The Woman Who Made C.S. Lewis Cry

 on March 4, 2024

Dorthy L. Sayers is mainly remembered today as a writer of detective stories. Some readers suspect that she was secretly in love with her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey—aristocrat, man of the world, and detective— and maybe she was. Titles like Gaudy Night, The Nine Tailors, and Strong Poison (in which she introduced Lord Peter’s love interest, Harriet Vane), were all best-sellers in their time. One reviewer said of The Nine Tailors, “This is unquestionably Miss Sayers’s best—until the next one.”

Sayers was also a Christian and a lifelong Anglican, and some of her best writing was of a spiritual and theological nature. The book I think is her best religious work—and certainly my favourite—is a series of twelve plays on the life of Jesus, written at the request of the BBC in 1940 and published under the title The Man Born to be King. (You can buy a new paperback version for $30, but I like the old hardback copies which you can often buy second-hand for under $10!) Two things are very striking about the plays. One is the freshness of the language. Sayers is very intolerant of the kind of Christianity which dulls the sharp edge of the Christian story. In particular, she is very critical of those who “pare the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him meek and mild and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.” She does not mince her words. “It is curious,” she observes, “that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.” The Man Born to be King manages to shock us afresh, and that’s a good thing.

Mixed reactions

The other thing that always astounds me about the plays is the response of the public at the time. Some listeners are wildly enthusiastic—while others are horrified at how “irreverent,” “blasphemous,” and “vulgar” the plays are.

In the latter category is a listener who was shocked that Herod (in the play) told his court to “keep your mouths shut.” Apparently, the critic did not believe that anybody “so closely connected to our Lord” could possibly speak so vulgarly! Fortunately, the BBC had received approval from leaders of no fewer than eight church denominations before going ahead with the plays, so the critics could hardly appeal to their church leaders for support.

Sayers’s reward, however, was the positive responses, and those were overwhelming. One man wrote, “I learnt more about my religion in half an hour today than I ever did in the years of Sunday School.” Another said, “I have known this story my whole life, but you have made it come alive in a totally new way.” Sometimes the effects were immediately and profoundly practical: “Your play The Man Born to be King is quite changing the atmosphere in our house, and where there has been resentment and criticism, we can feel it all dying away in the presence of Christ. I’m sure this must be the case in all homes where they have heard it broadcast.”

Lewis and Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers was a friend of C.S.Lewis and he wrote to her in 1943 to say: “I’ve finished The Man Born to be King and think it a complete success. … I shed real tears (hot ones) in places.” But that was not the only time he praised the work. Thirteen years later, in 1958, he spoke at Sayers’s memorial service, and confessed, “I have re-read [The Man Born to be King] in every Holy Week since it first appeared, and never re-read it without being deeply moved.” I too find it very moving. Here is one of my favourite passages, one that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It is a speech Sayers puts into the mouth of Mary Magdalene as she tells Jesus about the first time they met.

See what you think:

“Did you know? My friends and I came there that day to mock you. We thought you would be sour and grim, hating all beauty and treating life as an enemy. But when I saw you, I was amazed. You were the only person there who was really alive. The rest of us were going about half-dead—making the gestures of life, pretending to be real people. The life was not with us but with you—intense and shining, like the strong sun when it rises and turns the flames of our candles to pale smoke. And I wept and was ashamed, seeing myself such a thing of trash and tawdry. But when you spoke to me, I felt the flame of the sun in my heart. I came alive for the first time. And I love life all the more since I have learnt its meaning.”

You don’t have to read The Man Born to be King every Holy Week. But you should read it at least once. Just make sure you have your Kleenex handy.

  • John Bowen

    John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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