Creed or Chaos?

creedOrChaosSayersOne of my Lenten practices is to read a chapter of a book of Christian theology or practice each day. This year, I started the season off with a collection of essays by Dorothy L. Sayers, and I was challenged, entertained, and provoked by her thoughts. (And yes, this is the mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. She also wrote plays, essays, and translations. She was multi-talented.)

The seven essays in this book show Sayers as a strong-minded writer who expressed her views with wit and passion, very much in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, with whom she happened to be good friends. The first couple of essays insist upon the power and beauty of the Christian story. The first essay, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” begins thus:

Official 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.

Sayers goes on in this and other essays to explore what makes the Christian story so vital and essential. She doesn’t make logical arguments to convince people of the truth of the Christian faith, although she does employ logic at times. Nor does she spend time on personal anecdotes to show what the faith means to her. Instead, she pokes holes in some of the common ideas about faith that appeared in her day, often with great wit.

One of my favorite parts was a sort of catechism in “The Dogma Is the Drama” in which she imagines how a typical person of her day might respond to basic doctrinal questions. Here, for example, is the imagined answer to the question, “What was Jesus Christ like in real life?”

He was a good man–so good as to be called the Son of God. He is to be identified in some way with God the Son … He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He had no sense of humor. Anything in the Bible that suggests otherwise must be an interpolation, or a paradox invented by G.K. Chesterton. If we try to live like Him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.

Sayers’s main concerns, although she doesn’t get into details about precisely what right doctrine looks like, although I presume that for her it means a belief in the basic creeds. She does discuss the importance of the Incarnation (my favorite doctrine!), the problem of evil, and the unfortunate emphasis on sexual sin over other sin.

Once in a while, she steps away from purely theological arguments to rant about how terrible is it to have an economy that turns excessive spending and waste into a virtue. She was writing in a time of war and of shortages, but she worried that the end of war would mean an end to thrift and sacrifice:

Shall we be prepared to take the same attitude to the arts of peace as to the arts of war? I see no reason why we should not sacrifice our convenience and our individual standard of living just as readily for the building of great public works as for a building of ships and tanks–but when the stimulus of fear and anger is removed, shall we be prepared to do any such thing? Or shall we go back to that civilization of greed and waste which we dignify by the name of a “high standard of living.”

Interestingly, in a later essay, she argues against raising taxes because it drives out of people the desire to do charitable works out of love and gratitude. I’ve seen that argument before, and I never know what to do with it because you only have to look around to see that people who have extra money to give aren’t giving it. (And I’m pointing that finger at myself, too, as I certainly don’t give as much as I probably could.)

There were a few other arguments that Sayers made that struck me as idealistic and hard to swallow. In her essay on work, for example, she talks about how everyone should be doing work that they value for itself, not because it earns them money. As much as I love this idea, is it even practical? There’s some work that simply needs to be done but that few people are going to have a passion for. And there are certain kinds of jobs that tons of people are going to want to do–far more people than can reasonably be paid to do it. Certainly, whatever job we do, we should do to a high standard, and any job done well is worthy of esteem. Our culture is all kinds of messed up in regards to what kinds of work are considered “worthy.” These points are crucial to her argument–and I agree with these points! Still, I can’t get past the reality that some work will only get done if people are paid to do it and then given enough time outside their work to pursue other hobbies and passions. I don’t know. This argument always gets on my nerves.

Another point that got on my nerves involved her argument that it was bad theology that made Germany such a menace in her time. To which I say, yes, there was nothing Christian about the government of Nazi Germany, and if Germany’s leaders had been more like Christ, the war wouldn’t have happened. But plenty of nations that aren’t predominantly Christian manage to avoid genocide. Part of the problem here is that Sayers was writing to a predominantly Christian audience and might not have taken other peaceful religions into account.

I was also a little bothered that when she discussed the problem of evil, she answered the age-old question about why God didn’t smite a dictator dead with the point that we all do repellent things that deserve punishment from God. Which I agree with! It’s Lent! The season of sackcloth and ashes! I used to make this same argument myself, but I find that I cannot abide it anymore because as wounding and damaging as some of my actions may be, I’m not going out and slaughtering people. I’m not asking for a cookie for that. Believe me. But that argument is a bad one, and I wish she hadn’t used it. She makes better arguments when she gets into how God made us free to act even when our acts are evil and how God is involved in our suffering and can transform great evil into great good.

I’ve spent a lot of time on points Sayers made that bothered me, but I did enjoy reading these essays and frequently did agree with her. I’m the sort of Christian who loves doctrine and the creeds–I became an Episcopalian partly because we say the creed every week. I appreciated Sayers’s passion about doctrine and her clever way of expressing herself. And especially during the Lenten season, any book that makes me think more deeply about my own beliefs, as this one did, is most welcome.

This entry was posted in Nonfiction, Religion, Short Stories/Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Creed or Chaos?

  1. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed this book as well, and I have her Unpopular Opinions on the TBR stack, next to The Mind of the Maker (which I’ve never made much progress with). But I’m not making much progress with my Lenten reading, Thomas a Kempis.

    • Teresa says:

      I read Mind of the Maker a while back and didn’t get all that much out of it. I liked this better, and I want to read Unpopular Opinions. And Thomas a Kempis has been on my list for years and years. Seems like a good Lenten choice.

  2. vanbraman says:

    This sounds like an interesting book. I will have to keep my eyes open for it.

  3. Stefanie says:

    I had no idea Sayers wrote a book on Christianity or that she was good friends with C.S. Lewis. I suspect that people who make arguments about work like she does are ones that come from some kind of privileged background that allows them to only ever do work they love. If only we could all be so lucky. I’m curious, what is Sayers religious affiliation, do you know?

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s an argument from privilege too, although I believe Sayers did work for a time as a copywriter, which wasn’t her calling. Maybe she recognized it as a temporary measure, which makes a huge difference.

      As far as I know, Sayers was Church of England, but the introduction to this book says that her theology, with a few exceptions, lines up with the Roman Catholic church–so I guess Anglo-Catholic would be accurate.

  4. Hmmm “everyone should be doing work that they value for itself, not because it earns them money.” It is a nice thought, but I’m glad to make the money, even if it is a small amount, at least, it contributes to what my wife and I both make.

    Hey, you’re Episcopalian. My wife and I are trying to be (we haven’t been as faithful about attendance as we would like) after leaving the Catholic Church (long story, short version: hypocrisy).

    • Teresa says:

      It is a nice thought, but it just doesn’t seem feasible to me in every case. I’m glad to have a job that’s reasonably interesting and provides a steady and reasonable income, but I don’t need to feel passionate about it, and I do need the money.

      I joined the Episcopal church just a few years ago, and I really love it (I used to be Baptist–decidedly non-creedal). I got myself active right away and ended up volunteering for several different ministries on Sunday mornings, like ushering and serving at the altar, which keeps me attending even when I don’t feel like it.

  5. Dorothy Sayers was the daughter of a Church of England vicar – so she was Episcopalian. She did have a child out of wedlock and he was hidden away. I suppose she was an embarrassment to her father as she was ‘fast’ and had a reputation for being ‘vulgar’. Her attitude to work might have been coloured by the fact that she eventually married a feckless man who never worked. There was never much money in her background and her home in Witham is not large, mid terraced and the house next door had been converted to a cinema. It meant she heard all the films very loudly in her house, so it was a miracle she wrote anything at all.

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you for that background! I had a vague notion that there was some sort of scandal in her past, but I didn’t know any specifics.

      I can see, too, how marriage to someone who refuses to work would color one’s attitude toward work. Perhaps her thought was that finding good work and seeing its value could be a motivating force more potent than money. What I see around me, on the other hand, is people who think that if you aren’t on fire with passion for your job you aren’t in the right place and need to keep hunting around for the right thing, which is a different sort of situation. I think it’s possible to be content with your job and a good employee while still seeing it mostly as a means to make a living, rather than to live out your passions.

  6. Jenny says:

    I’m…sort of shocked that she was friends with C.S. Lewis. I don’t know why! I want to know more about this. I love both of their books so much. I’ve never read any of Dorothy Sayers’s religious writing though I’ve meant to for a while, or any of her religious plays even.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder why that is a surprise to you. I’ve known it so long, possibly from when I was first introduced to Sayers, so it’s just part of my long-held knowledge about them. I looked up Lewis’s letters to Sayers in my collection and found one about his marriage and another about writing they were each working on. And then there’s one in which he’s continuing an argument they were having about her views on work. (I’d really like more of that exchange!) I love thinking of my favorite authors being friends.

  7. Pingback: Day 167: Tolerance Ain’t Despair, Ms. Sayers | Finding God in 365 Days

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