In that last episode of Downton Abbey, Tom Branson finds himself in a very uncomfortable circumstance, one which most Christians should be able to identify with.
In previous seasons, Tom had moved quickly from family chauffeur to in-law (having married one of the Grantham daughters, Sybil) to widower. Though anti-aristocratic to the core (with a history of radical agitation), he agreed to live with the Granthams to help raise his newborn daughter. He tries valiantly to fit in the upper-crust setting but finds himself failing miserably in the second episode of season four. While the Granthams entertain a number of their wealthy and connected friends, Tom blunders socially time and again. He pleads with Countess Violet about the logic of one courtesy, to which she says, "If I were to search for logic, I would not look for it among the English upper class." So Tom increasingly feels the fool, as if he's merely play acting the aristocrat: "I'm a fish out of water," he blurts one evening, "and I never felt it more than today."
Tom is a modern man; he feels compelled that there should be congruence between who he is privately and how he presents himself publically. He is, in short, very much like you and me. We live in an age that yearns for authenticity, in our leaders, in ourselves. To be authentic is, according to the dictionary, to be "real and genuine," and "true and accurate." It has become an essential moral virtue. To say someone is not authentic is to suggest they are, at some level, lying, bearing false witness about their true self.
But perhaps the attempt to be authentic might be more sinful, and to be inauthentic may be the virtue that Scripture calls us to. Unless we get this authenticity monkey off our backs, we, like Tom, will wrestle with ourselves to our graves—though at least in the grave we will have no choice but to be authentic, our private self perfectly matching our public self.
Two Cheers for Miss Manners
At the level of manners, most of us cheer inauthenticity. The waitress spills soup in your lap. You are furious—the soup will surely stain the outfit you've bought for the occasion. But the occasion is special, and you don't want to make a scene. Besides, charity requires you to be understanding. While the waitress babbles on about her sorrow over the spill, you say, with a forced smile, "It's nothing. Don't worry about it." Yet you seethe the entire meal.
Inauthenticity is the mark of a well-mannered person. Feigning interest in your host's fireplace portrait of grandpapa, expressing regret at another misfortune even if you are distracted by your own problems to feel any regret, drinking milk from a glass (vs. the carton, which you prefer) when in the presence of others. We much prefer to be around inauthentic, well-mannered people than those who say whatever they think and have the table manners of a five-year-old boy. Two cheers for Miss Manners.
But when it comes to larger arenas and fuller presentations of ourselves, we expect everyone to be authentic. This is no more so than in worship, where we expect our pastor to be uber-authentic. The signs of pastoral authenticity today are not hard to list: blue jeans and open shirt (vs. ministerial robes), preaching with a plexiglass lectern, or none at all (vs. a pulpit), giving off an "I'm just one of you" air while sharing funny anecdotes, one's foibles, and the misadventures of kids who say the darnedest things.