BOOK BLOG | "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged" (Sayers - Letter 1)
Subtitled: Is the Official Creed of Christendom
“Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what It means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – he [God] had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can extract nothing from man that he has not extracted from himself.”
This first essay in the collection Letters to a Diminished Church offers up what amounts to a kind of thesis statement on the whole collection:
“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that has ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.”
As a practicing member of a church tradition deeply rooted in the historic creeds and confessions of the Church, and which still recites the catechism and demands confirmation before being admitted to the sacraments, I am especially appreciative of this opening essay. Sayers argues that the thing is counter-intuitive…that “boring” doctrines are those which have been stripped of their material and rhetorical content. Creeds which call to mind the Christ of the Scriptures would be anything but boring, because Christ was anything but boring.
Sayers, like Lewis, was speaking into a liberalized Church already jettisoned of any sort of real belief in historic Christianity. Lewis’ Anglicanism more so than Sayers' Catholicism – but England had surely turned the cultural corner where the authority and historicity of Scripture were no longer widely embraced. In those days of declining church attendance, and in the face of an increasingly secularized national culture, many churches came to think the best way of retaining existing members, and of attracting new ones, was to minimize expectations. To get the sticker price down to something manageable and payable on installment. This last part – the devaluation of the thing – is for Sayers not merely obnoxious, but likely to produce the opposite effect.
More than one commentator has noted that the United States is today, culturally speaking, akin to Great Britain then. I actually think that marker was probably passed in the 1980’s or 90’s, and was most visible in the Church world with the rise of the many so-called “seeker friendly” churches. These are churches who have undertaken the same sort of reduction of theological content the English churches did. To be charitable, I suppose those churches meant well, and at least initially, and had something of a bait-and-switch in mind where up front Christ’s “yoke is easy and my burden is light”, followed later by “if they hated me they will hate you” smuggled into the fine print to be addressed on a case-by-case basis later, only after the need arose, and after conversion made it more palatable.
This, of course, ended badly, but for two different sorts of reasons. First, Americans are savvy when it comes to advertising, and can smell a used car salesman at a distance. Those who found it offensive simply swore off churches altogether, which suited the growing fashion of fishing and attending club soccer tournaments and NASCAR races anyway.
Second, and paradoxically, were those churches which recognized the difficulty with the switch and so threw it out. But they kept the bait and called it ministry. They came to regard doctrine as a fiat currency and continued the practice of devaluation so there there was, in time, a sort of race to the bottom to a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. This was rightly seen by many both in and out of the Church as being cheap. And so Christianity has largely been abandoned as the reserve currency.
We might imagine cheapness and dullness to be of the same sort of thing. A cheap house is architecturally dull. A cheap hotel has few amenities. A man on a cruise too cheap to pay for the excursions misses the interesting destinations – he merely obtains cramped lodging and access to a buffet, from which he eats every night for a week, but feels queasy after. At some imperceptible point many of those churches, having devalued their doctrine, also impoverished their thinking, becoming theological dullards as well. The result is thousands of churches with little more than summer camp theology, which is neither deep nor wide.
But what about that claim - you know, the one which thinks church is boring with all that complicated doctrine. My experience is that children will tell you it’s boring regardless. As teens they claim anything vaguely associated with adults is boring. In fact, it's not boring, they simply don’t grasp it, or the enormity of it. Their youthful ignorance and lack of life experience isolates them from fully appreciating the more nuanced aspects or applications of Christ’s teachings. They read and recite the words, but fail to appreciate the meaning until later in life when the suffering and loss and children of their own enter into the picture. They come to know about Christ rather than knowing Christ.
But kids are supposed to grow up. Adults are capable of full appreciation of what is being said both about and by Christ in the Scriptures. For them (the adults) to find it boring is, at best, neglect; at worst, rebellion.
Is this not the reality of far too much of the contemporary church? That it attracts those who either do not care to know anything beyond Jesus, God, Bible; or who knew once a long time ago and didn’t like it and sought out a more palatable vintage? Failing to recognize the signs of rebellion either in our children or our parishioners, some of those adults go on to become pastors and elders and teachers and board members who, in turn, become complicit in the further dismantling of doctrine in hopes of making themselves even more relevant or accessible. Sayers suggests they will accomplish neither. They succeed only in promoting a Christ who is safe, doesn’t convict, and demands little.
Of course, this is not dull at all. But what makes it not dull is the “meat”, the stoutness of the thing, the deep and gritty parts. Otherwise it is just another fairy tale glossed over by the likes of Disney. The Three Little Pigs without a boiled wolf; Hanzel and Gretel where no children are baked in the witch's oven; a great war epic in which no animals are hurt in the making of this film. Such tales sound dull indeed, and perhaps also unbelievable, for these would be unremarkable and commonplace -- just another contrived happy ending at odds with, and out of place from, a world marked by suffering, pain, loss, sin, and death.
“Possibly we might prefer not to take this take too seriously – there are disquieting parts about it. Here we had a man of divine character walking and talking among us – and what did we find to do with him? The common people, indeed, ‘heard him gladly’; but out leading authorities in Church and State considered that he talked too much and uttered too many disconcerting truths. So we bribed one of his friends to hand him over quietly to the police, and we tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, and had him publicly flogged and hanged on the common gallows, ‘thanking God we were rid of a knave.’ […] So that is the outline if the official story – the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull – the terrifying drama of which God is the victim and the hero.”
A God who becomes man – the sort who makes total claim not only upon the life of the believer individually, but the Church collectively as well – that Man is not dull at all.
His Church should follow suit.