Dorothy Sayers, Christian Doctrine, and the Offence of the Gospel

Lord Peter’s library was one of the most delightful bachelor rooms in London. Its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embraces of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sèvres vases on the chimneypiece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums. To the eyes of the young man who was ushered in from the raw November fog it seemed not only rare and unattainable, but friendly and familiar, like a colourful and gilded paradise in a mediæval painting.

As will be seen in a moment, the above quote ties in a number of disparate things: books, libraries, crime fiction, Christian doctrine, C. S. Lewis, and more. It comes from the first of a dozen or so detective novels she wrote featuring Lord Peter Wimsey: Whose Body?

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was a rather amazing individual. She was an Oxford graduate, an Anglican lay theologian, poet, mystery writer, linguist and translator, and friend of C. S. Lewis and some of the other Inklings such as J. R. R. Tolkien.

Her 12-part radio drama of 1940-41 based on the life of Jesus, The Man Born to be King, may be her best known work. It appeared in book form in 1943 and Lewis said he read it every Holy Week thereafter. Her influence is still being felt today, and rightly so.

She was a tremendous champion of creedal Christianity. She had no time for sentimental, syrupy and creedless faith. Christianity is tough stuff, she believed, and it is built on tough doctrines and dogmas. If we despise sound doctrine then we despise Christianity itself, for the two are intimately bound together.

Not only that, but the biblical gospel, properly understood, is always going to be offensive to modern man. Even the no-nonsense words of Christ are offensive to most ears today, because they had nothing to do with the spirit of the age: emotivism, relativism, “tolerance,” and subjectivism.

She wrote on all this often, and it is in some of her short essays and talks that these themes especially come to the fore. Here I want to just draw upon three of her very important theological essays. All three were originally presented as talks or articles in the 1940s. They are: “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” “The Dogma Is the Drama,” and “Creed or Chaos?”

They have been reprinted at various times in various places. Let me mention three of them: The first is a collection of 18 of her pieces in Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Eerdmans, 1969). This same collection of essays then came out as The Whimsical Christian (Macmillan, 1978). Finally, a slightly different collection featuring 16 of her essays appeared as Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (Thomas Nelson, 2004).

Here I will offer the page numbers of these essays as found in The Whimsical Christian. First, I offer two quotes from “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”:

“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as 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 quite the 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 central problem: What think ye of Christ?” (p. 11)

“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 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.” (pp. 15-16)

Next, two great quotes from “The Dogma Is the Drama”:

“‘Any stigma,’ said a witty tongue, ‘will do to beat a dogma’; and the flails of ridicule have been brandished with such energy of late on the threshing floor of controversy that the seed of the Word has become well-nigh lost amid the whirling of the chaff. Christ, in His divine innocence, said to the Woman of Samaria”, ‘Ye worship ye know not what’ – being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshiping. He thus showed Himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: ‘Away with the tedious complexities of dogma – let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!’ The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.
“It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if, in this nominally Christian country, where the Creeds are daily recited, there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, and so dramatic can be the orthodox creed of the Church.” (pp. 23-24)

“Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious – others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.
“It is the dogma that is the drama – not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to lovingkindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death – but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.” (pp. 27-28)

Finally, three rather forceful quotes from “Creed or Chaos?”:

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.
“If you think I am exaggerating, ask the army chaplains. Apart from a possible one per cent of intelligent and instructed Christians, there are three kinds of people we have to deal with. There are the frank and open heathen, whose notions of Christianity are a dreadful jumble of rags and tags of Bible anecdote and clotted mythological nonsense. There are the ignorant Christians, who combine a mild gentle-Jesus sentimentality with vaguely humanistic ethics – most of these are Arian heretics. Finally, there are the more or less instructed church-goers, who know all the arguments about divorce and auricular confession and communion in two kinds, but are about as well equipped to do battle on fundamentals against as a boy with a pea-shooter facing a fan-fire of machine guns. Theologically, this country is at present in a state of utter chaos, established in the name of religious toleration, and rapidly degenerating into the flight from reason and the death of hope. We are not happy in this condition, and there are signs of a very great eagerness, especially among the younger people, to find a creed to which they can give wholehearted adherence.
“This is the Church’s opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people’s readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real; and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of laissez-faire is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a recall to prayer. The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.
“The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. ‘Take away theology and give us some nice religion’ has been the popular slogan for so long that we are likely to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning. And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology.” (pp. 34-36)

“But if Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in Heaven’s name is it relevant? – since religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrines concerning the nature of life and the universe. If Christian ministers really believe it is an intellectual game for theologians and has no bearing upon human life, it is no wonder that their congregations are ignorant, bored, and bewildered.” (p. 37)

“I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offense in it. Seeing that Christ went about the world giving the most violent offense to all kinds of people, it would seem absurd to expect that the doctrine of his person can be so presented as to offend nobody. We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger. Whatever his peace was, it was not the peace of an amiable indifference; and he said in so many words that what he brought with him was fire and sword. That being so, nobody need be too much surprised or disconcerted at finding that a determined preaching of Christian dogma may sometimes result in a few angry letters of protest or a difference of opinion on the parish council.” (p. 42)

These are strong words but necessary words. If they were true some 70 years ago, they most certainly are true today. Three cheers for Dorothy Sayers.

For more on Sayers, see my earlier piece:

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5 Replies to “Dorothy Sayers, Christian Doctrine, and the Offence of the Gospel”

  1. If anyone thinks Christ was offensive wait and see what He will do when He returns. His wrath will be be worse than anything this world has ever experienced.

  2. Wow, what a powerful missive, and 70 years ago, the relevance today is remarkable. As a lay, I don’t know what to do or where to start to persuade those to turn away from an eternal separation from God. I read the sermon by Jonathan Edwards, ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’, ouch! The thought of that separation is…unthinkable, unimaginable, I struggle to comprehend this state of eternal punishment, yet it is clear in the bible that it exists, yet people still reject Jesus’ message. Christian theology and history is so fascinating, full of intrigue, betrayal, murder, lust and ultimately an account of where humanity [me included] has fallen on so many occasions. Although, having just read the story of David, I feel inspired and encouraged that God does preserve His word and His people who choose to follow Him.
    Grace; that is all I can say, praise God for His grace, His undeserving, unfathomable and forever grateful that I have, His grace. God bless you Bill.

  3. Wow !! It’s as if it was published yesterday. Some defining & important reading, understanding & sharing here for today 🙂 Thanks heaps Bill

  4. Ms Sayers was remarkable! I have read every Lord Peter/Harriet Vane and they are great.

    Her essay The Lost Tools Of Learning was very influential in the recent classical education and homeschooling surge. She first came up with a modern interpretation of the Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric stages in a child’s education.
    “However firmly a tradition is rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies.”

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