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.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today