Essay / Misc.

Dorothy Sayers Advertises the Faith

Dorothy Sayers was not a theologian, and she availed herself of every opportunity to make some version of this denial public. “Playwrights Are Not Evangelists,” she wrote in 1955, and in later life she drafted a form letter of rejection to send to people who invited her to come speak on theological topics. She called the form letter NMR (No More Religion). However, most often the place where she chose to declare her untheological vocation was right at the beginning of a theological essay, so perhaps it is understandable that her readers continued to construe her as a peculiarly theological non-theologian.

In fact, Sayers wrote so much about doctrine and the Christian life that she provided plenty of fodder for theological analysis. With the appearance of Laura K. Simmons’ 2005 book Creed Without Chaos, we now have a book-length exercise in Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Simmons, who serves as assistant professor of Christian ministries at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, is already the author of a 1999 Fuller Seminary dissertation on Sayers as lay theologian. She has immersed herself in Sayers’ writings, and is especially well versed in Sayers’ personal letters, published and unpublished, along with a great deal of archival material on file at Wheaton College’s Wade Center. Creed Without Chaos is an excellent introduction to the theological contribution of Dorothy Sayers. I cannot imagine anybody reading this book and not being driven to seek out a copy of Sayers’ life-of-Jesus drama, The Man Born to Be King. While Simmons is a trustworthy guide for those who are just beginning to read Sayers, her mastery of the unpublished material also makes this book a worthwhile read for those who have already read all the Sayers they could get their hands on.

Simmons manages the difficult task of writing a book on the theology of an avowed non-theologian. She takes Sayers at her word, respecting her wish to be understood as a professional writer but an amateur theologian. Sayers was a dramatist who served the church as an honest layperson plying her secular craft, without ecclesial ordination or doctrinal training. It is precisely here, as a professional in wordsmithing who happens to be an otherwise ordinary Christian, that she rendered her unique service to the church. Sayers set herself to the task of stating the Christian faith for the popular mind in words as clear and dramatic as possible. Along the way to her goal, she encountered two main obstacles: the inarticulacy or obscurantism of professional theologians, and the intellectual laziness of the average uninformed layperson.

The fact that theologians are such lousy communicators is evidence, according to Sayers, that theology is simply too important to be left to theologians. “Some of them are so clumsy and obscure that one can hardly shake the good ideas out of the mist of enveloping verbiage,” she once wrote, in words that unfortunately still apply to contemporary theological writing. Why is such a bulk of Christian teaching and preaching conducted in terms so vague that the audience cannot even detect that claims are being made, that ideas are being proposed, and that they could either be true or false, meaningful or irrelevant? Are these theologians so clumsy with words that they are unable to communicate, wondered Sayers, or are they deliberately trying to hide their meaning? This is the Sayers of “The Lost Tools of Learning,” fighting hard for better writing, clearer speaking, and more competent communication from Christians. Let it be!

But even if every working theologian were suddenly granted the gift of eloquence, the second problem identified by Sayers would still stand in the way of communicating the Christian faith: the average person has a boundless ignorance of Christianity, rooted in their laziness and thoughtlessness. “Nine people out of ten in this country are ignorant heathens,” she said in 1939. “I do not so much mind the heathendom, but the ignorance is really alarming.” And a few years later, when a broadcaster asked her to write a short letter explaining Christianity for the average person, Sayers spat back:

“The only letter I ever want to address to ‘average people’ is one that says — I do not care whether you believe in Christianity or not, but I do resent your being so ignorant, lazy, and unintelligent. Why don’t you take the trouble to find out what is Christianity and what isn’t? Why, when you can bestir yourself to mug up technical terms about electricity, won’t you do as much for theology before you begin to argue about it? … You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you do about the Nicene Creed.”

Sayers was unsparing in her criticism of modern people who let themselves fall into such abysmal ignorance of Christian doctrine. A woman wrote to her to ask for clarification about the essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” and Sayers replied brusquely: “I think you would find things easier if you were to read a little real theology, because, if I may say so, you give me the impression of never having been grounded properly in the subject. I get the impression that you have acquired a sort of ‘child’s-eye-view’ of Christian doctrine in early youth, and have never done any stiff reading on the subject, so that you are now judging with an adult mind doctrines which have only been presented to you in very simplified form.”

Sayers expressed herself with this directness because she was convinced that Christianity had magnetic power of attraction if only it were stated clearly. She believed she could apply her skill as a writer to stating the gospel with relentless clarity. Her repeated protest that she was no theologian was exactly right. Sayers was actually an advertiser. She had worked for several years as a copy-writer for an advertising firm, and by her own admission it was this job that had taught her how to get the message out as directly as possible, wasting no words and stating the main point right up front. When she turned her skills to her Christian faith, she recognized that what Christianity needed most was not to be re-designed, tweaked, or even defended: What Christianity needed was to be sold, and Sayers devoted her skills to getting the main ideas of Christianity into the public mind by any means necessary. She did not often argue in defense of the faith, developing instead an apologetic of presentation. If people simply see and understanding what the church has been claiming all these years, they will be drawn to it. The dogma doesn’t need to be made exciting, and there is no way to add drama to it from the outside. As the title of one of her best essays has it, “The Dogma is the Drama.”

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