creed without chaos

An MHP Interview with Laura K. Simmons
England, like bygone days, was ablaze with writers at the turn of the last century. Some knew well that evil might pounce at any time. H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw are good examples. And alongside this notion of evil was a belief that humanity can rise above its situation and defeat whatever might enter the scene.

Also around 1900, George McDonald takes on the creation of new myths that would later inspire the young talents of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Agatha Christie wrote her popular mysteries during this period - an end of Victoria's reign and the launch of World War I - that war that created the waste land.

Modernism, industrialization, globalization, the mass killing of one war and the lead-up and start of another are backdrops to Dorothy Sayers when she enters the scene.

Sayers contributes widely to many discussions. You will find her words used to frame elementary school curriculum. She started as an marketing writer and coined the phrase, "It pays to advertise." She is best known for her stories of Lord Peter Wimsey's detective skills. What is less well known is Sayers's contribution to the theological discussion of the time, a direction she purposed after World War II brought such overwhelming evil on the scene.

Laura K. Simmons recently released Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Baker Academic).

MHP: I want to start in a dangerous beginning, with application before the setting of stage. One of your closing chapters is entitled “Sayers for the Twenty-First Century.” What does Sayers, certainly best known for her detective fiction, have to say to our culture?

Laura Simmons: In one of her essays, Sayers wrote something along the lines of, "Christianity has been having a bad press of late." As we enter the 21st century, that's still true--if not more true.

People have stereotypes both of Christianity and of Christians themselves. As in Sayers's time, the fault for those misperceptions belongs mostly to Christians. One of the things I appreciate most about her writings is her exhortation that we have no business rejecting something we don't really understand. She believes that if people really understand Christianity, they won't be so quick to reject it.

One of the things I see happening in the Christian community today is that the Christians who don't fit the stereotypes are stepping up to the plate to say, "Let's have a broader view of what Christianity is--it's not just a list of Dos and Don'ts or a political platform..." There seems to be a renewed interest in communicating what Christianity is really about, so that people can make informed choices. Sayers's clarity on what Christianity is and is not is a refreshing way of discussing these issues, I find.

Sayers's convictions on vocation are also important today, I believe. Certainly, in a world where many employees live in fear of having their jobs outsourced, many don't have the luxury of working in jobs that match their calling. But we also see a lot of people sacrificing more lucrative opportunities expressly so they *can* pursue work that is life-giving for them.

And her views on women were way before her time. One distinction she drew in 1938 is still with us, especially in the church--we tend to look at females as either "the ladies, God bless them" or "the women--God help us!" It's frightening and saddening that we have not managed to get past these generalizations in the 48 years since she wrote that...

MHP: You return several times to the contextual place that Sayers writes, a world overcome with WWII, a war that “had emptied Christianity’s places of worship.” You seem to suggest that this scenario forces Sayers to move away from fiction writing and into the more rigid confines of theology. Is that accurate?

LS: I'm not sure it's entirely fair to say her context forced her to move away from fiction, although she herself did suggest that as the war loomed, it seemed inappropriate to be writing fiction--she didn't want people to believe the world's most serious problems could be solved as easily as the Death in the Library, she said. But she did, for example, use Lord Peter and her other fictional characters to comment on the war. The "Wimsey Papers" ran for several weeks, and Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, and Miss Climpson all had the opportunity to make observations about wartime conditions--in this case, fictional characters were Sayers's mouthpiece for her own concerns about life in wartime.

Why I think her context is important is that it most likely slanted the ways she wrote about theology. If her culture were still a mostly-churched culture, she wouldn't have had to focus so much on clarification of Christian truths, for example. If the war had not brought economic priorities into such strong relief, she might not have had to write as she did about work and business ethics.

MHP: Does Sayers compliment Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Begin Here: A Statement of Faith and perhaps others? What are the similarities and differences?

LS: This is an interesting question! She was powerfully influenced by Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which she read when she was fifteen. She found him a breath of fresh air for the church, and she wrote an introduction to one of his plays and kept up some correspondence with his widow after his death. Certainly she is similar to him, both in writing detective fiction and in her intellectual approach (right belief was important to both of them, more so than right living or right feeling, which might have been more of Lewis's heart).

Her book Begin Here started as a "Christmas message to the nation," but ended up as a dense historical-theological tome much less accessible than Lewis's work for the BBC, I'm afraid. He is concerned in the messages that make up Mere Christianity with describing Christianity as simply as possible for listeners. In Begin Here, Sayers is drawing a complex history of theological movements over the years, integrating theology with the historical context of each period. Lewis didn't write quite as much on political themes as Sayers did, I don't think...

MHP: Do these categories still apply: (1) open heathen; (2) ignorant Christians; (3) pea-shooting churchgoers?

LS: I don't know that this language for them still applies, but certainly the population of this country has its share of people who don't know a thing about Christianity and may or may not care to know (I was one of these growing up--I always say that I grew up in the "church of the flaming pagan-heathen," which is not too different from Sayers's description of the 'frank and open heathen'), and I'm quite sure most churchgoers here know even less about their faith (why they believe what they do, why it's important to believe certain things over others, how we got to the beliefs we hold dear today) than her compatriots did. And certainly, in a country scornful about intelligent design and resentful of Christian politicians, many of us would be woefully unprepared to do battle with any intellectual unbeliever, "Marxian" or otherwise! We do have more venues for thinking Christians to make their views known ... which is important, as those views are sorely needed.

ZK: Among the theological points brought out, incarnation seems the most versatile and strongest held as it sits with the need for creeds as well. Why? Would similar emphases be advised for today?

LS: Sayers believed the Incarnation was the lynchpin for all other theology--if Christ was not really God, everything else fell apart. I've been intrigued as I've watched the various portrayals of Jesus on TV and film in recent years. Sayers, in discussing The Man Born to Be King, wrote about how hard it was to portray Jesus both as fully human and as fully divine, and some pop-culture renditions of him succeed more than others in capturing the fullness of his character.

I think we've really lost something by letting go of the creeds in most evangelical churches. I understand the aversion to/concern about "dead ritual," but I believe the solution to that is a vibrant program of education about why certain rituals (such as the recitation/ memorization of creeds) are important is the solution, not doing away with the creeds altogether. But it's easier for us to limit our picture of Jesus to the "buddy Christ" (as seen in Dogma) or the stern, punitive Christ portrayed by some of our more conservative brethren than to grapple with the complexities of the Athanasian creed, for example.

MHP: What is the difference of working to live and living to work? Are the misplacement of work and the impersonal touch from grocery stores to large corporations a reason for dissatisfaction – perhaps because the context is not incarnate?

LS: I have a perfect example of "working to live." After I finished my doctorate, it took me a few years to find a full-time faculty position. However, my student loans came into repayment 6 months after I graduated. So I spent two years working in middle management after finishing my PhD and before landing a full-time faculty post. I wasn't working there necessarily because that was what I was called to do for the rest of my life, but because it was the only job that paid enough for me to afford my student-loan payments. Don't get me wrong--it was a significant work experience, and God used it immensely in my life. But it was a bit of a tangent from my calling to teach--economically driven. Whether it's student loan payments, a mortgage, a family to raise, or ongoing medical expenses to fund, many people "work to live"--they take whatever job will pay enough to allow them to afford their lives. "Living to work," on the other hand, is what we see in those who take jobs paying significantly less than their capacities because they love that kind of work. They don't go to work wondering when they'll get off--they have to remind themselves to take time OFF work.

When someone cannot find satisfaction in their work, is it any wonder they are surly about doing it? I believe, as Sayers did, that the responsibility rests with the employer to incorporate into people's jobs the opportunity for satisfying work (as opposed to merely rote work, which really is demoralizing in the long run). It's hard to do this on a corporate level, especially if you are a large corporation. Hard, but not impossible.

MHP: As to art, she is harsh at the manipulation of art to wield some reaction or some second class form simply because convictions can cause people to take up art but their talent suffers greatly. The book casts a corrective to Plato’s utilitarian way of representation or imitation and wants to search for “eternal truth.” Are there examples that might be used especially in light of this “eternal truth”?

LS: She wrote about Aeschylus's Agamemnon: " not the copy or imitation of something bigger and more real than itself. It is bigger and more real than the real-life action it represents. That a false wife should murder a husband--that might be... a thriller to be read in the train--but when it is shown to us like this, by a great poet, it is as though we went behind the triviality of the actual event to the cosmic significance behind it." ["Toward a Christian Esthetic," 82-83]

I don't know if I quoted this part in the book, but there's another place in the same essay where she gives a delightful description of the work of any artist:

A poet so-called is simply a man like ourselves with an exceptional power of revealing his experience by expressing it, so that not only he, be we ourselves, recognize that experience as our own. ... And since he is a man like the rest of us, we shall expect that our experience will have something in common with his. In the image of his experience, we can recognize the image of some experience of our own--something that had happened to us, but which we had never understood, never formulated or expressed to ourselves, and therefore never known as a real experience. When we read the poem, or see the play or picture, or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: 'Ah! I recognize that! That is something that I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn't know what it was and couldn't express it. But now that the artist has made its image--imaged it forth--for me, I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength. [86-87]

MHP: Would a fiction writer- turned theological writer be at all concerned at the systematic approach to her works and thoughts?

She might actually hate it, for any number of reasons. As many times as Sayers called herself a theologian or others acclaimed her as one, she would also say things like, "I'm a storyteller, not an evangelist," or "I'm a writer, not a preacher." She simultaneously would suggest that if you wanted to know something about a writer, you should look to that person's work--and that it was unfair to assume certain things about a writer based on what they had written (with her fiction, for example, people would always say she was either Lord Peter Wimsey or Harriet Vane). She was worried about writing beyond her range and thus leading people astray (she wrote to C.S. Lewis about the "terrifying ease" with which people make celebrities into idols and authorities, whether or not those figures should be given authority or not).

I have tried, even while categorizing Sayers's contributions, not to suggest that any sort of traditional "systematic theology" can be made out of her work. Some theological themes she wrote on all the time (incarnation and the trinity, for example)--but someone has just critiqued me for not saying more about her "doctrine of Scripture," and I won't write on that because it doesn't appear often enough in her work (and because it would be overlaying a late-20th-century-evangelical doctrine of Scripture onto a British Anglican popular writer, which seems perilous).

We are also careful in the Sayers field not to fall into the trap of the young man who said, "And then there was Miss Dorothy Sayers, who turned from a life of crime to join the church of England." While moving from mystery writing to theology seems like a shift, it's also true that the same Dorothy L. Sayers was writing about heavenly mysteries and earthly mysteries both.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.