After achieving fame as the creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, a fictional sleuth appearing in numerous novels and stories published between 1923 and 1937, Sayers (1893-1957) was commissioned by BBC radio to write twelve plays about Jesus for broadcast between December 1941 and October 1942. While writing the scripts, she studied not only the Gospels and their historical contexts, but also Bible commentaries and Church tradition. However, when she read aloud some dialogue at a press conference before the first broadcast, reporters played up the fact that Sayers had put working-class slang into the mouths of Christ’s disciples. Outraged that Sayers did not use King James English, protesters mounted a censorship campaign, writing letters not only to the press but also to Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, some proclaiming that Singapore fell to the Axis powers because of what Sayers was doing to the Bible.

Ironically, thanks to the nationally publicized scandal, hundreds of people who had never before shown interest in the Bible listened to the broadcasts just to hear what all the commotion was about. And what they got was the gospel message presented in a way that made sense to them. As scores recounted in letters to Sayers, they finally understood how the Bible might offer something relevant to their everyday working-class lives. Hence, in her Introduction to the printed version of the plays, The Man Born to Be King (1943), Sayers denounces “stained-glass-window” readings of the gospels, arguing that Jesus “was executed by people painfully like us.” Believing the Bible speaks to modern issues and desires, she regarded insistence on King James English “a singular piece of idolatry” (6, 7, 3).

Sayers was equally disturbed, however, by a very different kind of “idolatry.” As she studied Bible scholarship in preparation for the BBC commission, she encountered demythologizers who relegated any biblical account of supernatural activity to the realm of fiction. In a letter written a month before the first radio broadcast, she caricatured the demythologizing position with “Everything in the [New Testament] was written centuries after it all happened, by people who pretended to be the disciples, but weren’t really, and who misunderstood most of what they had been told and deliberately altered the rest” (1997, 330). For Sayers, such an attitude was no less problematic than that of the “bibliolaters,” as she called them, who protested her plays. Whereas bibliolaters fetishize the language of the Bible, demythologizers fetishize their anti-supernatural assumptions about the Bible. As far as Sayers was concerned, both were narrow-minded. Oblivious to Church history, bibliolaters fail to study canon-formation and the exigencies of translation, while those who limit truth to empirically verifiable facts have a much smaller world view than people open to the possibility of supernatural events. Sayers, in contrast, not only believed in the miracles of Jesus but also recognized that the Bible contains errors that reflect the limited perspectives of its authors.

Sayers’s perspective was based on her study of Church history and her experiences as an author. Having not only published multiple bestsellers but also translated medieval texts, she found it laughably naïve when Bible scholars assume that “Any ‘early’ document is ‘purer’ than any later document” (1997, 331). Such scholars, as she tells another correspondent, “fall back into the arms of the hypothetical Q” (1998, 138), an assumed source text for the gospels of Matthew and Luke that gives them the “purer” document they presuppose. As she notes in her first Lord Peter Winsey novel, Whose Body?, Bible scholars, like many detectives, often “find what they are looking for” (1961, 118). From the very start of her fiction writing career, then, Sayers was grappling with conflicting views of the Bible.

Like many first novels, Whose Body? (1923) reflects its author’s background and training. The only child of an Anglican rector, Sayers became one of the first women in history to be simultaneously awarded a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University. Her Peter Wimsey character, who also holds an M.A. from Oxford, values the beauty of Christian art and architecture more than the Bible. Nevertheless, in Whose Body?, Sayers creates a trustworthy friend for Lord Peter, Detective Inspector Parker, who takes the Bible very seriously. When Wimsey sees Parker reading a commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, he expresses skepticism about the legitimacy of Bible scholarship, saying “All these men work with a bias in their minds” (1961, 118). This leads to a discussion about similar bias among detectives, Parker having earlier opined that many “will build up a lovely theory, like the Tower of Babel, and destined so to perish” (22). In the story from Genesis 11, of course, God punishes the arrogance of Babel builders by afflicting them with plural languages. Sayers imputes the same affliction to Bible scholars, Parker admitting that he once favored radically different views about the Bible than he does now.

Sayers, in fact, has Parker name the scholars he studied in college, ones that she most likely encountered during her years at Oxford (1912–1915): “Conybeare and Robertson and Drews” (118). A professor of theology at Oxford, Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare (1856–1924) critiqued not only Christian orthodoxy but also the fashionable idea that Jesus was a myth invented by a messianic cult. Journalist John Mackinnon Robertson (1856–1933), an avid secularist, had advocated the Jesus-as-myth theory in two books (1900, 1902), and several years later German philosopher Christian Heinrich Arthur Drews (1865–1935) garnered international attention by denying the historicity of Jesus in The Christ Myth (1909). Once relishing these dismissers of Christian orthodoxy, Parker admits “I found they were all so busy looking for a burglar whom nobody had ever seen, that they couldn’t recognise the foot-prints of the household” (118). In other words, scholars, like lay people, impose their culturally constructed biases onto scripture, looking for things they want to see, whether the myth-making of messianic cults or the inerrant dictation of scripture by God. In contrast, Parker implies, Bible readers should instead focus on “the foot-prints of the household”: on the interpretive community seeking to understand what it means to either endorse or deny the historicity of Jesus as presented in the Bible.

In her first published novel, then, Sayers suggests that scripture is not self-interpreting, that any biblical commentary is constructed, like Babel, by humans. She uses another tower from the Bible to make a similar point several years later. In The Documents in the Case (1930), Sayers has a biologist off-handedly allude to germs as God’s judgment for sin. A clergyman protests by alluding to Luke 13, when Jesus challenges the idea that human suffering reflects heavenly justice: “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you” (verses 4–5a). Like Babel, the falling tower suggests limits to human understanding.

These biblical towers anticipate an important symbol in Sayers’s tenth detective novel, The Nine Tailors (1934). The mystery involves a medieval church tower inscribed with a passage from Psalm 19: “They Have Neither Speech nor Language but their Voices are Heard Among Them, their Sound is Gone Forth into All Lands” (1962, 27). These speechless “voices” come from the tower bells, which, like Bible commentaries, serve different ends. The bells proclaim salvation by summoning villagers to take sanctuary in the church when a devastating flood advances on the village. But the “voices” also function as executioners when a criminal, hidden in the bell chamber, is killed by the ear-piercing pain of bells ringing for nine hours. Furthermore, unlike any of Sayers’s other novels, several of the novel’s chapters are inscribed, like the tower itself, with epigraphs from the Bible. Sayers was changing her interests from what she called “crossword puzzle” mystery stories to serious “criticism of life,” and she believed that The Nine Tailors successfully combined detection with authentic “spiritual conflicts” (1937, 76, 77)—as can be found in the Bible.

Impressed with the artistry of The Nine Tailors, Oxford University Press editor Charles Williams recommended that Sayers be asked to write a play for the 1937 Canterbury Festival: the venue that had featured T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in 1935 and Williams’ Cranmer in 1936. Though daunted by the task, Sayers wrote a play about William of Sens, the architect who designed and coordinated the reconstruction of Canterbury Cathedral after a 1174 fire. Called The Zeal of Thy House, based on a phrase from Psalm 69 quoted in John 2:17, the play includes a choir that periodically sings passages from the Bible. More intriguingly, Zeal ends with Sayers’s own commentary on the first chapter of Genesis.

While writing the play, Sayers became increasingly convinced that humans display the imago Dei—“the image of God”—through their creativity. After all, the Bible presents God in its opening chapter not as Law-giver or Redeemer but as Creator: one who repeatedly pronounces creation “good.” So when verse 27 states that “God created humankind in his image,” she took the statement to mean that humans are most like their Creator when they create—whether designing a church tower or writing a novel. At the end of Zeal, therefore, Sayers has the Archangel Michael proclaim that human creativity is Trinitarian—like the Christian God: “First: there is the Creative Idea; … Second: there is the Creative Energy begotten of that Idea… Third: there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul;… And these three are one” (1948, 103). To put it in terms relevant to The Zeal of Thy House, Creative Idea is manifest in the architect’s original design, Creative Energy comes with construction based on that design, and Creative Power is the response of viewers, including the architect, who might change design elements during construction. Rather than consecutive actions, then, the three components simultaneously interact in the process of creation.

Several years later Sayers expanded her Trinitarian approach to the imago Dei in a book length study, The Mind of the Maker (1941). However, when someone asked her to write a book demonstrating how the Bible supports the doctrine of the Trinity, Sayers responded to her correspondent with insight worthy of quotation:

"[W]here is your Scriptural authority for the Scriptures themselves? On what texts do you rely for the make-up of the Canon as we have it? Where, for example, does the Lord say that there are to be those four Gospels and no more? or that the Revelation of Peter and The Shepherd of Hermas are not authoritative—though the first was read in churches as early as the second century, and the second was included in the Codex Sinaiticus as late as the fourth century? The doctrine of the Trinity was worked out and formulated in the Church—the same Church that is the authority for the Canon itself (1997, 367)"

These words, written while her controversial plays about Jesus were still being broadcast, demonstrate that Sayers did not change her views about the Bible even after becoming more reflective about her Christian faith. She still believed that, like the detectives and commentators who “find what they are looking for” in Whose Body?, Christians who argue that the Bible clearly establishes the Trinity are building a Tower of Babel. In her mind, they would do better to study the development of Christian doctrine over the centuries in order to understand why the biblical canon was not finalized until 397. Rather than fetishize the Bible as either inerrant on the one hand or mythic fiction on the other, Sayers encourages all students of the Bible to assess “the foot-prints of the household.”

Bibliography

Works of Dorothy L. Sayers

  • Whose Body? (1923). New York: Avon Books, 1961.
  • The Documents in the Case (with Robert Eustace). New York: Brewer and Warren, 1930.
  • The Nine Tailors (1934). New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962.
  • The Zeal of Thy House (1937). In Four Sacred Plays, pp. 15–103. London: Gollancz, 1948.
  • “Gaudy Night.” In Titles to Fame, edited by Denys Kilham Roberts, pp. 73–95. London: Thomas Nelson, 1937.
  • “Introduction” (1943). In The Man Born to Be King, pp. 1–22. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979.
  • The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers. Vol. 2, edited by Barbara Reynolds. Cambridge, U.K.: Carole Green, 1997.
  • The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers. Vol. 3, edited by Barbara Reynolds. Cambridge, U.K.: Carole Green, 1998.

Secondary Works

  • Downing, Crystal. Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Simmons, Laura K. Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2005.

Crystal L. Downing