How to Engage Culture like Dorothy Sayers

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Dorothy L. Sayers was an author, a playwright, a translator of Dante, and an occasional theologian in the first half of the 20th century. During her heyday, Sayers was called the “Queen of Crime” in recognition of her revolutionizing work in the detective-novel genre, work that helped that genre gain legitimacy in literary circles. She had no formal theological training, but she was once offered an honorary doctorate in divinity, which she refused. [1]

Sayers was an Anglican Catholic, more conservative than her father, a country-parish rector. Toward the middle of her career, she got involved with a motorcycle mechanic, who fathered her only child. During this time, her faith was rekindled, and it began to shine through her literary works. [2] Her return to Christianity became apparent, though subdued, in the central character of her crime novels, the religiously skeptical amateur criminologist Lord Peter.

However, for Lord Peter to become a devout Christian would have been out of character, so Sayers pursued other avenues for explicitly Christian culture-making. [3] A significant opportunity arose with a request to write the play for the 1937 Canterbury Festival; it was intended to be a play that accentuated Christian themes, illuminating a doctrine or pericope for the public during the Easter season. The play she wrote for the festival celebrated vocation and service through the arts. For Dorothy Sayers, vocation was not primarily an economic exercise, but a calling.

For Dorothy Sayers, vocation was not primarily an economic exercise, but a calling.

Sayers engaged culture as a culture-maker. She was convinced that her work must glorify God by its excellence rather than merely because of explicitly Christian content. During a contract battle over the script of one of her BBC radio dramas — a play about the life of Christ — an editor pleaded with her not to walk away from the contract, writing, “In the writing of these plays the spirit of God would be working through you.” [4]

Sayers responded:

I am bound to tell you this — that the writer’s duty to God is his duty to the work, and that he may not submit to any dictate of authority which he does not sincerely believe to be to the good of the work. … Above all, he may not listen to the specious temptation that suggests that God finds his work so indispensable that he would rather have it falsified than not have it at all. [5]

Doing one’s proper job is a most important duty. Subjective demands, such as emotions, must be subordinated to that greater duty. This means that the goal in writing is to express truth.

In Gaudy Night, Lord Peter convinces Harriet, the novel’s protagonist, to rewrite a story because the characters are not fully human and thus the story is not true. [6] In The Mind of the Maker, Sayers notes in the preface that the book was not “an expression of personal religious belief.” [7] Rather, she was explaining the creeds of Christendom. These theological truths, she wrote, “claim to be statement of fact about the nature of God and universe.” [8] For Sayers, there was, in a very Augustinian way, reality found in the created order. This reality is undeniable, objectively and discernibly true. [9]

Sayers recognized that God reveals aspects of himself through the created order. However, she also recognized the impact of sin on the world as it disrupts the created order, disorders our loves and distorts our interpretation of God’s creational revelation. In other words, since the fall, our culture-making and cultural engagement are corrupted and misdirected, and need to be redirected toward Christ. [10]

She saw withdrawing from the culture and becoming one with the culture as twin dangers. The first makes Christianity irrelevant, and the other removes the authentically Christian nature. Sayers’ conclusion was that the Church must do the impossible: It must influence culture without becoming identified with the institutions of the culture.

Sayers literary and theological works are exemplary for several reasons. Here are three lessons we can learn from her:

  1. Work is good.
    Her repeated emphasis on doing work for its own sake illustrates the value of the creation and undermines a dualistic view of the world.
  2. You don’t need advanced degrees to communicate truth.
    Sayer’s theological work demonstrates the way in which a layperson with no formal theological training can communicate truth to a wide audience.
  3. Transform culture without being transformed by it.
    Sayers points toward the importance of culture and cultural activity while also warning not to be conformed to negative influences. Dorothy Sayers encouraged attempts to transform culture without being transformed by culture.
Dorothy Sayers encouraged attempts to transform culture without being transformed by culture.

In what ways do Sayer’s insights on cultural engagement challenge you in your everyday activities?

This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Ashford’s new book, Every Square InchLearn More>>

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[1] Spence Spencer did the majority of research and writing for this post.
[2] Nancy Marie Patterson Tischler, Dorothy L. Sayers, a Pilgrim Soul (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 141.
[3] Tischler, Dorothy L. Sayers, 102.
[4] Letter from Dr. Welch dated Dec 30, 1940, cited in James Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers (New York: HarperCollines, 1982), 199.
[5] Letter to Dr. Welch dated Jan 2, 1941, cited in Brabazon, Dorothy L. Sayers, 199.
[6] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1995), 332-33.
[7] Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (London: Methuen, 1952), vii.
[8] Sayers, Mind of the Maker, ix.
[9] Sayers, Mind of the Maker, 7.
[10] The speech Sayers delivered to the Archbishop of York’s conference in Malvern, 1941, is one of the sources that make clear that Sayers held something like a transformationalist view. Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Church’s Responsibility,” in Malvern, 1941: The Life of the Church and the Order of Society: Being the Proceedings of the Archbishop of York’s Conference (London: Longmans Green, 1941), 57-78.

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Bruce Ashford

Bruce Riley Ashford is the author or co-author of six books, including 'The Gospel of Our King' (Baker, 2019), 'Letters to an American Christian' (B&H, 2018), 'One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics' (B&H, 2015), and 'Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians' (Lexham, 2015).

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