One 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.