Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers by Crystal Downing — Book Review

by Katharine Armbrester

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore; on the contrary, they thought Him too dynamic to be safe.

Dorothy L. Sayers

When I first picked up Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers, I had little idea what an enjoyable and challenging read it would be. I knew very little about Sayers, other than what I had recently read about her in Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars. In that book, Sayers came across as imaginative, passionate, and possessed of an extraordinary intellect coupled with deliciously irreverent humor.

However, other than mentioning that Sayers was a friend of the revered Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, Wade barely touched on her religious beliefs. Thankfully, Crystal Downing explores Dorothy L. Sayers’ inquisitive, expansive and warm-hearted faith in great detail in Subversive, all while paying an equal amount of attention to her intelligence and her astonishing accomplishments in the rarefied atmosphere of mid-century British academia. For Sayers, Christianity was anything but boring, and her Jesus was bold, a destroyer of hypocrisy who was not enslaved to middle-class social mores, and far too dynamic to be safe. To quote Lewis, Sayers’ idea of Jesus was “not a tame lion.”

“God was also a man. And this particular Man, it has never been possible to identify with any social, political, or economic system, or with any moral code. He seems literally all things to all men; to the rebel, a revolutionary; to the lover of political order, the sanction for the tribute paid to Caesar; to the virtuous, the King of virgins; to the pacifist, Prince of Peace; to the warrior, a sword in the earth… to the humanist, perfect man, to the theologian, perfect God; filling all the categories and contained by none; and with all this, a single, recognizable, and complete Personality.”

Already known as both a translator and mystery novelist, Sayers’ unconventional religious beliefs came to widespread public attention when her cycle of twelve radio plays called The Man Born to Be King was performed on the BBC in 1941, at the height of World War II. The plays caused controversy, as Jesus and his disciples did not speak in posh “Queen’s English,” much less in King James Version cadences, but with the colloquialisms of ordinary Englishmen and women. More than a few bishops and priests wailed at her audacity, but the laypeople listening at home loved it, for Christ’s followers were depicted as fallible human beings battling the same insecurities and fears that they struggled with. C. S. Lewis reread the plays every Easter week for the rest of his life.

Sayers’ dedication to accessibility, while not “dumbing down” the more difficult parts of Christian doctrine, is what makes her writing still extremely readable today, and perhaps more needed than ever. We are now living through a period, like WWII-era and postwar England, of widespread turmoil, skepticism, and in many cases, despair, and Downing discusses how Sayers’ vision of Christianity has enormous relevance for our times.

Sayers is not “subversive” in that her grasp of theology and the Christian life is questionable, but it is radical, as Christ was radical as well. Every church that truly follows Christ’s teachings is radical, as is every true believer. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, NRSV) Sayers’ writing reminds us that in no way is the church supposed to reflect the world—it is supposed to reflect Christ and his teachings.

Sayers thought far too many think of Christianity as a “prim tea party, reserved for a very respectable and spiritually-minded upper class—quite regardless of the fact that Jesus Himself was notorious for the vulgar and shocking company He kept.” Sayers rebelled against exclusionary tendencies within Christian churches in England that often dissuaded grimy, world-battered nonbelievers from approaching.

Unfortunately, many still feel Christian churches are a sort of exclusive club, where only happy, successful individuals or thriving families unburdened by mental health issues or disabilities are welcome. The sinners that make up an imperfect Church are the bride that Christ gave his life up for, and Sayers reiterates this again and again, acknowledging that despite her many accomplishments, she is also a sinner in need of God’s mercy.

Increasingly, churches and their pastors are also aligning themselves with political ideologies, an unholy partnership that can only lead to irrevocable harm. This is nothing new, however, as the politicization of religion was something that Sayers was conscious of many years ago. Downing writes that Sayers asserted that the role of the church “is not to support any system, but to display the eternal standards by which systems are judged… Her vocation, in short, is not to sanction measures, but to sanctify mankind.”

Another valuable discussion in the book is the emphasis Sayers lays on the importance of doctrine, and the importance of believers being intellectually rigorous and circumspect, and highly suspicious where emotionalism is concerned. The humble, sober-minded intellectual rigor that Sayers recommends counteracts the embittered thread of anti-intellectualism that runs through much of evangelicalism today. “I haven’t got a pastoral mind or a passion to convert people,” Sayers wrote about this tendency, “but I hate having my intellect outraged by imbecile ignorance and by the monstrous distortions of fact which the average heathen accepts as being ‘Christianity’ (and from which he most naturally revolts).”  Downing further explains that “Though her goal was not to evangelize, she ends up drawing people to faith by appealing to their intellects, not to their emotions.”

Orthodoxy was important to Sayers, and for her it did not mean outdated religious practices or starchy language; orthodoxy was something that could guide believers in their everyday life, and help to discern true faith from blind belief, overheated feelings and personal opinions, aiding in one’s transformation to a Christ-like, loving spirit. Downing puts forth the principles that guided Sayers and her celebration of Christian orthodoxy as follows:

  1. Rather than economy of exchange [or any version of religious transactionalism], emphasize God’s gift.
  2. Rather than punishment, preach the judgment of consequences.
  3. Rather than either/or rhetoric, commit to both/and truth.
  4. Rather than cliches, use creative language.
  5. Rather than the status quo, encourage the handing over of truth.
  6. Rather than certitude, offer the gift of love.

One way that churches have little changed from when Sayers was writing years ago is how little women are utilized in the church, and how little their voices are listened to. Most heroines suggested for Christian girls are ancient Biblical characters, missionaries, martyrs, and Christian singers or the helpmeets of more famous male theologians. There has been a dearth of “thinking women” and writers offered up as role models to young Christian girls.

There have been Christian women actively participating in academia, literature, and theater for the past 100 years, and Sayers represents all three. Sayers knew that one of the most shocking and “subversive” aspects of Christ’s ministry was how he treated women with equality, listening to them and allowing them to interpret Scripture and speak truth. The church will truly be Christ’s bride, when women are valued within it. I will leave you with a particularly marvelous quote from Sayers:

 “A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them… who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female… There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about women’s nature.”

Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.

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