It is not surprising that the greatest person who ever lived has been relentlessly assailed by those who want to bring him down to size, to soften him, to reduce him, to restrict him, to domesticate him, and to remake him in our image. The God-Man who was unique in all the world is forever being brought down to manageable size – or at least many are trying to do this. He of course cannot be shrivelled, tamed, contained or put in a box.
He is the greatest person who ever lived, and the gospel story is the greatest story ever told. Just as Jesus is not a tame or dull person, the gospel message is surely not tame or dull. But both the man and the message are constantly being attacked as we seek to rob both of their majesty, their uniqueness, and their splendour.
I have written often before about how we seek to render Jesus into a tame, meek and mild character much more like us than who he really is. Not just non-believers but believers have been guilty of attempting to do this. Indeed, the church is constantly tempted to present a constrained, an acceptable, and a palatable Jesus.
I don’t want any of this. I want the real Jesus who absolutely shocked people, upset people, challenged people, offended people, and provoked a reaction wherever he went. The same with the gospel: I want one with all of its original passion, forthrightness, vigour, terror and exclusiveness.
No watered-down Jesus for me and no watered-down gospel either. Give me the real deal or give me nothing. Of course any genuine followers of Jesus Christ wants just the same. We don’t want a wimpy Jesus and an anaemic gospel. We want both in their fullness, their power, their explosiveness, and their purity.
One feisty Christian who never settled for rank imitations and wimpy substitutes was Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957). While perhaps known more for her crime fiction (the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels), she was a courageous and dogged champion of orthodox Christian teachings.
She was a keen apologist of Christian dogma, and even as a lay teacher had a tremendous amount of sensible things to say about Jesus and the gospel. I have already interacted with her various essays elsewhere, but here I want to do so again – this time focusing on her 1938 essay, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”.
It is a short but terrific essay which begins this way: “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.
“That drama is summarised 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?”
She offers a brief overview of this story: the God-Man who was killed but rose again, accomplishing in his short life, death and resurrection more than all of the rest of humanity has managed throughout all of history. She then writes:
“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog 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.”
Her next paragraph – a very long paragraph indeed – is the heart of her essay and the heart of what I am trying to get across here:
“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 suggested 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 wine-bibber, 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 humour 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.”
She then discusses the resurrection, concluding with these words:
“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 and find Him a better man than himself is an astonishing drama indeed. Any journalist, hearing of it for the first time, would recognise it as News; those who did hear it for the first time actually called it News, and good news at that; though we are apt 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 once at least in the world’s history those words might have been spoken with complete conviction, and that was upon the eve of the Resurrection.”
This was not a dull man and this is not a dull story. Nothing in all of human literature comes close to this man and this gospel. It is indeed, as she says, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged.” And of the greatest significance is the fact that this is no mere story, or piece of literature.
It is a reality which underlies all of human history, and will continue even when human history as we know it comes to an end. What a person and what a story. No Christian for a moment should ever grow tired of either.