More than a Stained-Glass Window Jesus
As I am preparing the session called “Readers’ Play: The Man Born to be King by Dorothy L. Sayers” I am revisiting how Sayers went about creating her 12-part radio play cycle on the life of Christ back in the early 1940’s. Why did she take up this mammoth challenge to present Jesus? Why does it shock and delight her contemporaries and continues to captivate and delight readers today?
Dorothy Sayers, a friend of C.S. Lewis, was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC) to write a series of radio plays on the life of Christ, but in accepting the commission she quickly faced a challenge. She saw in the culture around her the tendency to have set images of Jesus, whether a visual image – like in a stained-glass window or holy card – or a set understanding when we hear or read a Gospel passage and think of it only as a story.
Sayers calls this rigidity “stained-glass-window decorum.” She writes, “The characters are not men and women: they are all ‘sacred personages,’ standing about in symbolic attitudes, and self-consciously awaiting the fulfillment of prophecies.” It’s as if Herod or the disciples or Caiaphas the High Priest fully knew who Jesus really was and merely played their part.
No, Sayers reminds us. The people who surrounded Jesus in the Gospels were real people who had their own lives and concerns. They encountered Him within a specific time and specific cultural pressures. They made choices about Him with the little information they had – unlike us, who know the end of the story. Caiaphas and Pilate did not condemn Jesus to death so they could fulfill prophecy, but as an expedient way to protect their own interests in unstable times.
Portraying a Real Jesus
And into this world of real people came Jesus who Sayers worked hard to portray as both really God and really human. The hypostatic union of her character of Jesus is shown through the surrounding characters who question, feel drawn or are surprised or shocked by him. There are very human moments of Jesus laughing or eating and moments of power that terrify his disciples such as raising the dead son of the widow of Nain, or they discuss what it is they witnessed at the Transfiguration.
And the Crucifixion and Resurrection are treated with this same attempt at showing the realism of both the jeering crowd and his confused disciples along with all the politics happening behind the scenes. She writes,
“God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own—in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government renowned for is efficiency. He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators. His executioners made vulgar jokes about Him, called Him filthy names, taunted Him, smacked Him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on a common gibbet—a bloody, dusty, sweaty, and sordid business.”
Fresh Eyes and Ears
So we need fresh eyes or – in the case of radio plays – fresh ears. Every time I return to The Man Born to be King, I feel that refreshment because the stories presented in them are both familiar and surprising. Sayers used everyday English (quite a shock to her first listeners!) and worked hard to not let her characters “talk Bible.” Listen, for instance, to her rendering of the Beatitudes:
“Listen, and I will tell you who are the happy people whom God has blessed. Happy are the poor, for nothing stands between them and the Kingdom. Happy are the sorrowful, for their souls are made strong through suffering. Happy are the humble, for they receive the whole world as a gift. Happy are they who long for holiness as a man longs for food, for they shall enjoy God’s plenty. Happy are the merciful, for they are mercifully judged. Happy are they who establish peace, for they share God’s very nature. Happy are the single-hearted, for they see God.”
The Gospels themselves were written with descriptive stories and long speeches, but Sayers’ writing of the scenes into dialogue, gives them vitality and a sense of action. Jesus needed to be able to say ‘hello’ or make small talk, even if we don’t have that type of speech recorded in the Gospels. Sayers also helpfully draws together teachings into proximity within a scene to assist her listeners and readers in making connections but also covering more ground, as in incorporating both the institution of the Eucharist (from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the Foot Washing (from John) into the Last Supper Scene. She also often helps make familiar texts personal, such as in the Last Supper scene:
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God—believe in me too. There are many inns on the road to my Father’s house. I am going ahead to prepare the lodgings for you. You will always find me there to welcome you, so that at each stage we shall be together.”
Come Meet Jesus Again
So if you feel like your image of Jesus has become dry or set rigidly in stained-glass, please join me on February 11th at the Benedictine Center to dig deeper into these plays. Come hear more about the context of why these plays were so controversial in their day that they incited a protest, and experience why they became such perennial favorites that they are still read and studied today.
C.S. Lewis was such a fan of the published book of the plays that he re-read them every year during Holy Week as a spiritual preparation. Perhaps you too, this Lent, might be inspired to meet Jesus again for the first time, through the plays of The Man Born to be King.