Dorothy Sayers

CARL OLSON

In an age of skepticism, cynicism, and false “freedoms,” Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was a passionate and occasionally scathing voice of reason. Like her friends C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams, Sayers was a brilliant Christian thinker, an Anglo-Catholic who took doctrine seriously and bristled at the growth of “fads, schisms, heresies, and anti-Christ” within the Church of England.

In an age of skepticism, cynicism, and false "freedoms," Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was a passionate and occasionally scathing voice of reason. Perhaps best known today as the author of the best-selling detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers was also a playwright, translator of Dante, poet, theologian, and apologist.

Like her friends C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams, Sayers was a brilliant Christian thinker, an Anglo-Catholic who took doctrine seriously and bristled at the growth of "fads, schisms, heresies, and anti-Christ" within the Church of England.

Born in Oxford, Sayers was the only child of an Anglican cleric. A bright student, she was among the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University, where she graduated with honors in French. She went on to become a top-notch copywriter for an advertising firm in the 1920s and began to publish her Lord Peter Wimsey novels. By the mid-1930s she was successful enough that she could turn her attention to translating and writing more serious works, including a play about Christ's life, The Man Born to be King. Among her other works was The Mind of the Maker, a book comparing the activity of the Trinity to the artistic actions of human creators, and a highly popular translation of The Divine Comedy.

As an apologist, Sayers was witty, engaging, and never ambiguous. Her book Creed or Chaos? is a classic work of apologetics, full of sparkling logic and wry humor. Sayers, surveying the weak-kneed and spine-challenged brand of Christianity spreading throughout the Anglican Church during the 1930s and 40s, noted that:

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 worshipping. He thus showed Himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is: "Away with the tendentious 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. (Creed or Chaos?, 19)

Sayer's point is even more appropriate some fifty years later. Many mainline Protestant denominations have abandoned the ancient creeds of the Church and have turned into pleasant — and dying — social clubs. There is an increased reluctance by Catholics to unabashedly proclaim and explain Church dogma and confusion as to what — and for what purpose — the Church really teaches and believes.

An often missed fact is that all people hold to dogmas — beliefs which guide their thinking and actions. G.K. Chesterton observed that "Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas … Trees have no dogmas." The person who boldly proclaims "Humanity needs freedom from dogma" is like a scientist confidently asserting that "People can live without oxygen." The issue is not whether dogma is good or bad, but whether a particular dogma (whether called such or not) is true or false. While people need oxygen to live, they can die if their air supply is poisoned.

"Dogma is boring and impersonal" is a common complaint today. Many Christians remark, or at least think "I don't want to hear a bunch of theology. I just want to have a personal relationship with Jesus." They might as well tell the doctor "I don't want to know anything about my heartrate, blood pressure and cholesterol level — I just want to be healthy." There is no opposition between Jesus and theology. Theology is the study of God, aimed at understanding more clearly the truth about him. When dogma comes across as dry and dull, it is usually due to either poor teaching or lousy listening, but it is not a fault of the dogma, as Sayers liked to point out. Besides, many Christians have attended church for years without hearing much real dogma. They have instead heard insipid messages about "being good" and declaring that "all we need is love" without any clear definitions of goodness or love, nor what they have to do with God, Jesus Christ, sin, and salvation. Some Catholics, it appears, are like pious Unitarians who would be shocked and puzzled by Christ's demand to "take up your cross and follow me." The solution, Sayers claims, is to present Christ boldly and clearly:

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. 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 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. (Creed or Chaos?, 24-25).

Dogma is not a dirty word. It is a light and a guide given by God through the Church founded by Christ. Without dogma the Christian faith would have eroded into mere sentiment and vague emotionalism centuries ago. Jesus claimed that he is "the way, the truth and the life" and the Church has spent twenty centuries explaining and defending that fact, often in the form of authoritative and definite dogmas. "It is the dogma that is the drama," wrote Sayers,

not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving kindness 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 a 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. (Creed or Chaos?, 25)

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Carl Olson. "Dorothy Sayers." CatholicExchange.com (May 22, 2001).

This article reprinted with permission from CatholicExchange.com.

THE AUTHOR

Carl E. Olson is director of catechesis and evangelization at Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Church in Springfield, Oregon. His articles have appeared in This Rock, Envoy, The Catholic Faith, and New Covenant.

Copyright © 2001 CatholicExchange.com




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