Those of you who have watched all three seasons of Downton Abbey are aware of the horrifying and very unsettling conclusion to season three. I found myself taken aback and upset to the point of not being able to sleep well that night. It all seemed so wrong, so unfair, so like real life!
We watch and read these kinds of stories because we want to lose ourselves in someone else’s drama. Sometimes, at least for me, it is hard to remember that the drama is fictional, true as the story itself may be. When the story takes a sudden turn for the worse, I find myself caught up in it to the point of thinking nearly non-stop about it. I want to fix things, as I do in hard situations in real life. I start to pray for the characters and then realize that this is fiction.
It used to leave me feeling so undone, at times, that I often won’t watch a movie for fear of having to “live it” for days afterwards.
Then, a gift from the Holy Spirit came in the form of understanding that while the story I just watched, such as the Downton Abbey one, may be fiction, there are people on earth who are living a similar version of that story right now. They are not in England in the 1920s but their circumstances of joy and sorrow, feast and famine are taking place right now someplace in the world. Therefore, I can pray for them. I can lift up their situation to God for care, healing, resolution, protection, restoration, or whatever it is that I desire my book or movie characters to find.
Sometimes we make a false dichotomy between fiction and non-fiction. We sometimes think that only if it is non-fiction can it be considered a “true story.” What we fail to realize is the vehicle that fiction can be to teach the Truth in ways that subtlety sneak up on us. In Jesus’ time, they were called parables. “A farmer went out to sow…” That is a true story even though Jesus probably didn’t have in mind any particular real person. But the reason parables work, the reason they are such powerful agents of truth is because they take real life situations and carry a message to us in a way that gets behind our defenses.
We do not listen to a political or theological argument in the same way that we listen to a story. And therein lies the heart of the matter. A story like Downton Abbey can teach us things about people and history that reading an historical account cannot do. We become engaged with the issues, like those in the character of Thomas, and find that maybe our black and white approach to homosexuals doesn’t hold up as easily when presented with Thomas’s story. We love Violet and, at the same time, loathe her conniving and manipulative ways to keep the classes separate and people “in their place.” We ache with Edith for women everywhere who have been treated badly by their families and by men and who, through sheer dint of will, seek to overcome those hardships.
And in those stories, we find new ways to pray for our neighbors near and far. It is the only way I can survive the unsettledness until Season 4 of Downton Abbey airs.