Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Farewell Dorothy L. Sayers

After reading the sound bite, "Farewell Rob Bell," I went back and read what John Piper said that Dorothy Sayers said.  It was his Dorothy Sayers soundbite, on hell, on the Hell, on The One True Hell, of course.   In this post, I'd like to look at that with you.

(But, in a quick parenthetical paragraph, let me also warn that pinning down Dorothy L. Sayers on Hell is a bit like pinning down Jesus on Hell.  What Sayers and Jesus said about men -- especially religious men -- mistreating women is much clearer and just as passionate as any of their teachings on Hell, we might agree.  Thus, the title of this post here really could have been:  "The Hells of Dorothy L. Sayers."  On that, I'll try to say more in a moment.  For now, we're listening again to John Piper.)

John Piper produced his Sayers essay on the web in May 2000 ["By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org"].  He entitled it, "Dorothy Sayers on Why Hell Is a Non-Negotiable."  He reproduced it for sale in his subsequent book Pierced by the Word: Thirty-One Meditations for Your Soul, which his publisher started marketing and then selling on September 11, 2003.

Piper opens the Sayers On Hell essay by saying, "Today belongs to the soundbite; tomorrow belongs to marketing; eternity belongs to the Truth."  Then he warns against "truths," and he reiterates, singularly, that his readers be inclined toward divine truth:   "O may God give us a humble, submissive love for the truth of God's word in the depth and fullness of it. "  Then he warns with the first of an accumulation of quotations:  first "God's word" twice "in the depth and fullness" of two verses from Paul.  The first verse is:  "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires."  After Paul, Piper has another man teach his readers:  "Clark Pinnock, a Canadian theologian who still calls himself an evangelical."  This, then, prepares readers for Sayers.

What Piper says that Sayers says is this:
Dorothy Sayers, who died in 1957, speaks a necessary antidote to this kind of abandonment of truth.
There seems to be a kind of conspiracy, especially among middle-aged writers of vaguely liberal tendency, to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of Hell comes from. One finds frequent references to the "cruel and abominable mediaeval doctrine of hell," or "the childish and grotesque mediaeval imagery of physical fire and worms." . . .
But the case is quite otherwise; let us face the facts. The doctrine of hell is not " mediaeval": it is Christ's. It is not a device of "mediaeval priestcraft" for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ's deliberate judgment on sin. The imagery of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire derives, not from "mediaeval superstition," but originally from the Prophet Isaiah, and it was Christ who emphatically used it. . . . It confronts us in the oldest and least "edited" of the gospels: it is explicit in many of the most familiar parables and implicit in many more: it bulks far larger in the teaching than one realizes, until one reads the Evangelists [gospels] through instead of picking out the most comfortable texts: one cannot get rid of it without tearing the New Testament to tatters. We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ. (Dorothy Sayers, A Matter of Eternity, ed. Rosamond Kent Sprague [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973], p. 86)
I would only add: There are many other things which, if abandoned, will also mean the eventual repudiation of Christ. It is not out of antiquarian allegiance that we love the truth - even the hard ones. It is out of love to Christ - and love to the people that only the Christ of truth can save.

Longing to love people with the truth,

Pastor John

© Desiring God

And that's it.  Truth wins.
Well, that's almost it. As you might have guessed, there's more. Dorothy L. Sayers wrote much on Hell. Famously, she translated Dante's Inferno, which she rendered Hell.  Yes, of course, she was interested in  frequent references to the "cruel and abominable mediaeval doctrine of hell."  She was also interested in fiction of all kinds, writing much herself.

For example, here's from one of Sayers's novels:
"For God's sake, old man, do what you can to put the thing right before next assizes.  If you don't, I'll never forgive you.  Damn it, you don't want to hang the wrong person, do you?--especially a woman and all that."

"Have a fag," said Parker.  "You're looking quite wild about the eyes.  What have you been doing with yourself?  I'm sorry if we've got the wrong pig by the ear, but it's the defense's business to point out where we're wrong, and I can't say they put up a very convincing show."

"No, confound them.  Biggy did his best, but that fool and beast Crofts gave him no materials at all.  Blast his ugly eyes!  I know the brute thinks she did it.  I hope he will fry in hell and be served up with cayenne pepper on a redhot dish!"

"What eloquence!" said Parker, unimpressed.  "Anybody would think you'd gone goopy over the girl."
What is interesting about this particular quotation from Sayers's novel, (Strong Poison, page 56) is how she's having men reference Hell.  It's clear to any reader of Jesus's gospels that she's riffing off of them.  You got the allusions to "that fool" and before that to "ugly eyes" - didn't you?  Jesus said that any man who called his brother fool would go to Hell; Jesus also said that any man who lusted, even with one ugly eye, after a woman would go to Hell too.  And here's a guy, a man, a character in some of Sayers's fiction with a farewell hope of hot hell for someone else who is mishandling the truth.  It's soundbites and soundbites about soundbites and the art of persuasion of men.  So has John Piper gone goopy over Dorothy Sayers?

What Piper doesn't say about the woman Dorothy L. Sayers is what she said about the hell that religious men put women in on earth.  But since we're already risking accumulating teachers and cherry picking quotations as soundbites for truths and fictions, as if love wins, then we might as well listen a little more to Ms. Sayers.  Just a warning:  the following won't tickle your ears much; it doesn't sound too much like a CBMW or a John Piper soundbite.

Here's one of her hells - one of the true truths of Dorothy L. Sayers - who complains about what men, religious men, have said about women:
      Women are not human.  They lie when they say they have human needs:  warm and decent clothing; comfort in the bus; interests directed immediately to God and His universe, not intermediately through any child of man.  They are far above man to inspire him, far beneath him to corrupt him; they have feminine minds and feminine natures, but their mind is not one with their nature like the minds of men; they have no human mind and no human nature.  "Blessed be God," says the Jew [a man of course], "that hath not made me a woman."
       God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church [of Christian men of course] is reluctant to endorse it.  I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, to explain away its text.  Mary's, of course, was the better part--the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him.  But we will be careful not to despise Martha.  No doubt, He approved of her too.  We could not get on without her, and indeed (have paid lip-service to God's opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her.  For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.
       Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross.  They had never known a man like this Man -- there never has been such another.   A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them as either "The women, God help us!" or "The ladies, God bless them!": who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious.  There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything "funny" about woman's nature.
       But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day [of course mainly men].  Women are not human:  nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.
(pages 66-69, Are Women Human)


Peter Kirk said...

I love this! Of course there is quite some irony in Piper quoting a woman, Sayers, in support of Bible teaching. Surely to be consistent he should have condemned her for daring to put pen to paper on such matters. But perhaps he is just as much a hypocrite on these matters as I accused Reform of being.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for your comment, Peter. Yes, it's irony, and your point that Piper "should" have condemned her (Sayers) for "writing" (and writing for him) is spot on.

Thank you also for linking to your post. (I wasn't blogging in Feb. and had missed it. Your commenter, TC Keene, doesn't seem to recall the histories against women writers. His point about Aristotle's extant works not being his own - but his students' alone - is lame if highly disputed and unconfirmable. Of course and indeed, not one of us ever has written in a vacuum; there is no original word or thought.) A woman with authority - an authoress as author - telling men not to learn from her, now that, as Doug Chaplin notes in his mention of your post, is delicious irony.

Kristen said...

I would love to hear what Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey would say about John Piper. Lord Peter who finally won his bride by bending his will and his pride, to apologize to her for his sense of privilege that made him think she would eventually give in to him if he just pursued her long enough. Lord Peter who after saving her from the gallows (at the end of the novel you quoted), gave her life back to her two novels later by letting her risk it in the search for truth, as any male hero of a novel would. Lord Peter, who finally won Harriet's heart by treating her as his full, functional equal in every area of his life.

Lord Peter would have only one word to say about a man who would counsel a woman to submit "for a season" to being abused by a man. "Cad." It's an old word, and perhaps one that should be revived.