16 November 2007

Drama and Dogma

by Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was the daughter of an Anglican pastor. Born at Oxford while her father was headmaster and chaplain of Christ Church Cathedral school there, she grew up in Cambridgeshire (the heart of Spurgeon country) and spent her college years at Oxford. (She was, as a matter of fact, one of the first women to earn a degree from Oxford.) In most ways she seemed an unlikely person to be an inflential lay theologian. Her main claim to fame was as a mystery writer and playwright. She had a turbulent romantic life and gave birth to a son out of wedlock (whose birth she kept secret even from her parents).

Sayers nevertheless kept the faith, holding devoutly to the same conservative Anglican perspective her father held. She was a friend of both C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams and thus a contemporary of the Inklings (but being a woman she was excluded from their get-togethers). Never one to shy away from controversy, Sayers had a gift for defending her views with grace and good humor. That quality is evident in this piece, which is as relevant today as is was when it was first published, posthumously, in The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement (London: Gollancz, 1963).

fficial Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.

That drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the Church, and if we think it dull it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents or have recited them so often and so mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. The plot pivots upon a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: "What think ye of Christ?" (Matthew 22:42). Before we adopt any of the unofficial solutions (some of which are indeed excessively dull)—before we dismiss Christ as a myth, an idealist demagogue, a liar, or a lunatic—it will do no harm to find out what the creeds really say about him.

What does the Church think of Christ?

The Church's answer is categorical and uncompromising and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God "by whom all things were made." His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be "like God"; he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that, for whatever reason, God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.

Christianity is, of course, not the only religion that has found the best explanation of human life in the idea of an incarnate and suffering god. The Egyptian Osiris died and rose again; Aeschylus in his play, The Eumenides, reconciled man to God by the theory of a suffering Zeus. But in most theologies, the god is supposed to have suffered and died in some remote and mythical period of prehistory. The Christian story, on the other hand, starts off briskly in St. Matthew's account with a place and a date: "When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King." St. Luke, still more practically and prosaically, pins the thing down by a reference to a piece of government finance. God, he says, was made man in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census in connection with a scheme of taxation. Similarly, we might date an event by saying that it took place in the year that Great Britain went off the gold standard. About thirty-three years later (we are informed), God was executed, for being a political nuisance, "under Pontius Pilate"—much as we might say, "when Mr. Johnson-Hicks was Home Secretary." It is as definite and concrete as all that.

Possibly we might prefer not to take this tale too seriously—there are disquieting points about it. Here we had a man of divine character walking and talking among us—and what did we find to do with him? The common people, indeed, "heard him gladly"; but our leading authorities in church and state considered that he talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we bribed one of his friends to hand him over quietly to the police, and we tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, and had him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows, "thanking God we were rid of a knave." All this was not very creditable to us, even if he was (as many people thought and think) only a harmless, crazy preacher. But if the Church is right about him, it was more discreditable still, for the man we hanged was God Almighty. So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.

True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as "that fox"; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a "gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners"; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people's pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humor that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb.

He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had "a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly," and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.

"And the third day he rose again." What are we to make of this? One thing is certain: if he were God and nothing else, his immortality means nothing to us; if he was man and no more, his death is no more important than yours or mine. But if he really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too; and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person. The Church binds us to no theory about the exact composition of Christ's resurrection body. A body of some kind there had to be, since man cannot perceive the Infinite otherwise than in terms of space and time. It may have been made from the same elements as the body that disappeared so strangely from the guarded tomb, but it was not that old, limited mortal body, though it was recognizably like it. In any case, those who saw the risen Christ remained persuaded that life was worth living and death a triviality—an attitude curiously unlike that of the modern defeatist, who is firmly persuaded that life is a disaster and death (rather inconsistently) a major catastrophe.

Now, nobody is compelled to believe a single word of this remarkable story. God (says the Church) has created us perfectly free to disbelieve in him as much as we choose. If we do disbelieve, then he and we must take the consequences in a world ruled by cause and effect. The Church says further, that man did, in fact, disbelieve, and that God did, in fact, take the consequences. At the same, if we are going to disbelieve a thing, it seems on the whole to be desirable that we should first find out what, exactly, we are disbelieving. Very well, then: "The right faith is, that we believe that Jesus Christ is God and man, perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Who, although he be God and man, yet is he not two, but one Christ." There is the essential doctrine, of which the whole elaborate structure of Christian faith and morals is only the logical consequence.

Now, we may call that doctrine exhilarating, or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation, or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull, then words have no meaning at all. That God should play the tyrant over man is a dismal story of unrelieved oppression; that man should play the tyrant over man is the usual dreary record of human futility; but that man should play the tyrant over God, find him a better man than himself, is an astonishing drama indeed. Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognize it as news; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it news, and good news at that; though we are likely to forget that the word Gospel ever meant anything so sensational.

Perhaps the drama is played out now, and Jesus is safely dead and buried. Perhaps. It is ironical and entertaining to consider that at least once in the world's history those words might have been spoken with complete conviction, and that was upon the eve of the Resurrection.
Dorothy L. Sayers


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

That was one of the most insightful essays that I have ever read! Wow! It blew me away. I'm going to unashamedly steal one of her lines. "The dogma is the drama(!)" Is that beautiful or what??

I'm familiar with Dorothy Sayers name, but I have never read anything about her or anything written by her. Now I will.

Anyone have any suggestions of which books of Sayers work to start with?

Rick Potter said...


Her "Letters to a Diminished Church" is great.

Matthew Celestine said...

Good stuff.

Doroth L Sayer's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy was great too.

Kim said...

Her essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning" was the biggest influence of my homeschool. Her views on education are the foundation on my own philosophy of education.

My daughter read all of Sayers' mysteries by the time she was 14 years old.

James Scott Bell said...

"Now, nobody is compelled to believe a single word of this remarkable story. God (says the Church) has created us perfectly free to disbelieve in him as much as we choose."

Yes, which is why we must preach the Good News to all people in a way that shows WE believe it to be remarkable.

DJP said...

Really marvelous, on every level. What a wonderful guest writer. Thanks, Phil.

In particular, I'm tempted to re-excerpt the paragraph that begins, "If this is dull, then what, in Heaven's name, is worthy to be called exciting?" Pure dynamite.

But (A) that would be redundant, and (B) where would the excerpt stop?

Staci Eastin said...

Like Kim, "The Lost Tools of Learning" was a big influence on our homeschool.

I enjoy all her essays, and I also love her book Mind of the Maker. I don't think that our human minds can ever grasp the concept of the Trinity, but the explanation she lays out in that book - she likens it to the creative process of the artist - is probably the best one I've seen.

Great stuff!

candy said...

Wow! What a great article you posted! I have also read some of Sayer's mysteries and my mother really liked to read Sayer's books. I wish my mother could have read this post before she passed away. She had a distaste for God, but I think she would have enjoyed this essay a great deal.

There are many Christians today who would have dismissed Sayer's writings due to her bad lifestyle choices. Her flaws would have been splashed all over blogs and her writings buried under the controversies.

Oh. I thought that Sayer was the only woman included in the Inklings.

Kim said...

writing and living:

When I posted that comment, I actually thought about you because I knew you shared my sentiment!

donsands said...

That was very refreshing. She had a way with words for sure, and combined with the truth, it was a pleasure to read.

"It is as definite and concrete as all that."

Jesus Christ's death and rising from death is a truth we can be down right confident in, and since this is true, then the whole of the Scriptures must be true as well.

Thanks for such a great post. I'll be sharing this one, if that's alright. Not that I haven't share others from the Pyro guys. I even shared one from Pecadilo.

Solameanie said...

Superb. Simply superb.

And even her flaws as noted by Phil are a great reminder about God's love, mercy and grace to the undeserving.

Now for my shot of the day. I'd love to see how Brian McLaren or his cohorts would unpack and redefine this essay.

Phil Johnson said...

Donsands: "I even shared one from Pecadilo."

Speaking of Pecadillo, he sends Chrstmas greetings to all his loyal fans and Pectators. He's leaving town tonight and won't be back till Thanksgiving day. But I've put him on notice: if he doesn't make at least two posts by the end of the year, we're getting a new mascot.

Stefan Ewing said...

Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, wow, WOW!


There's bad news, and then there's good news. The bad news is the curse of the Law. The good news is the Good News, that God became man, suffered, died, and resurrected. The perfect fulfilment of the Law, and the perfect atonement for our sins. How can that not be exciting!?


Thank you, Phil, for posting this amazing piece of writing; all the more so considering the flaws in her own life, which as Solameanie has already alluded to, is a Hebrews 11-style testament to us that God can do amazing things through us sinners. Praise the Lord!

Oh, and did I say, "Wow"?

Neil said...

I think Fred Butler should be the new mascot.

David Regier said...

Thanks for the blessing.

People sure used to could write.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Thanks everyone for the recommendations to a newbie seeking to explore Sayers corpus of work.

I think I'll put aside Jonathan Edwards and John Owens for the time being to enjoy Sayers instead.


Ebeth said...

I would also suggest THE MIND OF THE MAKER and MAN BORN TO BE KING--the first a series of essays, the second "a play-cycle on the Life of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST."

Stefan Ewing said...

Many of the posts here are particularly edifying: addressing a sin, or some issue I've been mulling over or wrestling with, etc. The same is probably true for everyone else here, in their own journeys along the narrow path.

But today's post? It was just a pure gift, a bonus, an extra paycheque.

S.J. Walker said...

Excellent Essay,


Your absolutely right. I miss the way people used to write. Like C.S. Lewis, Matthew Henry, Pink and many others. I only wish I could write as clearly as these swordsmen (and women) of the faith.


Julie said...

Sayers' essay/book Are Women Human is a very good read.

I would encourage you to read it, particularly if you think they are not human.

davedryer said...

The sad part of this is that Sayers wrote these words 50 years ago. History shows that few in England were listening. All of which means we must proclaim the same message loudly to the American church. If they don't hear it, where will we be in 50 years?

Dr Fin said...


She came close, but Sayers never made it into the Inklings - although she, along with George McDonald, certainly would have earned the status of "honorary" member.

Colin Duriez, in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship, writing about the shared worldview of such writers, explains:

"The world outlook was not only part of the character of the Inklings, but some kindred writers outside of the club also shared it. It was defined and hammered out in the 1930s, setting the pattern for future writings, particularly those of Lewis and Tolkien. It would be fair to say that writers or friends who were discovered to share the outlook were sometimes invited into the circle. (There were obvious limitations of size.) One contemporary writer sharing this outlook (who could not be one of the Inklings because, as was the custom of such groups in those days in Oxford, they were all male) was Dorothy L. Sayers. As early as 1916, in a lecture in Hull entitled 'The Way to the Other World,' she speculated about the presence of the eternal in the temporal:

"'One must remember that though in one sense the Other World was a definite place, yet to another the kingdom of gods was within one, Earth and fairy-land co-exist upon the same foot of ground. It was all a matter of the seeing eye . . . The dweller in this world can become aware of an existence on a totally different plane. To go from earth to faery is like passing from this time to eternity; it is not a journey in space, but a change of mental outlook.'"

So, Sayers was close, but no cigar. (Although, if any woman would look good with a cigar, it would have been Sayers: she has a Churchillian look about her, does she not?)

candy said...

dr fin. Thanks for the info, and the Churchillian observation. Brought a chuckle.