Book Review: The Artist and the Trinity

On any list of my favorite authors, Dorothy Sayers is near the top. I’ve been a fan, especially of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, for years. I still remember walking into a used book store Before the Internet to see if they had any more copies of her mysteries. When I told the proprietor what I was searching for, he remarked that authors never could manage to get novels out fast enough for their fans. I told him that the author in question had been dead for forty years. (Sixty-five, now. Time flies.)

Sayers is, of course, also an extremely important author to the faith and work movement, and “Why Work?”, though it does get overused, is a great example of her wit and her take-no-prisoners thinking. (Read “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” sometime if you want another wonderful example.) So I was pleased to encounter a full-length academic study of her theology, The Artist and the Trinity by Christine Fletcher. While the ultimate goal of the book is to explain Sayers’ “Trinitarian anthropology of the person,” and “the ethics of work which develops from that anthropology,” it also deals at length with Sayers’ views of gender and work. Fletcher begins the book by explaining that she herself is deeply concerned with the question “What is women’s work?”

 In the Mommy wars of the 1980s many Christians equated being a good mother with being a stay-at-home mother, as part of God’s plan. Sayers offered an alternative vision which was based on the most basic doctrines of Christianity, the Incarnation and the Trinity. Her life-long fascination with the Athanasian Creed informed all of her writing: mysteries, drama, translations and essays. She saw that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity rightly understood and applied to life result in a respect for creation and human work, and ground human solidarity.

This is a good book to read if you’ve never heard of Sayers, if you already love one aspect of her work (as novelist, playwright, or theologian), or even if you are familiar with all of her work. It begins with a summary of her life and writings, giving particular attention to themes of work, vocation, and gender, and (although Sayers has been lucky in her biographer) is a great short introduction to her as a person and an author.

The next chapter, which is probably my favorite, talks about themes of work in Sayers’ fiction and drama. Work is in fact quite central to the Wimsey mysteries. Lord Peter does not need to work for a living, and worries frequently about whether he is called to be a detective. He and other characters think about their vocations quite a bit, and Gaudy Night in particular contains Harriet Vane’s extended meditations on what work she is called to and how marriage enters into it. Sayers’ plays for stage and radio also center around questions of work, vocation, integrity, and calling for both sexes: “In the detective novels she critiques the gender stereotypes of her day, and shows what a relationship of true equality might look like. In her religious plays, she could be more explicit about the dogma that was the framework for the drama.”

From this, Fletcher moves into discussing Sayers’ religious nonfiction, much of it commissioned by her fellow Anglicans to defend the Christian faith in the context of war. (There’s an essay out there waiting to be written comparing Sayers and C. S. Lewis as wartime lay apologists.) The chapter explains what she wrote and how her participation in the 1941 Malvern Conference established her as a theological force to be reckoned with, though not without controversy because she was a layperson (and a woman). Her specific contribution to the conference again centered around vocation:  “Sayers, like Temple [the Archbishop of York who had invited her to participate], held a sacramental view of creation, saw that the Church was not to be identified with any particular social system, and made a strong case for the independence and integrity of all human work.”

The next section explains the coherent anthropology which can be discerned from all of Sayers’ work. For Sayers “man is homo faber, he bears the image of God in his ability and desire to create;” and furthermore, for Sayers this calling is absolutely true of both genders. Though Sayers did not deny differences between genders, she was far more interested in what we are called to do as humans. Both men and women should do whatever work they are called to and most suited for. Everyone equally bears the image of God, and if women bearing the image of God and fulfilling their callings threatens men, that is caused by living in a fallen world. Finally, that image of God in us is Trinitarian, and Sayers referred more than once to the Idea, Energy, and Power inherent in any human endeavor and calling. Fletcher summarizes her thought:

The Idea, the end in the beginning, is the life-long search for God; the Energy, the working out of the Idea, is life on earth in its difficulties and limitations; the Power, the response, is in the bond within the Body of Christ, the Church, in communion with humanity and God.

In the last chapter, Fletcher compares Sayers’ ideas of what makes good work done with integrity to Alasdair MacIntyre’s idea of virtue developed through practices. Reading them together, Fletcher finds, helps “uncover resources within the natural law tradition to develop a theology and ethic of work which properly values the work of care and the practice of the family in a gender neutral way,” and it also helps us critique and respond to the fact that “businesses as institutions in modern capitalism work against creating a community of virtue.”

I came away from the book convinced that Sayers’ status as a faith and work theologian is not overrated, although it’s clear from encountering Fletcher’s argument that there are a whole bunch of things Sayers wrote we need to be reading, assigning, and grappling with besides “Why Work?” (I’d love to see a college class on vocation read Gaudy Night as one of their assignments!) I don’t think Fletcher is overestimating the importance of gender to Sayers. I think sometimes we (the modern FWE movement “we”) underestimate how important it needs to be for us, although we’re getting better. Sayers should be one of the thinkers at the forefront of how we consider that question.

 

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