A bit of the Sayers chapter from Patron Saints for Postmoderns


A final comparison: here is the beginning of the Sayers chapter from Patron Saints for Postmoderns. To see the rest, you’ll need to buy the book. It’s available here. This excerpt is from the penultimate proof of the chapter, so one or two errors may remain:

Dorothy L. Sayers
Keeping It Real and Waking the Church

England’s Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was a prolific scholar, novelist,
essayist, playwright and translator. Those who know about her today
have usually met her through her detective stories and their memorable
hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. But there is much more to her story. In a
time of spiritual confusion, she emerged, almost despite herself, as an
unlikely voice of clarity and a compelling lay “preacher” of the gospel.

Sayers’s England was a much different place from Charles Simeon’s
or John Newton’s, not to mention Margery Kempe’s. The industrial juggernaut
had transformed sleepy medieval towns like Sayers’s Oxford
into thriving manufacturing centers. Urban populations grew and
sprawled. World War I marred Sayers’s girlhood, World War II her middle
age. The greatest change, however, was less visible. C. S. Lewis once
divided all of Western history at Jane Austen (1775–1817), saying Austen
lived in the twilight of the old West’s Christian tradition, after which we
entered the age of modern materialism. This “materialism” was (and is)
the belief that everything we are and experience is a mere mechanical
dance of atoms, and any supposed spiritual or moral verities are thus
illusions. Though its deeper background may be found in such Enlightenment
figures as Isaac Newton, this worldview arose most directly
from the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin and
Sigmund Freud. And it left tremendous spiritual confusion in its wake—
including the confusion of the Church of England that tried to reformulate
the gospel in the light of the new materialism, so that by the turn of
the century, bishops who doubted Christ’s resurrection were called
“courageous.”

Into this world was born Dorothy L. Sayers. The daughter of a clergyman,
she would grow to see for herself that indeed God was “a fact, a
thing like a tiger, a reason for changing one’s conduct.” And she would
become an important voice to bring this truth to a struggling church
and a skeptical culture. Unorthodox (as we will see) in her personality,
but passionately orthodox in her faith, Dorothy Sayers would find herself
almost by accident blessing a generation sunk in the spiritual doldrums.
By her life’s end, as a public Christian of the stature of G. K.
Chesterton or C. S. Lewis, she would make the historic creeds, the gospel
story and Dante’s Divine Comedy come alive as few have done before
or since.

Of No Mean City

Oxford. City of faith and scholarship. Though her parents moved away
when she was still young, Sayers was indelibly marked by this, her birthplace.
Before the automobile factories encroached, the Oxford of her
earliest memories, with its venerable university, was “a beautiful little
medieval city, all tall spires and gray gothic towers.” To her, those towers
guarded and exalted Learning and Ideas. As she one of her characters
once said, “It might be an old-fashioned city, with inconvenient buildings
and narrow streets . . . but her foundations were set upon the holy
hills and her spires touched heaven.”

When Sayers was four and a half, her father, an ordained clergyman
and Oxford graduate in classics who had taught Latin to boys in that
city, accepted a parish called Bluntisham in “the Fens” (marshlands) in
eastern England. This was a landscape full of romantic historical tales,
“about Boadicea, the Briton Queen who defied the Roman legions, or
outlaws like Hereward the Wake, who held off William the Norman
Conqueror.” Rising from the mists was the Victorian rectory, where
Dorothy would now spend her girlhood listening to her father tell these
stories and reveling in a romantic sense of the living past. Even the rectory
itself seemed a thing of the legendary past: not here the modern gas
lights and running water of their Oxford home. Instead, primitive
plumbing, oil lamps in wall brackets, fireplaces for heating and candleholders
to bring up to bedtime.

The Fens did not offer many companions of her age, and Dorothy
spent much of her time reading alone—none of her parents’ many books
were “off limits” to an inquisitive child. Everyone else in the rectory was
an adult, and her parents talked to her as though she were one of them.
Of course, as the only child in the household, Dorothy received doting
attention from relatives and servants alike (the latter included the cook,
stable boy, gardener and maids), and she made the most of it. She was
certainly precociously bright—reading, for example, by age four—and as
she portrayed herself in her unfinished novel, Cat o’ Mary, something of
a “prig” too. Her parents likely planned from early on that she would go
to university, though this was unusual for girls at the time, and she enjoyed
the Latin lessons from her father because she felt they would make
her superior to her less learned relatives, including her mother. Photos
from the time show her with round face and thick black hair, all in all as
biographer Alzina Stone Dale describes her: “a cheerful little tomboy,
ruler of her own small world and much amused by it.”

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