Between 1941 and 1944, C. S. Lewis gave a series of BBC radio talks, eventually published as Mere Christianity, that are the stuff of legend. Less well known today is a series of BBC broadcasts during the same era written by Dorothy L. Sayers: a retelling of the gospel message that Lewis himself valued highly.
Ironically, numerous evangelicals who relished Lewis’s BBC work as well-seasoned intellectual food wanted to spew Sayers’s broadcasts out of their mouths. While Lewis was lionized, Sayers received an anonymous postcard calling her a “nasty old sour-puss.” Lewis was elevated to the cover of Time, whereas some in England actually accused Sayers of causing the fall of Singapore during World War II.
Sayers’s BBC broadcasts, in fact, incited one of the biggest religious controversies in England since Henry VIII broke with Rome. Prophetically challenging the signs of her times, Sayers made the pious vociferously angry. Perhaps this reflects the kind of prophet she was: the kind who never wanted to become one in the first place.
Though a lifelong Anglican, Sayers had little interest in promoting a religious agenda. During her college years, she requested cigarettes more than spiritual advice from her parents, and she reviled student invitations to join the Christian Social Union. As she told a correspondent later in life, “I never, so help me God, wanted to get entangled in religious apologetics, or to bear witness for Christ, or to proclaim my faith to the world, or anything of that kind.” Nevertheless, she received a call that changed thousands of lives, including her own.
Transformed by Zeal
Born 125 years ago this month, Sayers had a privileged childhood. The adored only child of a well-heeled Anglican rector, Sayers received a superb education, becoming one of the first women in history to receive a BA and MA simultaneously from Oxford University. Credited with coining the phrase “it pays to advertise,” she worked for a London advertising firm while writing detective novels. Her most famous fictional creation, amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, helped turn her into a best-selling novelist, enabling her to become a full-time author and active member of London’s Detection Club, along with G. K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie.
Preparation as a prophet, however, is rarely smooth, and Sayers suffered painful degradation in the early 1920s. Like King David, she fell to sexual temptation. Sayers’s lover, however, “chucked” her after she got pregnant, as she put it. Keeping her secret from colleagues, friends, and family (except for a cousin who raised the child), Sayers financially supported her illegitimate son into adulthood, making sure he went to the best schools. The burden of this secret, which kept her in emotional turmoil for three straight years, convinced her of sin’s power and the need for redemption. Her troubles continued after her hasty marriage to an older divorcé, whose mercurial temperament caused her great anguish.
And then she got the call.
At the height of her fame, Sayers was asked to write a play to be performed in Canterbury Cathedral for an annual festival. Having spent 15 years writing about a sexually adept aristocrat who entered churches more for aesthetic contemplation than spiritual renewal, Sayers hesitated. She finally accepted the commission, due, most likely, to the prestige of her predecessors in the job, T. S. Eliot and Charles Williams.
However, in writing a play about the 12th-century architect who rebuilt part of Canterbury Cathedral after its fiery destruction, Sayers experienced her own baptism by fire. As though a hot coal had touched her lips, she began speaking, through her characters, about the relevance of Christian doctrine to the integrity of work. Intriguing even professional theologians, her play ends with an angel announcing that humans manifest the “image of God,” the imago Dei, through creativity. After all, the Bible chapter proclaiming the imago Dei presents God not as judge or lawgiver but as Creator: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).
Even more radically, Sayers’s angel suggests that creativity is Trinitarian. Any creative work has three distinct components: the Creative Idea, the Creative Energy “begotten of that Idea,” and the Creative Power that is “the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul.” Indeed, Sayers’s angel says of Idea, Energy, and Power, “these three are one.”
Called The Zeal of Thy House, Sayers’s 1937 play ran for 100 performances, having moved from Canterbury to London’s West End. Audiences valued its unusual communication of Christian belief. Rather than endorsing pietistic practices, it celebrated the sanctity of work; rather than obsessing over sexual sins, it denounced arrogant pride as the “eldest sin of all.” The play’s self-aggrandizing protagonist, a womanizer who believes he alone can make the cathedral great again, is humbled by a crippling fall. Only then does he abandon his narcissistic need for mastery and acclaim, telling God, “to other men the glory / And to Thy Name alone.”
A Sacred Scandal
Due to the play’s popularity, Sayers was hounded by the press for statements about her beliefs, finally writing an essay for the Sunday Times that argues, as she later summarized, “whether you believed in Christ or not, it was ridiculous to call the story of the Incarnation and Redemption dull.” She desired to challenge dismissive and antagonistic responses to earnest faith. But to do so, she recognized the need to get rid of Christian rhetoric associated with pious self-righteousness and political self-interest. As she put it in another article written during the tour of Zeal,
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 the worse for the pious—others will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before them.
In 1940, the BBC asked Sayers to write a series of 12 radio plays about Jesus. Taking the commission very seriously, Sayers spent a year rereading the Gospels, studying the original Greek as well as Bible commentaries.
When the first play was ready for broadcast, in December of 1941, the BBC arranged for a press conference in which Sayers read from one of her scripts. Reporters, surprised that Sayers used colloquial rather than King James English, played up the fact that some of Christ’s disciples spoke working-class slang. Multiple Protestant organizations, appalled by the seeming desecration of God’s Word, demanded censorship. Numerous Christians sent letters of protest not only to the press but also to Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, some suggesting that British defeats during World War II were God’s retribution for Sayers’s sacrilege.
God had other things in mind. Due to the nationwide scandal, hundreds of people tuned in to the broadcasts for titillation more than for edification. What they got was the gospel delivered in language that made sense to them. They discovered that their perceptions of Jesus had become as static as stained-glass depictions in their churches. Sayers addresses this problem in her introduction to the print version of the collected plays, The Man Born to Be King (1943). Arguing that Jesus was “a lively person” whose “goodness was not of the static kind,” she notes that Jesus “said surprising things, in language ranging from the loftiest poetry to the most lucid narrative and the raciest repartee.” More importantly, he forgave sinners like Mary Magdalene, with whom Sayers and others could identify.
As Sayers recounted to Lewis in 1946, “Thousands of people write to say that they have been ‘brought back to God,’ or had their faith renewed, or returned with eagerness to reading the Bible” due to the broadcasts. Lewis himself was so impressed by the profundity of Sayers’s plays that he read the print version for his Lenten devotions every year.
Creativity that Saves
We could use a soupçon of Sayers these days. Her saucy creativity might add flavor to contemporary Christian discourse, which, rather than carrying the aroma of Christ, often exudes a whiff of decay. Many Christians still put more energy into conserving the status quo than into following the example of Jesus, who repeatedly challenged the religious certitude of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Significantly, in her introduction to the plays, Sayers compares the politics of England during World War II with the time of Christ:
God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own—in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for its efficiency, He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators.
Americans could say much the same today, as exhortations to keep our empire splendid drown out the prophetic call of Micah: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). Political passions have become the new piety, believers replacing Paul’s proclamation “For to me, to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21) with “For me, to live is to push my party’s agenda.”
Jesus resisted the temptation of politics. Instead, he gave value to the pariahs of his culture: the immigrant from Samaria, the impure woman with the issue of blood. Rather than idolize tradition, he modeled love for all God’s creatures, offering salvation as a gift, not achieved through works, lest anyone should boast.
Having established boasting as the “eldest sin of all” in The Zeal of Thy House, Sayers presented idolatry as the primary impediment to redemption in The Man Born to Be King. In her introduction, she indicts what she called “bibliolaters”: people more committed to preserving the traditional signifiers of King James English than to understanding their signified meanings. The prophetic Sayers encourages us to ask ourselves: What signifiers do we aggressively protect, turning them into idols that blind us to the truth of the gospel? What traditional signifiers of faith have lost their savor, pushing people away from Christ? Has the profundity of the signifier evangelical lost its savor? How might we create new wineskins to contain the symbol of Christ’s blood, shed for us, in order to more effectively pour it out for reviled others in our own day?
Savoring the biblical proclamation that she was created in God’s image, Sayers created original signifiers for the gospel message, which was “without form and void” for many skeptics before exposure to her work. Thus fulfilling the imago Dei, she generated new life—salvation through Christ—by creating new signs. Let us go forth and do likewise.
Crystal Downing has published four books on religion and culture, most recently Salvation from Cinema (Routledge 2016). In July, she and her husband, David, will begin serving as co-directors of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.
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