Dogma as Drama – Thank You, Dorothy Sayers

In Letters to a Post-Christian World, Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957; author, playwright, critic, poet) includes a number of essays on Christian orthodoxy and speaks to the value of dogma and the related determination to hold to right beliefs.  These essays make me sit up and take notice.

As a sample, take her thoughts under the title, “The Dogma is the Drama” (the title alone stops one short). Lampooning the 20th century penchant for impatience with dogma, she opens:

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.

Yes. Nothing in particular. Overstated, perhaps, but this is the logic underlying the attitude to avoid dogma. If something can mean anything, then it means nothing. Sayers is therefore suspicious of the suspicion toward dogma. It affects our experience of the God we claim to worship.

She also notices how sloppy Christian thinking has contributed to this state of affairs and she shreds this tendency with rapier-like satire.  She offers up a series of questions and answers to illustrate the point. This is a long part of the essay, so I’ll give only the first Q and A.  Sayers writes: “I have come to the conclusion that a short examination paper on the Christian religion might be very generally answered as follows (remember, it’s sarcasm):”

Q.: What does the Church think of God the Father?

A.: He is omnipotent and holy.  He created the world and imposed on man [sic] conditions impossible of fulfillment; He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes 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.

Ouch. I have recently read comments – meant quite seriously – like this as a reason to jettison orthodox theology. The orthodox view, according to this critique, makes God small, petty and tyrannical by its “narrowness.” Sayers will have none of it.  To her, dogma just is drama – the drama of a God who created the world, then came to inhabit it and experience the full glory and tragedy of human experience as the God-Man.  She uplifts the Creeds as narratives of a God who suffered at the hands of God’s own creation, concluding:

Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and the 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 the worse for the pious… If all men [sic] 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.

She ends the essay with this gem:

It is the dogma that is the drama – not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to lovingkindness 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 the 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 [sic] might be glad to believe.

Dogma as drama, what an idea.  Thank you, Sister Dorothy.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

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