In 1941, bestselling novelist Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) ignited a religious controversy that reverberated throughout England. Leading to discussion in Parliament, her BBC radio plays about Jesus were accused of being subversive and irreverent. Ironically, Sayers was motivated not by a defiance of tradition but by an intense desire to preserve it.
Sayers’ lifelong interest in theater prepared her for the nationwide scandal. The only child of an Oxford-educated clergyman who knew Oscar Wilde while at university, the young Dorothy seemed to assimilate the histrionics of Wilde more than the piety of her father. She loved participating in dramatic performances, both at home and at school: acting out full-costumed scenes from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1844) with her governess, taking on the role of Shylock for a boarding school production of The Merchant of Venice, and performing a parody of her beloved Oxford University Bach Choir Director for Somerville College’s going-down (commencement) play.
After earning highest honors at Oxford, Sayers tried her hand at writing scenarios for silent cinema: a task that depended upon her sensitivity to theatric pantomime. When her screenplays failed to sell, she went into another field dependent upon drama: advertising. Credited with coining the phrase “it pays to advertise,” Sayers helped ignite two of the most effective advertising campaigns in 1920s Britain: one for Guinness beer and another for Colman’s Mustard.
Meanwhile, Sayers was composing detective fiction on the side. Imbuing her famous fictional creation, amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, with a histrionic personality, she contrasted him in her first novel, Whose Body? (1923), with his earnestly Christian friend, Detective Inspector Charles Parker. While making Lord Peter decidedly nonreligious, Sayers showed Parker consulting Bible commentaries in his spare time: a marked contrast Sayers felt in her own life. Though never renouncing her father’s Anglican faith, Sayers preferred activities that she associated with Lord Peter.
Indeed, as one of the founding members of London’s famous mystery writers group The Detection Club, which included G. K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie, Sayers helped develop a dramatic initiation ceremony, which included members processing into the assembly room with a skull (named Eric) cradled on a cushion. Relishing rousing camaraderie more than sober communion, she eventually marginalized the earnestly Christian character Parker in her detective novels, much as she marginalized Christianity in her day-to-day existence.
Appropriately enough, it was theater that enabled Sayers to synthesize the contrasting strands of her life. In 1936, after having published nearly a dozen detective novels, she was asked to follow in the footsteps of T. S. Eliot and Charles Williams by writing a play based on the history of Canterbury Cathedral for the annual Canterbury Festival. Feeling overshadowed by Eliot’s famous Canterbury play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Sayers chose to make her play’s protagonist someone with whom she could identify: a craftsman more histrionic than holy. In contrast to Archbishop Thomas Becket, the saintly martyr of Eliot’s script, she focused on William of Sens, a swaggering architect hired to rebuild part of the cathedral after a 12th-century fire.
Constructing his character much as she had designed Lord Peter, she made William passionately committed to his vocation, valuing the artistic beauty of Christian tradition far more than its theological content. Nevertheless, because the Canterbury play was to be performed inside the cathedral, Sayers felt compelled to tie the relevance of Christian theology to what both William and Wimsey considered paramount: creativity and the integrity of work. She therefore concluded her script with an angel announcing that humans fulfill the imago Dei—the “image of God” as proclaimed in Genesis 1:27—through acts of creativity. After all, the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible establishes that the God in whose image humans were created was not a lawgiver, judge, or savior, but a creator.
Called The Zeal of Thy House, the 1937 play was a huge success, leading to numerous invitations for Sayers to speak and write on Christian topics, almost against her will. Encouraged to expand her theory of the imago Dei, she published a book titled The Mind of the Maker (1941) that was praised by both artists and theologians. Though not giving up on the theatrics of The Detection Club, Sayers never again published another detective novel, instead writing another Canterbury play and a nativity play for BBC radio. The Zeal of Thy House had transformed the creativity and integrity of her own work.
It also set her up for nationwide scandal, which generated more drama in Sayers’ life than all her other theatrical experiences combined. This time, however, it was hysterics more than histrionics that landed Sayers’s work on the floor of Parliament.
In 1940, the Director of Religious Programming for the BBC asked Sayers to compose a series of 12 radio plays about Jesus. Taking the commission very seriously, Sayers spent over a year rereading the Gospels as well as following the example of Lord Peter’s friend Charles Parker by consulting biblical commentaries and reading serious historians, including Josephus. In December 1941, several weeks before the first broadcast, the BBC held a press conference to advertise the series, entitled The Man Born to Be King.
After hearing Sayers read snippets from a play in which the disciple Matthew uses slang, journalists reported that Sayers’ scripts not only failed to employ King James English but also relied on numerous Wilde-like colloquialisms, sometimes devolving into American slang. When multiple newspapers bemoaned Sayers’ irreverence, Christians all over England mounted a censorship campaign, many writing letters to Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury (ironically enough) demanding that governmental powers suppress the plays.
When Sayers and the BBC refused to rewrite the scripts or take them off the air, Sayers received nasty hate mail and threatening phone calls. After the third broadcast in February 1942, one protester went so far as to suggest that the fall of Singapore to the Japanese was God’s retribution for Sayers’ blasphemous plays.
Ironically, due to the controversy, scores of people who usually avoided religious programming tuned in simply to savor the scandal. What they heard was the traditional Gospel message in language that made sense to them. Sayers received thousands of letters from listeners who explained that, for the first time, they understood the relevance of Jesus to their daily lives, that they had returned to reading the Bible, or that they finally understood the significance of Christianity.
Sayers was able to change people’s lives because she understood the complexity of tradition. As controversy over The Man Born to Be King confirmed to her, tradition means, for all too many people, “the way my church and/or family has said and done things for as long as I can remember.” Hence, because her contemporaries believed that Gospel stories must reflect the language to which they had grown accustomed —King James English—they made words more important than the traditional truths toward which those words pointed. Sayers called such protection of language “a singular piece of idolatry.”
Sayers knew that most of the King James Bible, first published in 1611, was based on William Tyndale’s translations from nearly a century earlier: translations for which Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake. After all, Tyndale had defied the traditional language of Scripture in his day, Latin. Sayers recognized that the language used inevitably changed the way people perceived Christian truths, and so tradition needed to be separated from the language in which it is expressed.
When invited in 1941 to address the archbishop of York’s conference at Malvern, Sayers defined “a Church” as a body of humans “organized within a living tradition whose essence persists unchanged while its expressions continually develop.” For her, the essence that persists is the body of Christian doctrine established at the first four Ecumenical Councils, beginning at Nicaea in AD 325 and closing with Chalcedon in AD 451.
Sayers, in fact, felt so strongly about maintaining traditional Church dogma that she used her theatrical skills to compose a play about the origins of the Nicene Creed. Called The Emperor Constantine (1951), after the ruler who convened the very first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, Sayers’ play explores the tension between doctrine and language by dramatizing the debate between followers of Athanasius and Arius.
Several years after The Emperor Constantine was performed for the Colchester Festival in 1951, Sayers once again found herself grappling with the issue of tradition. In a lecture about Charles Williams, whose work on Dante Alighieri led her to translate The Divine Comedy for Penguin Books, Sayers noted that the word tradition comes from a Latin term (tradere) that means “to hand over.” Indeed, traditions are the established views and practices that are handed over from one generation to the next in order to preserve them.
Ironically, words that share the same root as tradition—traitor, treason, and traduce—all have to do with the concept of betrayal. One may hand over a sacred truth licitly or illicitly, but the distinction is sometimes a matter of perspective. This helps explain why Sayers was accused of betrayal when she “handed over” the Gospel message in vernacular language: She was considered a traitor to the truth. What her attackers failed to realize is that Sayers was maintaining an ancient tradition of conserving the truth by handing it over in new language. As she learned from her lifelong engagement with drama, tradition, like theater, is incarnational: It maintains an ancient script by embodying it in new ways.
Image Credit: Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893-1957, writer and scholar, remembered for her mystery stories and her amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey