Library Learnings: A Mystery Writer Retells the Gospel Story

“Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest drama in history.”

The “drama” to which the English novelist and playwright Dorothy Sayers refers—this in the introduction to the work which this essay searches, The Man Born to be King—is the story of Jesus, from birth to death, and beyond, the one that’s told in the four Gospels.

“…I say that this story is a very great story indeed, and deserves to be taken seriously,” she warrants. “I say further…that in these days it is seldom taken seriously. It is often taken, and treated, with gingerly solemnity….” And that’s not good enough, she insists. (In The Whimsical Christian, she badgers: “Let us, for heaven’s sake, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment.” She doesn’t mince words.)

“Not Herod, not Caiaphas, not Pilate, not Judas ever contrived to fasten upon Jesus Christ the reproach of insipidity; that final indignity was left for pious hands to inflict. To make of his story something that could neither startle, nor shock, nor terrify, nor excite, nor inspire a living soul, is to crucify the Son of God afresh, and put him to open shame.”

To rectify this sorry state, to bestir rather than bore, Sayers, some 80 years ago, told the old, old story again, in her own fashion. She wrote it as a play…a dozen plays, actually, a play-cycle, meant for radio broadcast…which the BBC aired on Sunday evenings, beginning on December 21, 1941; a new episode was presented at four-week intervals, with the last performed on October 18, 1942. The next year, the entire script was published in book form: The Man Born to be King. The work now is to be found in, and borrowed from the SSUC Library. And what an addition it is.

In Sayers’ hands, the prominent American Lutheran bioethicist and theologian Gilbert Meilaender declares, “‘the greatest drama in history’ regains the sting we sometimes, with the best of intentions, take out of it.” Tyler Hummel concludes his so-labeled “classic review” of the book by declaring, “The Man Born to be King is a great work of drama, and a thoroughly accessible work, that puts the complex life and theology of Christ into the words of normal people. And that is a good and defensible thing.”

Dorothy Sayers: Christ became central

Dorothy Sayers [1893-1957], who graduated from Oxford with first-class honours in 1915, published her first novel eight years later, Whose Body, which introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, her hero for 14 more books and short stories. Writing full-time, she “rose to be the doyen of crime writers,” as The Dorothy L. Sayers Society has it. And it might have ended there, had she not come to read G. K. Chesterton, the English writer, critic, philosopher, and Christian apologist.

It was in him that she “discover[ed] a love for the church in which her parents had raised her,” according to Jessica Wilson’s piece, “Scandalous Recasting of the Gospel,” in the June, 2023, Plough. To Sayers, he was, in her own words, “a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air.” She followed suit.

Soon enough, Sayers “transformed…her own life,” Crystal Downing observes in her review of another of the author’s books, The Zeal of Thy House. “Increasingly being asked to write and talk about Christian topics, she never again published a detective novel….” Why, “Christ became central to everything Sayers thought and wrote….”

Kathryn Wehr of Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas describes her as “an Anglican, of Catholic leanings,” and reports how “she wrote and spoke confidently when she believed herself to be finding fresh words for creedal theology—giving flesh to ’the strong, bony structure’ of ‘dry’ official theology.” The Sayers Society notes, “Her theology was traditionally Anglican, with emphasis on doctrine.” She became one of the so-called “Oxford Christians,” joining the ranks of such luminaries as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Nevertheless, she, in 1943, turned down a doctorate of divinity offered her by the archbishop of Canterbury. There’s this, too, which Downing reports: “Ironically, as Sayers explained to a friend near the end of her life, ‘I never, so help me God, wanted to get entangled in religious apologetics, or to bear witness for Christ, or to proclaim my faith to the world.’” Which, of course, is exactly what she did. In The Man Born to be King, for sure. 

How it came to be…and the fallout

It was in 1940 that BBC radio commissioned her to write the play-cycle that became The Man Born to be King. “It was the first time anything had ever been done like it,” The Lent Project insists.

Downing, who holds a named chair in Christian thought at Wheaton College, describes what happened next: “Spending over a year re-reading the Gospels, often in the original Greek, as well as Bible commentaries and church histories, Sayers was determined to avoid a ’stained-glass-window’ presentation” of Jesus’ story, “in which, rather than real men and women, Bible characters are ’sacred personages,’ standing about in symbolic attitudes.” And this she did, “Without altering one jot of gospel truth.”

She did it, even though she determined “to give the plays dramatic immediacy”—The Lent Project again—“featuring realistic, identifiable characters with human emotions and motivations and speech patterns.” Listeners were offended: the radio broadcasts “aroused a storm of controversy: atheists complained of Christian propaganda, while devout Christians declared that blasphemy” was being perpetrated. “Many deemed these broadcasts sacrilegious, and some even considered them wicked.”

Downing adds: “[O]utraged Christians across England [joined] in a censorship campaign, demanding the plays be taken off the air. When Sayers and the BBC proceeded with the first broadcast…, they received threatening phone calls and nasty hate mail.” “Criticism was so virulent and widespread,” Mary Durkin wrote in her essay, “The Playwright as Theologian,” for The Christian Century of November, 1979, “that questions concerning the propriety of continuing the broadcasts was brought up before the House of Commons.”

Sayers refused to back down, insisting “on an inextricable relationship between dogma and drama,” as Wilson puts it. “Without the requisite drama, the dogma becomes less than impotent; it becomes mendacious. […] Rather than being accused of blasphemy, Sayers should be exalted as performing apologetics through art. […] Great literature recasts the known into a different setting or form or language, so that we may see and hear the truth as it is.”

Hummel says so, too: The Man Born to be King “is merely a tool to make the underlying story of the Gospel more accessible to a modern audience.” As well, he adds, “Sayers believed more deeply than anyone else in the 20th century that creativity was a sacred thing, a sacrament that allows us to participate in creation.” Wilson agrees: “For Sayers, created works were evidence of a living God, a Creator still at work in his creation.”

The Man Born to be King: a look inside

The Gospels tell “of a time when God was the underdog and got beaten”—this is Sayers in her own words, quoted in a tribute to her in Christianity Today—“when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down, and became a man like the men he had made, and the men that he had made broke him and killed him. …This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.”

In her re-telling of “the life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”—also her words—she makes adjustments. “Sayers had a number of interesting ideas in writing these scripts,” critic Dan’l Danehy-Oakes points out, “perhaps the most significant was the idea of breaking through the formal familiarity and familiar formality of the stories to make them, once again, startling and immediate. […] Sayers is not above adjusting matters for dramatic sense, but she never actively departs from the traditional story.”

In’s “Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past,” James Kiefer, in his portrayal of Sayers, points out, “Each of the 12 plays is preceded by Sayer’s comments, often dealing with the historical background of the incidents, and the theological issues raised by them. These are, in my judgment, outstandingly insightful and thought-provoking.” So, too, this writer will add, her notes about each and every character who has a speaking part in her radio pageant.

Whether it’s imagined dialogue, or scene-setting and stage directions, or her characterizations of one or another of the principals [which may miss the mark entirely; we can’t know], or the occasional insertion even of a make-believe player, Sayers’ creativity, insights, contrivance, and flair add to the story she tells. Here, in this sampling, see what’s meant:

◼︎ Sayers instructs that the crowd baying for Jesus’ demise has been worked “into a frenzy of excitement; and when at last Jesus is brought out to them, the howl of execration [‘Crucify him!”] must hit one like a blow in the face.”

◼︎  Of Jesus’ mother on Calvary, Sayers explains, “She and John in their granite self-control are like pillars framing and supporting the wild luxuriance of Mary Magdalen’s grief. The effect is intended to suggest those pictures” in which Mary and the disciple whom Jesus loved “stand upright on either side of the crucifix, while the dishevelled Magdalen crouches at the foot. Similarily, in the final Calvary scene, there is the suggestion of a Pieta. Hear Mary’s words: ‘Give me my son into my arms.’”

◼︎  At the tomb, Salome, “seeing that Mary Magdalen is [again] losing her self-control,” soothes, “Yes, dear. But later on you will find it easier to think of him [Jesus] as he used to be. That’s God’s merciful way. We forget the still body and the cold, waxen face, and our dead are given back to our remembrance alive and happy.”

◼︎  Sayers offers up this insight concerning the disciple Thomas: “It is unexpected, but extraordinarily convincing, that the one absolutely unequivocal statement, in the whole Gospel, of the divinity of Jesus should come from Doubting Thomas. It is the only place where the word ‘God’ is used of him without qualification of any kind, and in the most unambiguous…words…. And this must be said”—here she instructs the player—”not ecstatically, or with a cry of astonishment, but with flat conviction, as of one acknowledging irrefragable evidence: …’You are my Lord and my God.’”

◼︎  One of Sayers’ additions is the character Baruch, a Zealot, whom she describes as, “Pure politician. …Baruch sees Jesus as the Nazi party may have seen Hitler—the Heaven-sent spellbinder, rather mad, but a valuable political tool in the right hands.”  Read this brief exchange between Baruch and his wife:

She: “Baruch, must Jesus be got rid of? Such power as his must surely be of God.”

He: “So is the power of fire. But it has to be harnessed. This Jesus might set the world ablaze. What a tool, what a tool he would be in the right hands! A hammer against Caiaphas [the high priest], a sword in the heart of Caesar. If only we could get hold of him. But I have a horrible feeling—”

She: “Yes?”

He: “That he may be incorruptible after all.”

◼︎  Sayers’ attempt to explain Lazarus is absorbing: she writes of “the will to life, and the will to death. Jesus, Mary, Martha…accept life. Lazarus rejects it, and has to find the will to live by passing through death, and finding life there. […] [His] attainment of the will to life is conditioned solely by his personal recognition of, and faith in Jesus.” As well, “He is the natural melancholic—gentle, charming, but undervitalized. …he is obviously introspective, and a little inclined to self-pity.” He  is made to wonder, “Does joy go so deep as…to the very foundations of the world? Well, I will do my best. But I am not light-hearted by nature.” Yes, but after “his raising from death, he is completely changed; the few words he speaks”—this is Sayers’ dictate to the actor who’ll play Lazarus—”burst from him triumphantly, and with tremendous confidence.” He and his sisters jabber:

Mary: “You are smiling, you are laughing, you are alive!”

He, joyfully: “Yes, I am alive!”

Martha: “Where have you been?”

He: “With life.”

Mary: “Do you know who called you back?”

He: “Life. He is here, and he has never left me.”

It is with a return to Sayer’s introduction to The Man Born to be King that this essay will be concluded. There she explains, “[W]e have fallen out of the habit of looking on Jesus and his disciples as really real people.” So, “the writer of realistic Gospel plays…has to display the words and actions of actual people engaged in living through a piece of recorded history.” In so doing, “it is the business of the dramatist not to subordinate the drama to the theology, but to…trust the theology to emerge undisputed from the dramatic presentation of the story.” Jesus’ life, she affirms, “is theology in action, and the drama of his life is dogma shown as dramatic action.”

Ken Fredrick


A sidebar

The tragedy of Judas Iscariot

Surely, it is in her elucidation, her construction, of Judas Iscariot, his character and his downfall, that Dorothy Sayers reaches the pinnacle of her procreating: her visionary biographical sketch of the betrayer, spread through the scene-setting notes that introduce each of the works in her play-cycle, would fill—were they joined—six full pages in the book version of The Man Born to be King. It’s he whom she fleshes out most fully; perhaps perceptively? 

“He is infinitely the most intelligent of all the disciples, and has the boldness and drive that belong to a really imaginative brain. He can see the political possibilities of the Kingdom; but also, he can see at once (as none of the others can) the meaning of sin and repentance, and the fearful paradox by which all human good is corrupted as soon as it comes to power. He is as yet only beginning to see it, but presently he will see it plainly, and be the only disciple to grasp the necessity of the crucifixion. And seeing it, as he does, only with his intellect, and not with his heart, he will fall into a deeper corruption than any of the others are capable of. He has the greatest possibilities of them all for good, and therefore for evil. He is an opportunist; and he is determined that when the Kingdom comes, he shall have the chief hand in its business.”

But the crafty high priest, Caiaphas, determined to nail Jesus, plays him. Read their exchange:

Caiaphas: “[Y]ou know the best service Jesus can do for himself and Israel?”

Judas: “What?”

Caiaphas: “To die now, while his image in men’s minds is still untarnished. Alive, he is an ordinary demagogue…; dead, he is an idea, a symbol, the spirit of martyred Jewry, purged of all human dross and frailty. Nobody will remember that Jesus had faults; they will remember only his teaching and his works of power.”

Judas (catching eagerly at this justification): “True, true! You are right….The Son of Man must die before he can save—he said so. …we must make his words come true in spite of himself. …the prophecies must be fulfilled. Those were your words, your own words, Jesus of Nazareth. And so the salvation of Israel shall be accomplished.”

Caiaphas: “Spoken like a true patriot.”

Still, eventually, “a fearful doubt begins to rise in him,” and it is that “he, Judas, only figure[s] as the detestable engineer of a quite unnecessary evil….” But he must be the hero of his own story; his pride triumphs, and he tromps down his misgiving: “Judas is beginning to enjoy the idea of holding Jesus helpless in his embrace while the guards seize him”—this from the notes to the ninth drama. Here, Sayers previews the next play, in which “Judas will learn the truth, see himself for a ghastly moment as he really is, and know that in his heart he has always hated Jesus, as the egotist hates God.” 

Here, then, is how Sayers strikingly concludes Iscariot’s tragedy—he’s addressing Caiaphas:

“I have done a thing so hideous [the betrayal] that hell itself is ashamed. …a scoundrel’s dog can be faithful to him. But my master was innocent, and I slandered him; innocent, and I accused him; innocent, and I betrayed him. […] I wanted to see him suffer. …I could not endure his innocence. He was greater than I, and I hated him [for that]. And now I hate myself. Do you know what hell-fire is? It is the light of God’s unbearable innocence that sears and shrivels you like flame. It shows you what you are. Priest, it is a fearful thing to see one’s self for a moment as one really is. […]

“Jesus would forgive. If I crawled to the gallows’ foot, and asked his pardon, he would forgive me—and my soul would writhe forever under the torment of that forgiveness. …I tell you, there is no escape from God’s innocence….” Then, Judas declares, and he’s to do it with conviction, Sayers stipulates: “Take back your [blood] money, with the curse of Cain upon it.” [He flings down the pieces of silver.] …Caiaphas calls to “Stop him! He’s mad.” Guards bar his way with their pikes, but he bursts past them. “Hands off! I am unclean! Unclean and accurst. Unclean. Accurst. Accurst. Accurst.” [His voice dies, wailing into the distance.]

And the narrator concludes, “And he departed, and went, and hanged himself.”