“Any stigma,” said a witty tongue, “will do to beat a dogma”; and the flails of ridicule have been brandished with such energy of late on the threshing-floor of controversy that the true seed of the Word has become well-nigh lost amid the whirling of chaff. Christ, in His Divine innocence, said to the Woman of Samaria, “Ye worship ye know not what”—being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama,” Strong Meat)
Dorothy Sayers wrote the above quote in June of 1939 in a small booklet meant to preface her essay, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged. I immediately thought of what Sayers wrote when I discovered that a PC (U.S.A.) teaching elder had noted the same gathering I wrote about in my last posting, “A dialogue: “Is Jesus the Way?”, the discernment dialogue in Los Ranchos Presbytery that brought together Laird Stuart, Jack Haberer and Dana Allin. The teaching elder in his posting, “When Dogma Dies,” had written:
Dogmatic religion is not interesting. Many of us are moving away from exclusive claims ("Jesus is the only way") and literalism ("bodily resurrection") at light speed. It will take a long time before official documents reflect the changes, but what these three guys are debating is akin to the number of angels dancing on a pin head.Sayers, after her opening statement, went on to explain that some young men who had watched her play, “The Zeal of Thy House,” thought that she had invented all of those parts which made the play so interesting, as she puts it:
That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the Eternal Word was suppose to be associated in any way with the work of Creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time Man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relationship to fact or bearing on psychological truth; that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh:--all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the Faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. (Italics the author’s)One is hampered when reading great literature without a foundation in both the biblical text and the dogma that arises from it. I still remember my excitement when reading a short story by the Southern writer Robert Penn Warren entitled “Black Berry Winter.” Embedded within the story is the fall of humanity, their ruin and depravity. It is all so familiar and yet all metaphor. But that is a story pulled, as Flannery O'Connor put it, from the Christ haunted landscape of the south, and it is biblical knowledge of human fallenness, eschalogical teaching on sin and helplessness and death that opens the meaning of the story.
And what of O’Connor’s short story, which I have written about in another place, “Parker’s Back.” The Incarnation and the dogma of the event shines clearly at the end, as Parker’s wife screams at him and his tattoo of Jesus’ face on his back. She screams that "God don’t look like that"—he is a spirit, as she denies the Incarnation. The story is about a man who lives carelessly and has too many tattoos but it is also about the Incarnation. It is dogma, an absolute, Christ is both God and man, hidden in a story. Uninteresting? Dead? Hardly!
Every anti-Christian word written, is written because the dogma, the drama, the absolutes are interesting enough to capture generations. As a character from a Charles Williams' novel puts it, “What else is there to talk about?” And another replies, “What indeed!”
At the end of her small essay, in which Sayers chastises Christians not pagans, she writes:
It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something a man might be glad to believe.
Picture by Ron Andersen