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Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate…
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Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of… (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Dorothy Sayers (Author)

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287270,601 (4.19)15
What must a person believe to be a Christian? Dorothy Sayers lays out age-old doctrines without prettying-up or watering-down. She brings them vividly to life by showing how the Bible, history, literature, and modern science fit together to make religion not only possible but necessary in our time. So whether you are reading the great works of Western literature, thinking about your place in God's universe, or simply dealing with the thousand-and-one problems of daily living, this powerful book has words of both challenge and comfort for you. Excerpt: Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore--and this in the Name of One who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through this world like a flame.   Let us, in Heaven's name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.… (more)
Member:amy_reasoner
Title:Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine
Authors:Dorothy Sayers (Author)
Info:Thomas Nelson (2004), Edition: 8.9.2004, 288 pages
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Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine by Dorothy Sayers (2004)

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This is the writing of Dorothy L Sayers, so it comes as no surprise that it is both eloquent and erudite. Her style, humour and forthright approach to conveying her message are there in full. The collection of 16 essays is put together well: for the most part, the essays are in an order which promotes connection and flow of ideas from one to the next. Whether that was an original publication order determined by Sayers, or the decision of the editor, it is impossible to tell from the text: no original publication dates are given, which is a great shame.

All the essays date from the period around 1940, and the wartime context comes through clearly. There is a poignancy to reading Sayers’ criticism of Hitler knowing that worse was to come in the years immediately following. Sayers’ optimism about—and fears for—the post-war period also come through strongly: she hopes that the world will be better, but fears that many of the errors of the inter-war period will be repeated.

Some of the essays are better than others; some are long and some are short; some are very explicitly about Christian doctrine and the church, and others merely touch upon those topics. Most remain relevant and interesting to today’s reader, despite the passage of seventy years. Even where ideas in theology have moved on, there is a great deal which is still of interest.

The collection opens with The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, a short but intensely passionate apologia for the truth and relevance of Christian doctrine. She laments the fact that dogma is seen as dull and irrelevant: “If this is dull,” she asks, “then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting?” (p. 4) She bewails the lack of understanding of what Christian doctrine actually is: “Nobody is compelled to believe a single word of this remarkable story. God … has created us perfectly free to disbelieve in him as much as we choose. … All the same, if we are going to disbelieve a thing, it seems on the whole desirable that we should first find out what, exactly, we are disbelieving.” (p. 6)

In What do we believe?, she moves on to offer some brief comments on creedal statements, and in The Dogma is the Drama she considers some of the common misconceptions about and stereotypes of Christian doctrine and of Christians. The Image of God is a fascinating exploration of analogy, metaphor and creativity in the context of humankind’s relationship with God. It is followed by Creative Mind, which explores the nature of creativity and of poetic, as opposed to scientific, truth.

Creed or Chaos? returns to the theme of why doctrine matters, and considers it at greater length. Sayers considers not only what dogma is, but also its practical relevance to the average Christian. She reiterates her conviction that it is “a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and unpopular with no offense in it” (p. 58) before moving on to a consider Christian dogma regarding God, man, sin, judgement, matter, work and society. These are all themes that recur throughout the collection.

Strong Meat briefly considers Christianity as grown-up religion and religion for the grown-up, and is followed by The Other Six Deadly Sins, which reflects on the common error of equating sin with ‘proscribed sexual behaviour’ and then considers all seven of the traditional deadly sins . This is a fascinating study, made all the more so by its wartime context. The theme is continued in Christian Morality, in which Sayers pithily observes that “Disreputable people who knew they were disreputable were gently told [by Jesus] to go and sin no more; the really unparliamentary language was reserved for those thrifty, respectable and sabbatarian citizens who enjoyed Caesar’s approval and their own.” (p. 112) This essay is particularly interesting for its comment on the relationship between church and state in the matter of public morality, and on the church’s failure to condemn overproduction, acquisitiveness and systemic waste in society in the same way it condemns profligate living in the individual.

In The Triumph of Easter , Sayers turns her attention to free will, evil and judgement, and in Why Work? she returns to the issue of what Christianity has to say about work, productivity and macroeconomics. Again, this is very interesting for its historical context: Sayers comments on the profligacy and materialism of the 30s and the war economy. This is highly pertinent to today’s context, and were Sayers here today I think she would be fully entitled to look at the economic chaos of the last couple of years and say, ‘I told you so.’ I am not wholly convinced by all of Sayers’ conclusions regarding serving the community, but on the value of work and the nature of secular vocation I cannot fault her.

The next essay, Toward a Christian Aesthetic, is one of the more speculative pieces, and considers at some length the relationship between Christianity and the Arts. (It was also the nadir of one of the more irritating editorial decisions regarding this work: the adoption of American English spelling throughout. If Sayers did indeed write concerning ‘esthetic’ matters then I shall gladly take back this criticism, but I cannot for one moment imagine that she did so. The offence of ‘offense’ I could overlook, ‘theater’ I could just about tolerate, but the systematic deletion of the letter a from this essay drove me mad. Why must an Englishwoman’s magnificent prose be mutilated for an American audience? British English is perfectly comprehensible. )

The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil is interesting, but focuses more on literature than theology, as does The Writing and Reading of Allegory. Both of these are longer essays, and are likely to be of most interest to those with a background in literature. Interposed between these two, however, is a midget gem of an essay: A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus addresses the tendency to put Bible stories in a box and not to relate them to the rest of history. This is perhaps one of the more outdated essays, insofar as textual criticism and research into Biblical and Persian history have moved on over the last 70 years, but the mock literary review of John’s gospel is exceedingly funny.

The final essay, The Problem Picture returns to earlier themes: scientific and poetic truth, creativity, sin and redemption, literature, and how to address social problems. Sayers begins with the assertion that, “It has become abundantly clear of late years that something has gone seriously wrong with our conception of the humanity and of humanity’s proper attitude to the universe.” (p. 241) She argues that the root problem is a misunderstanding of how the world works: we have started to think that “all human experience may be presented in terms of a problem having a predictable, finite, complete and sole possible solution” (p. 248), and when we cannot find that solution we become angry and disappointed. Sayers posits that people try to treat life like a detective novel, without appreciating that the author has set up the novel in such a way as to be able to solve all the problems within it, and life is not like that. We cannot ‘solve’ death: we can merely postpone it and view it from a different perspective, she argues. We cannot resolve the tension between individual liberty and social order through a mathematical formula, but only by compromise. We cannot ‘solve’ unemployment until we readjust our thinking about the nature of work and the real value of money. We have been unable to ‘solve’ international conflict “because we looked at peace and security as a problem to be solved and not as a work to be made.” (P. 266)

This is a collection of essays that offers much food for thought. Some of the ideas Sayers puts forward are now outdated, but most remain as interesting, inspiring and relevant now as they were seventy years ago. It is subtitled ‘Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine’; it certainly includes that, but also offers a great deal more.

Recommended for those who like CS Lewis’s writings on Christianity, those who think it matters what Christians believe – and those who think it doesn’t matter what Christians believe. ( )
10 vote catherinestead | Oct 31, 2010 |
First, understand that when Sayers says “Church", she is referring to the Anglican communion, with an occasional nod towards Rome. Here is her basic tenet: that Christian dogma matters. It not only matters, but it is a thundering good story. This may seem obvious, but her point is that the modern (mid-twentieth century) church has, as she puts it, "run away from theology", and that, as a result, many, if not most, nominal Christians have very little idea about what it is that the Church really teaches.

This book is a collection of essays and talks written over a period of time (one very annoying thing about this edition is that it nowhere gives the dates of the essays). Sayers' writes about The Other Six Deadly Sins ("Perhaps the bitterest commentary on the way in which Christian doctrine has been taught in the last few centuries is the fact that to the majority of people the word immorality has come to mean one thing and one thing only."), The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil ("It is notorious that one of the great difficulties about writing a book or play about the Devil is to prevent that character from stealing the show"), and the relationship between work and religion.

Readers of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey will recognize in these essays many of the concerns that are raised in those mysteries, and will be reminded particularly of the philosophical discussions in Gaudy Night.

One word of warning: this book was very poorly edited, to the point where it at times affects readability. It's too bad.
  lilithcat | May 29, 2006 |
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What must a person believe to be a Christian? Dorothy Sayers lays out age-old doctrines without prettying-up or watering-down. She brings them vividly to life by showing how the Bible, history, literature, and modern science fit together to make religion not only possible but necessary in our time. So whether you are reading the great works of Western literature, thinking about your place in God's universe, or simply dealing with the thousand-and-one problems of daily living, this powerful book has words of both challenge and comfort for you. Excerpt: Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore--and this in the Name of One who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through this world like a flame.   Let us, in Heaven's name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction.

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