Yesterday I received in the mail a copy of a book that I ordered nearly two months ago from England. It’s the cheapest book I’ve ever bought online – it cost me roughly $2 + $10 postage. It’s a first edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Man Born to be King: a series of plays that were originally commissioned by the BBC for broadcast during the Second World War. My copy is the 1943 edition printed on Wartime Economy Paper (it’s terribly bodgy stuff but touching and smelling books printed in Britain during this era is the closest thing to experiencing the after-effects of war).
When Sayer’s plays were first announced they generated a storm of controversy. One letter writer blamed the first broadcast for the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese, and worried for the fate of Australia if the plays were continued. Countless other people testified to being moved to tears, and some even spoke of a mini Revival taking place through England as an effect of the broadcasts. There is no question that the Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC had an evangelistic goal in commissioning the plays. He writes in the preface:
The minimum duty of religious broadcasting to those outside the churches is to say: “Listen! This is the truth about the world, and life, and you”. But how were we to say it so that people would listen? Conventional church services and religious talks were of little avail. Obviously, something new was needed.
Now it is a fact of history that every Christian revival during the past nineteen hundred years has come, at least in part, from a fresh study of the life and teaching of the Christ. It is also a fact of today that while the majority are not gripped by “the Church”, or Christian dogma, or conventional religious exercises, or even by the word “God”, yet scarcely anyone denies the attraction of the man Christ Jesus and of his teaching. Now the task of the Church in any age is to reveal Christ. It cannot do more, and it should not attempt less. To reveal Christ and to persuade men and women to respond to that truth is the whole task of the Christian Church
Hmmm, Religious Broadcasting really has come a long way from the 1940’s, hasn’t it? These days it’s possible for a former head of the ABC Religion Unit, Stephen Crittenden, to be a professed atheist.
What made Dorothy Sayers’ plays so shocking for some listeners was her willingness to give Jesus a real physical human presence within the drama of his life and death. It’s hard for us to conceive of how remote the human conditions of Jesus’ life must have seemed to the average Briton (which also meant Australian). People had lost the ability to imagine him. And if you can’t imagine something, you can’t believe in it.
Britain in the 1940’s had anti-blasphemy laws that banned any representation of a member of the Trinity in a stage play. Sayers was able to evade the ban on the proviso that the radio performances did not occur in front of a studio audience. And further, the King James (Authorised) Version of the Bible was the only complete English translation widely available to the public. The language of this translation had become seriously dated so that the average British punter had never heard the Bible in his or her own language. When Jesus spoke in the Gospel accounts he sounded like Shakespeare rather than the earthy, powerful country preacher that he was.
Sayers went back to the original Greek texts and retranslated the words of Jesus (she claims to have worn out a Greek New Testament while writing the plays), and she was happy to restructure the various Gospel accounts, and even make up words for Jesus to say that would aid the drama.
People had never heard Jesus like that before. She presented him as really real. Dorothy Sayers re-imagined Jesus for people who had lost the resources and ability to do so. If you ever needed convincing of the power and importance of the imagination for human life and flourishing, then this is your moment: here we have Art as an act of loving imagination for others and in the service of truth.
In her preface, Sayers talks about the important binary relationship between Art and Theology:
… never was there a truer word than “except a man believe rightly he cannot” – at any rate, his artistic structure cannot possibly – “be saved”. A loose and sentimental theology begets loose and sentimental art-forms; an illogical theology lands one in illogical situations; an ill-balanced theology issues in false emphasis and absurdity. Conversely; there is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself.
How well would your theology play?