Tag Archives: Dorothy Sayers

“The Incarnation is the most dramatic thing that ever entered into the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.” Dorothy Sayers


Cover of

An excellent book on the theology of Dorothy Sayers–indeed the only such book that I know of–is George Fox University professor Laura K. Simmons’s Creed Without Chaos (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Simmons goes methodically through Sayers’s theological thought, stopping at one point to examine the writer’s handling of the Incarnation:

77: “The dogma of the Incarnation is the most dramatic thing about Christianity,” Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in October 1937, “and indeed, the most dramatic thing that ever entered into the mind of man; but if you tell people so, they stare at you in bewilderment.”One of the doctrines on which Sayers reflected perhaps more than any other was the incarnation. A proper understanding of Christ’s essence, character, and mission on earth was “the difference between pseudo-Christianity and Christianity,” she wrote in June of 1945. The relationship between the God who created the world and God’s Son, Jesus, who walked in it, was a crucial part of her theology. Continue reading

Chastened modernism or principled postmodernism–comments inspired by C S Lewis on medieval morality


It occurred to me that this comment and my response, spurred by the post “C S Lewis and ‘medieval morality'” may be worth its own post, as an invitation to others to join the conversation: Continue reading

Doing Christian pop culture right (follow up to Nov. 2 “Tavern tunes” post)


I posted recently (Nov. 2) on “Tavern tunes in church music and ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?'” The piece, posted a while back on www.christianhistory.net, used a Canadian Anglican clergyman who calls himself “Elvis Priestly” as a jumping-off point for a consideration of “Christian pop culture.” This is a follow-up, thinking a bit more about how pop-culture presentations of gospel themes can help or hurt the cause of Christ. One of my favorite writers, Dorothy L. Sayers, shows up here with a few words of wisdom:

Caveat Gyrator (Elvis Priestly, Part II)
So you’ve got an evangelistic pop-culture act ready for prime time. Here’s a historical pause for reflection.
Chris Armstrong

Last week we looked behind the recent headlines about “Elvis Priestly,” a Canadian Anglican minister who has integrated a jump-suited impersonation routine into his sacred services. We surveyed a few of the many points at which Christians have co-opted popular artistic forms in order to get their evangelistic message across (Part I: From Oratorios to Elvis).

This week, we ask the questions: how have Christians historically reacted to such forays into popular forms? And how successful have the resulting products been in themselves—that is, as songs, plays, novels, and so forth, quite apart from their message? Of course, we can only touch the surface of these issues. But with Elvis now in the (church) building, this seems a worthwhile use of a few minutes. Continue reading

Lived theology: How and why Christian history was added to Protestant seminaries’ curricula


The stories of other Christians are vitally important to our spiritual lives. That, in fact, is why the discipline of church history was added to Protestant seminaries’ curricula. But how and when did this happen? I got to share this story with Bethel Seminary’s trustees and the readers of Christianity Today online a few years back:

When Theology Comes Alive
Living theology: that’s what the 17th-century Pietists wanted to see. And so they invented church history.
Chris Armstrong

An earlier version of this essay was given by Dr. Chris Armstrong (associate professor of church history, Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, and senior editor, Christian History & Biography) as a talk to the trustees of Bethel University on May 5, 2005.

Dorothy Sayers, a 20th-century, Oxford-educated dramatist, novelist, and lay theologian, wrote to wake up her sleeping Anglican church. She saw people inside and outside of the churches of her day completely unaware of how radical and powerful the gospel really is. And so she wrote essays, stories, and dramas that made the gospel come alive for people. She had a phrase she liked to use when she encountered people who thought church doctrine—”dogma” as it is still sometimes called—was dull and irrelevant. She would say, “The dogma is the drama!”

I love that. The dogma is the drama. What Sayers was reminding us was that if we are falling asleep in church, it is because we have no idea what dynamite we are sitting on.

And as I always remind my students, a wonderful place to go to see what happens when the Gospel’s dynamite blows up in people’s lives is Christian history. I’ll put this idea in less violent form: Christian history is where theology comes to life. Continue reading

How do I hate thee, modernity? Let the Inklings count the ways


Tom Bombadil as depicted in The Lord of the Ri...

Tom Bombadil, from The Lord of the Rings. Now there's an antimodern fellow!

My forthcoming Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants will draw on a group of 20th-century British Christian imaginative writers who also happened to be scholars of the Middle Ages. G K Chesterton, C S Lewis, Charles Williams, J R R Tolkien, and Dorothy L Sayers faced the many tentacles of modernity with a sense of alarm deepening into cultural embattlement. And they sought in medieval faith and culture antidotes to modern malaises.

(A clarifying note: I use the term “Inklings” of this group, recognizing that this is a loose usage. “The Inklings” is the name adopted by the group of writers who met in C S Lewis’s rooms at Oxford to read aloud their works to each other and engage in stimulating discussions and debates. I have stretched the group to include Chesterton, who pre-dated them, and Sayers, who was a friend of Lewis’s but never attended a meeting of the all-male group. All shared Christian faith and profound similarities in cultural and literary outlook, though the group certainly represented a wide variety of opinion on any number of important topics.)

A couple of years ago, as I prepared to teach a new course titled Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry at Bethel, I sketched out one of those “mind maps”–a diagram with a single organizing concept at the center, surrounded by connecting lines and circles containing related concepts. The central concept was “Anti-modernism among the Inklings.” Here are the surrounding circles, in no particular order: Continue reading

Sayers on the variety of the saints–and what they have in common


“Saints come in all varieties. The only kind that seems to be rare in real life is the spineless and ‘goody-goody’ figure familiar to us in the feebler sort of pious fiction and stained-glass windows of the more regrettable periods. There are as many types of saint as of men and women, and most of them are people of great character. There are stormy and complex souls like Augustine of Hippo, with his burning sense of sin and his passionate love and dread of physical beauty, pouring out treatises, sermons, memoirs, apologetics, amide the distracting cares of a busy bishopric, travelling for ever between the city of the world and the City of God. There are anchorites, fleeing this world altogether, and devoting themselves to solitude and prayer: some, sweet and gentle like the desert Fathers; some, harsh and fanatical like Simeon Stylites, perched in austere discomfort upon his pillar. There is Francis, the ‘troubadour of God’, going barefoot among poor men and singing out his love to God and man and the whole creation: there is Albertus Magnus, toiling conscientiously at his vast commentaries upon Aristotle–certainly no singer, but the conspicuous glory of the Schools. There is Albertus’s still greater pupil, Thomas Aquinas, a man to whom virtue seemed to come naturally, whose towering intellect completed his master’s work and co-ordinated Greek learning and Christian revelation into a comprehensive system of Catholic doctrine. . . . There is little Theresa of Lisieux, meekly practising the Way amid the trivial duties of daily life and in the face of cramping family opposition: there is mighty Theresa of Avila, the eagle of contemplation, ruling her nuns with that fierce practical ability in which great mystics so often excel, and quite prepared to take God to task, with a tongue as vigorous as Job’s and a good deal tarter, when He moved in ways more exasperatingly mysterious than usual. Stubborn martyrs, subtle theologians, ardent missionaries, cloistered contemplatives, homely pastors, brilliant administrators, obscure social workers, orators whose spell-binding eloquence could move multitudes and shake the thrones of princes, the saints seem to have little in common except a heroic love of God and a flaming single-mindedness of purpose.

Dorothy L. Sayers, “Introduction” to Richard of Chichester by C. M. Duncan-Jones (1953), excerpted in Dorothy L. Sayers: Spiritual Writings, selected and introduced by Ann Loades (Cambridge: Cowley, 1993).

Sayers against “historicism gone to seed”


In a series a while back on www.christianhistory.net, “Grateful to the Dead: Diary of a Christian History Professor,” I argued that the enterprise of reading history and biography for the purpose of personal transformation has been under attack from a number of fronts, and that we ought to do everything we can to defend that enterprise. Now I discover that Dorothy L. Sayers, bless her, launched her own cautious, balanced defense of just this enterprise, against an enemy she calls “a ’sense of period,’” but which in scholarly circles (as she well knew) is called “historicism.” That is the idea that writings from the past are very much of their time, and we must not try to read them as if they weren’t. What Sayers correctly objected to was the sort of “historicism-gone-to-seed” that goes on to argue that since past writings are so much of their time, we cannot read them with benefit in our own time. But already I’m failing to do her justice, so, on to her own words . . . Continue reading