Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Dogma is the Drama: Dorothy Sayers


I've been a bit busy with classes, but I took the time tonight to share a bit of Dorothy Sayers wit.

Dorothy Sayers essay: “The Dogma is the Drama” from the book the Whimsical Christian (1979, Boston, G.K. Hall & Co.)



“Any Stigma,” said a witty tongue, “will do to beat 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 worshiping.  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 a generalized 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[1], where the Creeds are daily recited, there were a number of people who know 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 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.  I 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; in 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.

          Judging by what my young friends tell me, and also by what is said on the subject in anti-Christian literature written by people who ought to have taken a little trouble to find out what they are attacking before attacking it, I have come to the conclusion that a short examination paper on the Christian religion might be very generally answered as follows:

Q: What does the Church think of God the Father?
A: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfillment; he is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometime interferes by means of arbitrary judgments and miracles, distributed with a good deal of favoritism.  He likes to be truckled to and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the law or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.
Q: What does the Church think of God the Son?
A: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth.  It was not his fault that the world was made like this, and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man to God (see atonement). He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it is best to apply to him.
Q: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?
A: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whitsunday [Pentecost]. There is a sin against him that damns you forever, but nobody knows what it is.
Q: What is the doctrine of the trinity?
A: “The Father in incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.” Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult—nothing to do with daily life or ethics.
Q: What was Jesus Christ like in real life?
A: he was a good man—so good as to be called the Son of God.  He is to be identified in some way with God the Son (q.v.). He was meek and mild and preached a simple religion of love and pacifism. He had no sense of humor. Anything in the Bible that suggests another side to his character must be an interpolation, or a paradox invented by G.K. Chesterton. If we try to live like him, God the Father will let us off being damned hereafter and only have us tortured in this life instead.
Q: What is meant by the atonement?
A: God wanted to damn everybody, but his vindictive sadism was sated by the crucifixion of his own Son, who was quite innocent, and therefore, a particularly attractive victim.  He now only damns people who don’t follow Christ or who never heard of him.
Q: What does the Church think of sex?
A: God made it necessary to the machinery of the world, and tolerates it, provided the parties (a) are married, and (b) get no pleasure out of it.
Q: What does the Church call sin?
A: Sex (otherwise than as excepted above); getting drunk; saying “damn”; murder; and cruelty to dumb animals; not going to church; most kinds of amusement. “Original sin” means that anything we enjoy doing is wrong.
Q: What is faith?
A: Resolutely shutting your eyes to scientific fact.
Q: What is the human intellect?
A: A barrier to faith.
Q: What are the seven Christian virtues?
A: Respectability; childishness; mental timidity; dullness; sentimentality; censoriousness; and depression of spirits.
Q: Wilt thou be baptized in this faith?
A: No fear!
I cannot help feeling that as statement of Christian orthodoxy, these replies are inadequate, if not misleading. But I also cannot help feeling that they do fairly accurately represent what many people take Christian orthodoxy to be.  Whenever an average Christian is represented in a novel or a play, he is pretty sure to be shown practicing one or all of the Seven Deadly Virtues just enumerated, and I am afraid that this is the impression made by the average Christian upon the world at large.  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 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 jest 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 honor 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 realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.



         


[1] To clarify, Dorothy Sayers is speaking of England ca: 1947.

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