Downton Abbey and the Snapback

Downton AbbeyI suppose one of the things I look for, that I read for, is language.  One of the gifts of reading is discovering a vocabulary to better name concepts and experience.  You can find it in all kinds of places: theology, biography, education, sociology.  And it’s a big part of why I’ve come to enjoy the work of Andy Crouch and his compatriots at Praxis.  A couple of days ago I linked to the first of a set of reflections by Praxis concerning Our Current Moment that I’m finding helpful in thinking through things for myself.  That particular reflection focused on suffering and the struggle between withdrawal and control.  The intent was to lay some groundwork for further conversation.

The second reflection is about the “pain and possibility” as we think about the future.  And while the whole piece is worth thinking about, it’s the introduction of the concept of the “normalcy snapback” the I find most intriguing.

Crises are tremendously stressful for individuals and entire societies . . . there is a powerful force in the wake of Suffering that pulls us towards Withdrawal and Control. And there is no better place to withdraw to, and no place where we feel more in control, than the past. The “normal” we knew before, even with all its faults and fault lines, was familiar, and many of us benefited disproportionately from its inequities. The desire to snap back to that normal as soon as possible is overwhelming, a psychological and sociological force that should not be discounted.

From there, the history-shaping events of 9/11, World War I, and the Spanish Flu are referenced as moments when such a snapback might have been considered unlikely but totally desirable.  The article continues:

Such a normalcy snapback is a totally plausible scenario for our societies in the coming years, especially if the public health system and the public financial systems eke out best-case-scenario recoveries. To be clear, we do not wish one ounce of unchosen suffering on anyone. We hope that vaccines and effective treatments are quickly found and that the economic recovery is swift.

But then comes the pivot.  And it’s worth considering (especially since we can assume that people on all sides of every issue is thinking something similar).

But we do not hope for a return to normal — because normal was not neutral. We were not living in anything like a healthy world. Should the world around us superficially snap back to “normal,” our task will actually still be the same — to move the horizons of possibility towards God’s shalom, the flourishing for everyone, especially the vulnerable, that is the ultimate standard by which all nations and generations are judged. Our task will just be made more difficult by the widespread sense that everything is fine.

And our judgment is that there is not actually a normal to return to. Any normalcy snapback will be to a large extent a mirage. A few years ago the wildly popular series Downton Abbey followed a British aristocratic family through and beyond the Great War. Much of the pathos of that series revolved around the reality that though families like the fictional Crawleys did persist through and beyond the Great War, their role was permanently changed. The society that existed before the Great War simply did not exist in the same way afterwards . . .  The horizons of the possible shifted, for better or for worse, even as many people did their best to hang on to “normal.”

It is a difficult pill to swallow, and one reason why real reflection on Our Current Moment is so important institutionally (if not personally).  How do we see these things “through the eyes of faith” in a way that points towards what we believe is God’s intent for history?

Tomorrow we’ll take a quick detour from that point into some recent writing by Ephraim Radner in response to his thoughts about the church in Our Current Moment.  I am grateful for the language of the “snapback,” though.  It names something so many of us are feeling and hoping for but that we cannot, perhaps, afford.

(image from

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