Posted by: gmscan | August 15, 2012

Dorothy Sayers

I was perhaps a little hard on Dorothy Sayers in my last post. I do find her views on capitalism and business repugnant. In my view, entrepreneurialism is a wonderful example of using God’s gifts to serve others. Yes, people in business often go astray and become prideful, but that is no more true in business than it is in any other human endeavor. You would be amazed at how many university professors I know who are smug and conceited.

But Sayers also had a lot of powerful things to say about the church, and the need to offer a robust Christianity based on sound dogma. She argues that nothing is gained by turning Jesus into a marshmallow. Who wants to worship a marshmallow?

But Sayers is a wonderful writer, and I can do no better than let her speak for herself. All of the following quotes are from “Letters to a Diminished Church,” a collection of essays and speeches given in England during and immediately after World War Two.  The version I have was published by Thomas Nelson in 2004. Unfortunately, it is a very poor book, full of typos and without any context, such as when and where a particular chapter was written, It’s too bad: an accomplished writer like Dorothy Sayers deserves better.

The Dogma is the Drama

… 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. (p. 15)

It is … startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. (p.16)

If all men are offended by Christ, let them be offended…. 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. (p.21)

Creed or Chaos?

It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people presuppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe…. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ. (p. 49)

…however unpopular I may make myself, I shall and will affirm that the reason why the churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology. (p. 51)

…if we really want a Christian society, we must teach Christianity, and … it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma. (p. 51)

If the average man is going to be interested in Christ at all, it is the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is, in nine cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma. What he has been offered is a set of technical theological terms that nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life. (p. 54)

Teachers and preachers never, I think, make it sufficiently clear that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling.  Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy. (p. 57)

I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offense in it. Seeing that Christ went about the world giving the most violent offense to all kinds of people, it would seem absurd to expect that the doctrine of his person can be so presented as to offend nobody. (p. 58)

Of late years, the Church has not succeeded very well in preaching Christ; she has preached Jesus, which is not quite the same thing. I find the ordinary man simply does not grasp at all the idea that Jesus Christ and God the Creator are held to be literally the same person. (p. 60)

… in the face of present world conditions, the doctrines of the reality of evil and the value of suffering should be kept in the very front line of Christian affirmation. (p. 61)

The Six Other Deadly Sins

The mournful and medical aspect of twentieth-century pornography and promiscuity strongly suggests that we have reached one of these periods of spiritual depression where people go to bed because they have nothing better to do. (p. 83)

Why Work?

(Commenting on Matthew 22:37-40 — And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”)

The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends on the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.

If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things.  Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble – and that is precisely the catch about serving the community.



  1. Greg, Thanks for this, great quotes. In “The Lost Tools of Learning” Dorothy has lead my wife and I to use the Trivium approach to educating our children: 1) Grammar 2) Logic 3) Rhetoric. You and I agree there is a crisis in the health care market, and I think we would agree the greater crisis is in education. More families are moving this way, so I am hopeful.

  2. Yes, Greg, you were hard on Dorothy Sayers. I think you forgot the historical context of her writing.

    The human exploitation of unbridled Capitalism and the industrial revolution as it funneled wealth out of the hands of the many into the hands of the few is abhorrent to Christianity. And it was only when Christianity proved impotent in bringing it under control that Communist Socialism was able to gain a foothold in the hearts and minds of its victims. Here in the US we had the labor movements that came to the rescue. Throw in the horrors of the first industrial standard global war, the death of an entire generation of English men, the failure of Capitalism and the collapse of the world economies during the Great Depression, the rise of Totalitarianism of the Left, and Right, and having to live through the worst war Europe had ever seen as a consequence of all of that, and it is not hard to see or sympathize with the perspective that it must all be Evil.

    It’s important to remember how that all played out, because there is a strong movement today to remove all the harnesses we put on Capitalism as a result of those years, as if somehow they were training wheels that can be removed from the bicycle once you learn how to ride.

    Personally I think we are back on the path we were on at the turn of the 20th Century. We have forgotten what happens when you take off the dragon’s leash. Already the wealth disparity in America is the greatest it has ever been. The middle class has been decimated. Corporate executives give themselves 30% raises on millions of dollars of annual income and cut the salaries and benefits of their own employees to pay for it and the Unions are powerless to defend themselves.

    The prophetic Voice in the Scriptures is routinely against the self-serving self-righteous promotion of the rich and powerful few in defense of those over whom they lord it over. And the Scriptural model for true power and authority is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The One who is the Master of all must be the Servant of all. Entrepreneurialism is not an evil in and of itself, but the Scriptures give us the signposts to warn us when things are getting out of balance. The Prophets show us when money and power are going to people’s heads and the sins of a few are causing the suffering of the many. Capitalism creates money and power. Money and power have a way of corrupting people’s values. And when their values become corrupt, all of society feels the painful consequences.

    Jesus reminds us how to use power and money in a way that does not corrupt. By being the foot washer of all. It’s not just a gesture.

    • Jodie,

      I think you are confusing capitalism with mercantilism. This latter is what Adam Smith was trying to counter with his “Wealth of Nations.” It is also what fueled colonialism and it lingers today in the form of highly regulated industries and professions. These regulations are always designed to favor incumbents and limit competition.

      Capitalism requires free entry into the market so that companies that misbehave can be replaced by more responsive entrepreneurs. In fact capitalism has been the most effective anti-poverty program the world has ever seen.

      • Greg,

        Regulations… Kind’a like cholesterol. You want more of the good kind and less of the bad kind but it often goes the other way…

        I don’t disagree with you, but surely you can see why the details might be lost on an English major emerging from the ashes of the Great Depression and the deprivation brought on by two catastrophic wars. If you took a snapshot in time at the time she wrote, even you might not draw the conclusion that Capitalism was all that effective against poverty and human suffering. Many Britons shared her point of view. Even now.

        Only now they tend to blame and reject Christianity for allowing it to happen.

    • There is so much taint of error in this post that it is hard to know where to begin to reply. Here is a start.
      1. Capitalism is the name we use to describe the process of using one’s personal resources to give people what they want for money. What people want is to have their needs met. Capitalists and entrepreneurs are servants to their fellow man because they take things of little value, transform them into things of greater value (because they meet the needs of others), and voluntarily supply them to those who voluntarily buy them. Period.
      2. Charity is the voluntary giving of a portion of one’s surplus to another. To engage in charity, one must have created his own surplus and voluntarily given a portion of it to another.
      3. Socialism is the doctrine that you shall work and I shall live off of the forcibly-taken product of your efforts. (Sounds like a form of theft or slavery doesn’t it?) It is promoted by demagogues who promise to give to their followers but who do not intend to supply their promises entirely from the product of their own work. Socialist promises sound good to the listener who imagines that he will be supplied through some means beyond his own work product. It also sounds good to the listener who imagines that he is compassionate because he mentally assents to forcible taking from others and redistributing it. Socialism is not charity nor is it a form of love as Jesus commands. History teaches that socialism leads to the worst forms of tyranny, brutality, and slavery. It violates the 8th commandment.
      4. The old Soviet era joke must be remembered in all of this: “Under capitalism man exploits man, whereas under socialism it is the reverse.” Sin can enter into any human endeavor. Capitalism best responds to and exemplifies Jesus’ injunctions to love others and to serve them. We are, of course, talking about honest, competitive commerce. John Wesley said, “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” Exactly. In a free market, if I want what the entrepreneur or capitalist has, then I am free to do what he did to earn it. If I cannot paint like Picasso, it is sinful for me to expect that the products of my painting efforts should be rewarded like his. And no labor movement should try to equalize the income in the artists’ industry of which I am a member.
      5. It is a lie to say that socialism originates from Jesus.

      • Very well expressed and quite, quite true.

    • Capitalism creates value- material or intellectual.

      Governments have the responsibility of force, to use it, or keep it from being used.

      If the government allows a company to use force (or fraud- verbal force) then it is not doing it’s job. If a government lends a company the use of force, then it is evil.

      And in either case, the result is not Capitalism- the free exchange between individuals, because force and fraud negate that required freedom.

  3. Earl,

    Who are you arguing with? Me? I’m a Capitalist. Dorothy Sayers? She’s dead.
    The only point I was making is that she was taken out of context. But I agree that Greed and Lust for Power turn sour everything they touch.

    • Glad to hear that, Jodie. It isn’t you and it isn’t just Sayers or her particular time. I had the same things to say about N.T. Wright in an earlier post. In fact, it seems to me a whole lot of Christians, including orthodox ones, don’t know squat about economics. And yet economics are every bit as much of God’s plan as gravity. I would love to plan a seminar in Econ 101 for Christians.

      • LOL. You know, … that’s not a bad idea.

  4. “You would be amazed at how many college professors I know who are smug and conceited”. Glad I hadn’t just taken a sip of my coffee when I read that. I’m not amazed at all. Existence in chronic academia equals existence in a convent.

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