Where’s The Beef?

From “Letters to a Diminished Church:
Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine”
by Dorothy Sayers, 1893-1957

Any stigma,” said a witty tongue, “will do to heat a dogma” and the flails of ridicule have been brandished with such energy of late on the threshing floor of controversy that the true seed of the Word has become well-nigh lost amid the whirling of chaff. Christ, in his divine innocence, said to the woman of Samaria, “Ye worship ye know not what,” being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping. He thus showed himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth-century mind, for the cry today is, “Away with the tedious complexities of dogma, let us have the simple spirit of worship, just worship, no matter of what!” The only drawback to this demand for generalised and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.

It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if, in this nominally Christian country, where the creeds are daily recited, there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion of what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine; that would be understandable enough since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, and so dramatic can be the orthodox creed of the Church.

That this is really the case was made plain to me by the questions asked me, mostly by young men, about my Canterbury play, “The Zeal of thy House. The action of the play involves a dramatic presentation of a few fundamental Christian dogmas, in particular, the application to human affairs of the doctrine of the Incarnation. That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense, God or that the eternal word was supposed to be associated in any way with the word of creation, that Christ was held to be at the same time man in any real sense of the word, that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth, that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh: all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. l protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the creeds, to the gospels and to the offices of the Church. I insisted that if my play were dramatic it was so, not in spite of the dogma, but because of it; that, in short, the dogma was the drama. The explanation was, however, not well received; it was felt that if there were anything attractive in Christian philosophy I must have put it there myself.

Perhaps we are not following Christ all the way or in quite the right spirit. We are likely, for example, to be a little sparing of the palms and the hosannas. We are chary of wielding the scourge of small cords, lest we should offend somebody or interfere with trade. We do not furnish up our wits to disentangle knotty questions about Sunday observance and tribute money, nor hasten to sit at the feet of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. We pass hastily over disquieting jests about making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness and alarming observations about bringing not peace but a sword; nor do we distinguish ourselves by the graciousness with which we sit at meat with publicans and sinners. Somehow or other and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore and this in the name of one who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which he passed through the world like a flame.

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious; others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honour by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men but to adapt men to Christ.

It is the dogma that is the drama; not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death, but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen and they may not believe it, but at least they may realise that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.

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