible. While she attempted to hide it, her family found out, but she was far less embarrassed and resolved to defend her actions.
Mary’s father (Robert), grandmother (Violet), and others loathe her actions, but eventually their resistance weakens, then dissipates.
The second sister, Edith, has a child out of wedlock that she keeps from everyone except her aunt. She has the child in Switzerland and leaves her because of the shame that would come to her and the family. In time, she goes and retrieves the child because she cannot live apart from her. The family discovers the truth. But in time, Edith’s choices lose their shock and everyone marches on. Initial resistance gives way to acceptance.
This pattern repeats the entire series. As I watched these scenarios unfold, two questions emerged: Why are people resistant to the moral changes in society? Why do they almost always adapt to the changes and accept them?
Why the resistance to these assaults on the moral norms? It’s not from religious convictions. God is absent from the show. The Crawley family does not prioritize communion with Christ or church attendance. They only attend church on special occasions. So their opposition to Mary’s and Edith’s actions do not stem from convictions to obey God or live a holy life.
No, their protest isn’t piety, it’s a reaction to the crumbling of traditional norms. The former morals once connected to biblical convictions are now replaced by a secular ethic. The Crawley’s problem with the changes had nothing to do with disliking secularization, but more to do with disliking the loss of their familiar traditions.
This leads back to the second question: Why do most people in Downton Abbey adapt to the changing moral standards and practices? Easy. Because they had no root in a fixed, unchanging standard. Moral standards and practices existed from the nostalgia of the way things had always been. As customs collapsed from the emerging culture, so did their resistance.
Vestiges of Christian culture from a different era were disappearing as the Christian convictions that grounded it evaporated. The Crawley’s ultimately changed with the moral revolution because they had no anchor. Their Christian morals had no basis in Christian convictions. So they lost them.
The Relevance Today?
Many Christians today are engaged in cultural wars. Believers are watching as moral norms and customs collapse by the day. Marriage only between one man and one woman is outdated. Men and women are no longer identifiable based on their biological sex. Sexualizing kids was once a taboo not even the most secular person defended. Now it’s gaining acceptance.
Both Christians and non-Christians once believed that truth was objective and worthy of pursuit. The search for objective truth fueled religion, philosophy, science, and art. But today the culture teaches truth as subjective and personal. “My truth” and “your truth” are familiar slogans in our culture. This ideology permeates schools, entertainment, and the media.
The more people share these ideas, the quicker people are to adopt them as orthodoxy.
So how can Christians fight this culture war? How can we stop the tide of rapidly changing moral standards in our society?
First, we strengthen our own Christian convictions. Our churches overflow with cultural Christians. Inch deep belief in God, accompanied by a loose grasp of Scripture, creates the environment for weak convictions. Weak convictions collapse under the weight of cultural pressures.
How do we deepen our convictions? Read the Scriptures. Study confessions of faith. Work out your theological beliefs about God, the Scriptures, creation, sin, salvation, Christ, the church, and the Second Coming of Christ.
Second, we evangelize and disciple others. How does culture change? As more people bow the knee to Jesus and live under His Lordship. That only comes through leading people to faith in Christ for salvation. Then we must teach them to obey everything He commanded. Making disciples of Jesus is the only path Christians have to winning the culture wars.
Apart from this work, our efforts to preserve Christian culture in America, absent of Christian convictions in her people, has no chance of prevailing. But even worse, if we Christians and churches don’t fortify our own convictions, our resistance to the moral revolution will crumble as the Crawley’s did.