Christian History Home > Blog > 2010 > February > Her God Was "Like a Tiger"
Her God Was "Like a Tiger"
Dorothy Sayers rediscovered the gripping drama of Christian doctrine.
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We live once again, as did early 20th-century mystery writer and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers, in a world that could care less about the doctrines of the Christian church. And once again, many of those who care least are self-identified Christians and faithful churchgoers.
Before we lose all grip on the intellectual content of our faith, it's time to reacquaint ourselves with Sayers. In a recent Glimpses bulletin insert, I sketched her twin passions for swashbuckling drama and intellectual order, and suggested how these suited her to the great task of modern apologetics—a task probably still as urgent for Christian as for non-Christian audiences:
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was a prolific scholar, novelist, essayist, playwright and translator. Those who know about her today have usually met her through her detective stories and their memorable hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. But there is much more to her story. In a time of spiritual confusion, she emerged, almost despite herself, as an unlikely voice of clarity and a compelling lay "preacher" of the gospel.
Sayers, a clergyman's daughter, was born into a late-Victorian Oxford, England that had ceased to be a sleepy medieval town: automobile factories now encroached on its narrow streets and dreamlike spires. Worse, the Christian tradition that had birthed Oxford University was now in full retreat throughout Europe. Anyone truly "modern" believed that humans, like everything else, are just aggregations of atoms, and matters of morality and spirit thus mere illusions.
Even the Church of England was giving in, so that by the turn of the century, bishops who doubted Christ's resurrection were called "courageous." And though many ministers and laypeople still held on to Christian faith, it was increasingly a sentimentalized, moralistic version.
In late girlhood and adolescence, Sayers was bright enough to observe and dislike the stuffed-shirt piety of the modernizing Church of England. She remarked that, like sex, such mysteries of the faith as the sacraments and God himself seemed to be considered "exceedingly sacred and beautiful," yet also "indelicate, and only to be mentioned in whispers." As she would later say about this sort of overdone churchiness: "At the name of Jesus, every voice goes plummy."
She was saved from outright rebellion against her father's faith by reading the Roman Catholic journalist-apologist G. K. Chesterton—especially his Orthodoxy. "It was stimulating to be told," she wrote, "that Christianity was not a dull thing but a gay thing; not a stick-in-the-mud thing but an adventurous thing; not an unintelligent thing but a wise thing, indeed a shrewd thing."
Pressing in to find the truth, she discovered a God who is "a fact, a thing like a tiger, a reason for changing one's conduct." A fan of Dumas's The Three Musketeers, she had swooped about her girlhood home in the costume of D'Artagnan. Now she began to see just how dramatic and compelling is the gospel story.
After an Oxford education in medieval languages (she was in the first class of women to receive their B.A. and M.A.), Sayers worked first as a copy editor, then an advertising writer. Then she began writing a well-crafted series of mystery novels featuring the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey.
In the late 1930s and the 1940s, however, her life changed direction when she was invited to write a series of plays for performance in the Canterbury Cathedral. Here was an opportunity to reconnect with all the drama and pageantry she had loved as a girl in The Three Musketeers. Her plays made Christian themes vivid and launched her into a new career as a lay theologian, as newspapers and institutions began clamoring for her thoughts on the faith.
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