Why informality is suddenly OK

  • (Author’s note: I’m starting 2013 with a series of blog posts about the huge changes that are rocking Western society – and their impact on men and the church. I am not advocating these changes; I’m simply trying to explain why they’re happening, to help believers respond with greater understanding to those they may disagree with.)

    lord and his butlerI’m one of the millions of viewers enchanted by TV’s hottest show – Downton Abbey. It’s the story of an aristocratic family and their servants, set in England a century ago. (Guys, I know it sounds boring, but it’s actually terrific.)

    Downton takes us inside a society built on formality. Every human interaction is carefully scripted. There’s proper dress for every occasion. Dinner must be served an exact way. Conversations are diplomatic and indirect. People control their passions and lusts (for the most part). Manners matter. Duty reigns supreme. The characters consistently do what they think is right, even if it costs them everything.

    But as the show progresses through the 1910s and 20s, the formal society slowly fades, yielding to the informal world we know today.

    The Crawley family would not recognize the world we live in. There are no formal class distinctions. We say whatever we want. We rarely dress for any occasion. Manners matter little. We indulge ourselves. Manners, social conventions and duty have taken a backseat to familiarity, convenience and practicality. We celebrate the exploits of those who cannot control their lusts.

    Let me be clear: I do not mourn the passing of the Edwardian era. I see little value in changing clothes six times a day, following traditions that have lost all meaning, or beating about the bush. The servant-and-master model has run its course, and good riddance.

    But I am curious as to why our world became so informal so fast. Why, even in my lifetime I’ve seen people stop dressing for all but the most solemn occasions. Why so many aspects of politeness have gone by the wayside. Why expediency almost always trumps “doing the right thing.”

    In my previous post I explored why young adults are rejecting the institutional structures that have undergirded agrarian society, in favor of a new tribalism that emphasizes individuality, diversity, naturalism and above all, personal autonomy. Formality makes no sense in such a world. If institutions are not as important as they once were, why make a big fuss when interacting with them?

    M*A*S*HDownton Abbey is so unusual because it runs counter to the informal, anti-institutional bias that’s been the lifeblood of television since 1970. Hit comedies such as M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Simpsons and Seinfeld and won huge ratings by lampooning long held social norms. Meanwhile, TV dramas (viewer discretion advised) have been busy desensitizing audiences to mayhem, cruelty and unrestrained passion.

    Then along comes Downton Abbey. What gives?

    I believe the success of Downton reflects a longing among Westerners for a more genteel era. Humans have been agrarian for a few thousand years. During those centuries we became accustomed to laws, morality, duty and hierarchy. We got used to being told us what our roles in life would be. Choices were few, but life was simple and relatively secure.

    Postmoderns may be acting like hunter-gatherers, but the fact is we still need the laws, rules and social conventions that make civilization possible (and enjoyable). Downton represents a time when the lines were bright and the penalties for stepping outside them were severe. Such rules may seem oppressive or silly to us, yet they fostered the peaceful, prosperous, liberal society we enjoy today. Only God knows how many of these rules can fall before our society falls as well.

    And speaking of liberal, how is it that Downton has found an audience on PBS? Among its most ardent fans are the very counter-culturists who spent their youths rebelling against the oppressive social rules Downton celebrates. At some level liberals must realize the government they lionize cannot exist in a world with no cohesion. Someone has to maintain the institutions that make the welfare state possible.

    One more thing Downton offers that almost no other show does – morally upright male characters. Lord Grantham and his heir, Matthew Crawley, are men of impeccable integrity. Their servants, Mr. Carson and Mr. Bates are equally principled. It’s been a long time since a TV drama offered such an array of kind, noble men in the lead roles. (Meanwhile, the show’s bad guy is a vindictive, devilish homosexual. Why liberals aren’t screaming about that plot element is a mystery to me.)

    grantham with daughtersLord Grantham, the patriarch, does his best to stand firm as the first waves of modernity begin washing away the foundations of the old agrarian order. (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the show, don’t read the rest of this paragraph). His youngest daughter breaks social ranks and marries one of the servants. His eldest daughter has a one-night stand that threatens to bring disgrace on the family. And his middle daughter learns to drive a car and becomes a suffragette.

    Lord Grantham objects vehemently as his daughters begin dismantling the cultural framework that underpins their noble status. Yet even as his daughters reject his ways, he does not reject them. Grantham is a true Christ figure – a loving father, a generous provider and a fierce advocate for his children. He clings to traditions not for traditions’ sake, but because he believes that’s what is best for his daughters.

    That Downton Abbey is so popular tells us something about modern viewers. We long for men like Lord Grantham, Matthew, Carson and Bates. Our anything-goes generation is looking for limits. As the baby boomers age, that old agrarian ethos is looking better and better.

    As C. S. Lewis said, the basic moral law is written on our hearts. We don’t really want to be our own gods. We’re like toddlers – eventually we tire of being in charge and we long to submit ourselves to a higher power that will take care of us and tell us what we’re supposed to do. We want a Lord in our lives who will look after us – whether his name is Grantham or Jesus.

    The Gospel grants us freedom and autonomy – but it also provides a framework in which the followers of Jesus are supposed to live. Such a framework seems oppressive in our choice-driven age. As Christians, we don’t always understand why God tells us to do certain things, but we walk by faith, not by sight. We do as our Lord commands, whether we understand or not.

    Rather than weaken this framework (as some churches are doing in the name of “inclusiveness”) we would do well to maintain it. Obedience to God is not oppression – it’s the only way to experience true freedom. Like Lord Grantham, we must object vehemently when truth is compromised – while at the same time responding with love to all of God’s children.

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    January 31st, 2013 | David Murrow | 8 Comments |

About The Author

David Murrow

David Murrow is the director of Church for Men, an organization that helps congregations reach more men and boys. In his day job, David works as a television producer and writer. He's the author of four books. He lives in Alaska with his wife, three children, three grandchildren and a dachshund named Pepper.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Catterall/100000059945651 David Catterall

    I admire your modesty, David, for not telling them that the Countess Grantham is one of your Fellow Americans!

  • http://www.churchformen.com David Murrow

    Yes she is, and she and her ilk are driving the changes. Thanks for pointing that out!

  • Colleen

    Sorry to say, but I must ask — Lord Grantham had a dalliance with the maid Jane, and she had to be sent away…did you miss that?

    I don’t want to comment on your post and seem like I am sullying it, but I want to give you a heads up. Colleen

  • http://www.churchformen.com David Murrow

    (spoiler alert again) That fact that Lord Grantham went right to the edge with Jane but pulled away was an act of character. He shouldn’t have kissed her. But for a powerful man to resist the adoration of a woman in a lower position (while his own wife and daughters are ignoring him) is a testament to his strength. If only politicians today understood this. Grantham is my hero. And the decision to leave Downton was hers, not his.

  • http://www.churchformen.com David Murrow

    Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, was just interviewed in the New York Times. He seems to confirm what I wrote in the blog. Here’s an excerpt:

    The “Downton” world “seems like an ordered world at times, and ours feels like a rather disordered world. This is an era of insecurity, both in a very real sense for a lot of people, economically. Their jobs are either gone or insecure, and they haven’t got as much money to spend, which is very tough. And a lot of people are going through that.”

    Beyond the financial insecurity in the air, he says, the “political structures seem a bit wobbly, and we don’t seem to have quite the faith in them. I always remember that movie with James Cagney, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’ He goes to see the president, and we see him sitting opposite the president. And there’s a light on his face, as if the president is actually shining.

    “I must have loved that, really. I love that faith in the institutions. And I don’t think we really have that any more. We don’t think our leaders shine in that way.”

  • Jamiel Cotman

    Like God, I look to the church.

    It’s not society’s job to be formal. Without God, they live
    for themselves.

    Looking at the church, it goes back to Christianity becoming
    feminized. Because of this, today’s Christian leaders focus more and more and
    producing emotional satisfaction [women being the emotional creatures that they
    are]. As a result virtues such as love, kindness, and beauty are maximized,
    while Christian values like justice, strength, and law are minimized. Jesus
    made it blatantly clear that he came not to do away with these and that we
    shouldn’t neglect them [Matt 5:17; 23:23]. But that’s just what an informal or
    liberal culture does. And it will continue to do this until we have a more
    masculine church culture to guide them away from it.

    Nancy Pearson said, “The more traditionally masculine side
    of Christianity enjoys crossing swords with hostile secular worldviews. So, as
    long as Christianity appeals to the emotional, therapeutic, interpersonal,
    relational areas, it’s not going to appeal to men as much as to women,”

    When masculine Christianity returns, we’ll have enough
    soldiers to go out into the culture and change the paradigm.

    Dave spoke on all of this in 2 of his former blogs [see
    links below].

    Does A Lack Of Men Lead To Liberalism


    What The NFL Debacle Says About Men


  • Jamiel Cotman

    I was recently watching a debate with renowned atheist
    Richard Dawkins. He said something to the effect of, “…a God like that should
    care nothing about who you’re sleeping with” when referring to and mocking the
    reality of the Christian God. All of the college students began to cheer and

    No Christian stood up
    to him.


    Because feminine Christianity hasn’t trained anyone to.

    Feminine Christianity only trains us to hold hands, dance
    and sing love songs to Jesus.

    It completely de-emphasizes rationality, moral judgments and
    boundaries, debates and disagreement, confrontations and persuasion, or other
    manly Christian practices. It majors on relationships, kindness, emotions and
    love instead.

    Again, society will continue to become more and more liberal
    and informal, until the church becomes more masculine. Strong Christian men are
    the only ones that can lead them out of that because Christian women’s values
    are not aligned to do so.

    To make a long story short, it ended up being a Muslim that
    stood up to Richard Dawkins. Islam is widely known as a masculine religion so
    it was no surprise to me that he stood up to defend theism the way he did.

    Feminized Christianity allows a liberal world culture.

    A liberal world culture allows more and more informality/perversion

    Update: Just yesterday a 9 year old girl had a child by a 17
    year old boy [Google it]. Though there was no law against this, everyone was
    heated. But according to Richard Dawkins, and other liberalists, this would be

  • Salmon Diego

    The man’s suit used to be something of a right of passage for men. There were certain occasions where men always wore a suit and tie. To not do so was tantamount to declaring yourself to still be a child. I remember of picture of the funeral of Keith Moon (the drummer for rock band The Who) from the 1970’s. All of his band-mates wore a suit and tie to his funeral–all of them. The last funeral I attended, I’m not sure if anyone under 30 wore a suit and tie. Some even wore jeans.

    IMHO, we can thank the women’s rights movement for this change. There never has been an equivalent for business women to the men’s suit. Put even the oddest looking guy into a well fitting suit, and he’ll look pretty impressive. Women’s business clothing, for whatever reason, just doesn’t have the same impact for women.

    So how do you even the playing field? Eliminate the man’s suit and make “corporate casual” the new business standard for men. And, as corporations lowered their dress standards, every other area of life down the line lowered theirs a notch also.

    I’m not saying this is bad (how people dress is just a matter of style for the most part), but I think it is bad that we have lost a symbol of adult male masculinity. A suit isn’t something most men used to wear because they loved to wear suits, it something they wore because they said to themselves “In a situation like this men wear a suit; I’m wearing a suit, because I’m a man.”

    We need a few touchstones in life that define who we are. The men’s suit used to be one of those touchstones. Men wore suits at certain occasions. To not wear one was to declare yourself not much of a man.