Dorothy L. Sayers


Universe Column for December 24th 2006

by David Alton

Don’t you groan when you hear well meaning people say that “all religions are the same.”? A recent survey of Catholic children in Australian produced an overwhelming number of young people who sat they hold that belief.  What I think they actually mean is that “all religions should be respected” and that “religious people should be tolerant of people who hold other religious beliefs or who are atheists.”

This Christmas Eve it is worth reminding ourselves of both the need to be tolerant and the need to know what it is that we believe: tolerant orthodoxy, if you like.

There is nothing offensive in insisting that all religions are not the same.

Like Jews and Muslims, Christians are monotheists but we are also Trinitarian. Other faiths do not hold that Jesus is the Saviour, the Messiah. They do not believe in his Divinity and they do not share our belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection and they do not believe in the truth of Jesus’ words that “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Although there are many shared values, and we must always be willing to explore what we hold in common as well as our differences, there is no value in creating a position of lowest common denominators. We need have no inhibitions in insisting that all religions are not the same.

But there is no doubt that we need a new generation of apologists to explain what it is that we uniquely believe – and why it matters.

Where is today’s C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien or their friend, Dorothy L. Sayers?

Born in Oxford in 1893, Dorothy Leigh Sayers was the only child of an Anglican clergyman. She studied medieval literature at Oxford’s Somerville College and in 1915 she became one of the first ever women to graduate at Oxford.

Among her first published writings were two volumes of poetry. She later became famous for her detective stories – and particularly for characters like Lord Peter Wimsey.

Along with writers like G.K. Chesterton and Fr. Ronald Knox, Sayers founded the Detection Club in 1929 After 1931 she spent all her time writing radio plays for the BBC

This devout Anglo-Catholic used he writing and plays to tell the old truths but in a new way. In “The Mind of The Maker” she tried to explain the Trinitarian nature of God by developing an analogy with the three-fold activity of the creative artist. This brought together the three concepts of idea, energy, and power.

In 1937 the BBC broadcast “The Zeal of Thy House”. This was set in the twelfth century and based on an incident that had occurred during the burning and rebuilding of the choir at Canterbury. In 1939 it was followed by “The Devil to Pay.” There were other successes, such as “He That Should Come.”

But, during this Season we should recall her radio drama based on the life of Jesus, “The Man Born to Be King”. This was produced and broadcast by the BBC on December 21st, 1941, during World War Two.   It was a cycle of twelve plays depicting specific periods in Jesus’ life, from the events surrounding his birth to his death and resurrection The other plays were broadcast at 4 weekly intervals – and it truly gripped the nation.

The twelve plays in the cycle are Kings in Judea, The King’s Herald, A Certain Nobleman, The Heirs to the Kingdom, The Bread of Heaven, The Feast of Tabernacles, The Light and the Life, Royal Progress, The King’s Supper, The Princes of This World, King of Sorrows,  and The King Comes to His Own.

Each of the twelve plays is preceded by the writer’s insightful and challenging remarks providing historical background and setting of the theme of the play and the theological issues that emerge

The broadcasts were highly controversial  with  atheists condemning the BBC for broadcasting Christian propaganda and devout Christians condemning the BBC for blasphemy because Christ was to be played  by a human actor.

Dorothy L Sayers took the criticism on the chin and rebutted her opponents by stating that Christianity had become watered down, lukewarm and made remote from humanity.

Her decision to  have the players using colloquial, modern English inflamed the passions of  those who believed the Gospel could not be communicated in any other form that the King James Bible. Beautiful though that version is who can disagree that the language is not accessible language to vast swathes of the population?

One group of Christians became so angry that when Britain’s fortunes in the War reached a new nadir with the fall of Singapore they said that this was a sign of God’s displeasure with Miss Sayers and all her works.

She was never frightened of the controversy. An she decidedly did not believe that “all religions are the same.”

We desperately need women and men to tell the Christian story again in words that shake us from our apathy and which illustrate that the events we commemorate this night, and which pave the way for Easter, were the defining moment in human history.

This Christmas Eve let me give the last word to Dorothy L. Sayers:

“Christ walks the world again, his lute upon his back, His red robe worn to tatters, his riches gone to rack.
The wind that wakes the morning blows his hair about his face, And his arms and legs are ragged with the thorny briar’s embrace,

For the hunt is up behind him, and his sword is at his side. Christ the bonny outlaw walks the whole world wide,
Singing: “Lady, lady, will you come away with me,
To lie among the bracken, and eat the barley bread?
We shall see new suns arise, in golden far-off skies,
for the son of God and woman has not where to lay his head.”