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    Rohingya refugee mother with newborn son

    Dorothy L. Sayers’s Scandalous Recasting of the Gospel

    “Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment.”

    By Jessica Hooten Wilson

    June 13, 2023
    • John Wilson Jr.

      Another thought on this. I think Sayers putting the gospel story into modern dress is important. The reason many think of Jesus as a blue-eyed white guy with straight blonde hair is because Renaissance painters painted Jesus that way, in part to show that Jesus is real for their time and for their people. I enjoy the Cotton Patch Gospels because they put the Gospel story into 1950’s-1960’s Jim Crow south and personalize the story for that time: “How shall I describe this generation? They are like kids playing in the streets and shouting at each other, ‘We put on some rock-and-roll, but you wouldn’t dance; so we put on some funeral music, but you wouldn’t go into mourning.’ For John offered a harsh, rugged life, and people say, ‘The guy is nuts.’ I, the son of man, offered laughter and joy, and people say, ‘Look at that guy. He is a no-good bum who runs around with Communists and peaceniks!’” (Matthew 11:16-19) W. H. Auden in his narrative poem (oratorio) “For the Time Being” does the same thing with the Christmas story. I think these kind of stories, as Sayers points out, help us to realize that Christ’s story speaks to our day as well. We forget this at times and I think it is important we are reminded of this.

    • John Wilson, Jr

      I read a book (or maybe it was an article in a magazine) about the King James translation. One thing the article pointed out that I found significant was the manner in which the translation was done (in many ways it is a work of art created by committee). The committee would come up with different translations of passages and then use them in preaching from the pulpit. They wanted not only an accurate translation but one that moved the congregation when it was recited from the pulpit. They wanted a translation that was accurate, clearly understood, and poetic, that not only taught the truth, but presented the truth in a manner that moved those that heard it. They wanted the truth and power of the word of God. I have read a number of modern translations and I see in them a concern for accuracy and clarity. But the artistry is often missing. Perhaps as a culture we are not moved as much by language as we once were. But often it is difficult to simplify the language without simplifying the message. Can a simplistic translation capture the dynamics of the original. I think the KJV translators were on to something with their concern both for the power of its language when read and the power of its language when preached. I think that is one reason why the KJV sticks more easily in the memory and is often the version we remember no matter how many other versions we have read. I do not think we need to obsess about the KJV but I wish there was a modern translation that is as clear and powerful to a modern audience as the KJV was to a 17th century audience.

    • Ruth Anne Abraham

      Bible idolatry is an issue, but I still value the KJV of the Bible. It allows believers across the English-speaking world to unite as they recite Bible verses, often from memory. The Vulgate Bible, with all its flaws, served a similar function.

    The BBC aired Dorothy L. Sayers’s drama about the life of Jesus Christ, The Man Born to Be King, beginning on December 21, 1941. On that same day, three submarines – British, Dutch, and German – were torpedoed and sunk, the Japanese invaded the Philippines, and the Germans began murdering inmates at Bogdanovka concentration camp in Ukraine. In the midst of the tragedies of World War II, mere weeks after the Americans suffered the attack on Pearl Harbor, British citizens were listening to the Gospels being spoken in contemporary language through their radios and into their homes. Imagine the immense balm to the souls of the fearful Londoners, with the assuring words drawn from the Gospels drowning out the sirens and German planes above them. One of the wise men says to Mary, who has recently given birth to Jesus, “Fear is our daily companion.…But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain; that God was beside us in the struggle, sharing in the miseries of His own world.” Through her life and work, Sayers shows us how to be the best kind of reader, and she brings what she reads to bear on her current world. She herself loved books, the Bible first of all, but also Dante and The Song of Roland and Agatha Christie novels. For Sayers, created works were evidence of a living God, a Creator still at work in his creation.

    Knowing and Sharing the Gospels through Literature

    Sayers’s radio plays were aired nearly a century before The Passion of the Christ film or The Chosen series, so twenty-first-century readers may not realize the extreme act of subversion on Sayers’s part to reimagine the life of Jesus Christ for a contemporary audience. Portraying the Trinity on stage was illegal in Britain, but performing the Gospels in radio form provided a loophole. In the introduction to the published version of the plays, Sayers explains that writing the drama was “a quite new experiment, undertaken in the face of a good deal of prejudice, and in the absence of any adequate standards of comparison.” When Sayers read publicly from her forthcoming play cycle, magazines lit up with headlines: “BBC Life of Christ Play in U.S. Slang” and “Gangsterism in Bible Play.” Religious organizations attacked her for blaspheming the Gospels. As the director-general of the BBC put it, “Two shocks broke on us this past week: Pearl Harbor and The Man Born to Be King.” Few conceived that Sayers may have been employing literature as a medium of evangelism. While she would have distanced herself from that way of labeling her work, Sayers was sharing the good news of God through a literary form.

    For Sayers – as for many twentieth-century converts to Christianity – literature turned her to the church. Although Sayers was raised in a Christian family, she compartmentalized the role of faith in her life. Not until she read G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill did Sayers discover a love for the church in which her parents had raised her. In the preface to Chesterton’s play The Surprise, Sayers writes of the great writer, “To the young people of my generation, G. K. C. [Chesterton] was a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air.”

    Rohingya refugee mother with newborn son

    Rahanna Katun, an eighteen-year-old Rohingya refugee who now lives in Chakmarkul refugee camp with her newborn son. Photograph by Mallika Panorat.

    In a similar way to how Chesterton revived Sayers’s dry faith, George MacDonald’s novels moved the young atheist C. S. Lewis to become a Christian. Likewise, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky compelled Walker Percy to convert to Catholicism, and his novels returned the former Communist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sigrid Undset was converted not only by Chesterton but also by the novelist Robert Hugh Benson. The philosopher and nun Edith Stein used to give Undset’s novels to new novices in her Carmelite order to increase their desire for holiness. For innumerable souls, fiction has proved to be a powerful vehicle for Christian conversion.

    However, Sayers never would have written what we now label “Christian fiction,” because she insisted on an inextricable relationship between dogma and drama. Much of what is branded as Christian fiction shows little care for or dedication to aesthetics. Form has been severed from content, with the emphasis falling on the latter. Such a dichotomy denies the reality of our theology. If we are embodied souls, if the Word has become flesh, if the letter is bound with the spirit, then we cannot create convincing messages with faulty forms. Sayers extends this claim further: “For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect, and it is useless for any purpose whatsoever – even for edification – because it is a lie.” Without the requisite drama, the dogma becomes less than impotent; it becomes mendacious.

    A work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect. —Dorothy L. Sayers

    In her introduction to the play, Sayers denounces artists who excuse their lack of craft while espousing high devotion to their religion. “A loose and sentimental theology begets loose and sentimental art-forms,” Sayers writes. She knew that the Scriptures could withstand the test of being adapted into drama. “Nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself,” Sayers insists. Her dramatization of the Gospels proves the strength of the truthfulness of their story. Rather than being accused of blasphemy, Sayers should be exalted as performing apologetics through art. She exhibits for readers how to read the Gospels with a literary eye and how that lens illuminates the authenticity of the story.


    What scandalized Sayers’s listeners after they initially heard The Man Born to Be King was the contemporary and common language used by the biblical characters. The King James Version had been so familiar to British churchgoers that Sayers’s rendering verses into plain style sounded irreverent. Sayers calls out this obsessive dedication to the King James translation for what it is – idolatry. Readers were holding the words sacrosanct, but not the words of the Greek original, not the authentic documents, “but to every syllable of a translation made three hundred years ago (and that not always with perfect accuracy) in an idiom so old-fashioned that, even as English, it is often obscure to us or positively misleading” Sayers points out how we become more attached to what is familiar than devoted to what is true.

    When I was first dating my husband, he told me that the King James was the most accurate version of the Bible. “According to whom?” I inquired. Although he had no answer to give, he felt certain of it. His emotional ties to that translation were strong, and his church community had insisted the KJV was the authentic and most authoritative version. Similar protests met Eugene Peterson when he translated The Message into common English, a seemingly heretical act; some have protested even calling it a Bible. Yet Peterson defends his choices as aligned with the original Koine Greek, and in keeping with the early translators such as Jerome, Tyndale, and Luther. They were all trying to capture the common speech of the Bible, for it was written in accessible and widely used, idiomatic forms of Greek. It was never meant to be petrified into one particular translation.

    By translating from the common language of the original Greek Scriptures, Sayers hoped that her artistic adaptation of the Gospels would shock listeners into recognizing the truth of the story. “God was executed by people painfully like us,” Sayers laments. “If you show people that, they are shocked. So they should be.” To that end, Sayers tore off the costume of the sixteenth-century idioms and brought us face-to-face with ourselves in the story. “We played the parts in that tragedy, nineteen and a half centuries since, and perhaps are playing them today, in the same good faith and in the same ironic ignorance,” Sayers writes.” Through her artistic engagement with the Scriptures, Sayers defamiliarizes the narrative and its verses, which may have become so well-known as to no longer be heard.

    We have been conditioned by our churches and culture to read Scripture in certain ways, some of those ways lovely and accurate, but others that cloud our knowledge of the Scriptures from their real meaning and significance. “Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment,” Sayers contends. She believed in the necessity of defamiliarization to weed out the heresy from the fruitful truth. Literature – poetry, narratives, drama – acts as a defamiliarizing agent for Scripture. Granted, other art can also play this role, but for the sake of this discussion, how does literature accomplish this defamiliarization well? Great literature recasts the known into a different setting or form or language so that we may see and hear the truth as it is.

    Source: Jessica Hooten Wilson, Reading for the Love of God: How to Read as a Spiritual Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023), 139–143. Used by permission of Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

    Contributed By JessicaHootenWilson Jessica Hooten Wilson

    Jessica Hooten Wilson (PhD, Baylor University) is the inaugural Seaver College Scholar of Liberal Arts at Pepperdine University and a senior fellow at Trinity Forum, and is also the author of several books.

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