Jesus was for real. The challenge, for playright Dorothy Sayers, was to show that to her audience.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Take a 2,000-year-old story, probably the most famous and beloved story in the world. Find a way to tell it to an entire nation so that it seems fresh and compelling. And make sure that no one will be either bored at hearing it again, or offended that you're telling it in a new way.
How would you do it?
Accepting the Dare
In 1940, English detective novelist, playwright, and essayist Dorothy L. Sayers took up that challenge. The British Broadcasting Corporation had asked her to write a series of radio plays based on the gospel — the first time any actor would portray Jesus in England since the 17th century.
Two weeks before the first play was due to be broadcast, Dorothy read some samples of dialogue at a press conference. As her biographer Barbara Reynolds notes, the reaction was vehement in some quarters, with opponents denouncing her for acts of "irreverence bordering on the blasphemous."
Petitions were sent to the Prime Minister and to the Archbishop of Canterbury, urging them to use their influence to get the plays banned. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information was asked in the House of Commons if he was 'taking steps to revise the script of a series of plays on the life of Jesus ... so as to avoid offence to Christian feeling.' ... When Singapore fell to the Japanese the event was interpreted in the Press as a sign of God's judgment on Britain for allowing such blasphemy to be committed.
But Dorothy wasn't trying to commit blasphemy. She was using modern speech simply to bring to life a group of ancient people who were just like people of every place and time. As she saw it, Matthew the disciple, "a contemptible little quisling official . . . until something came to change his heart," easily might have said to a fellow disciple some Hebrew equivalent of the words that shocked the popular press: "Fact is, Philip my boy, you've been had for a sucker." If people could hear the story in their own everyday language, Dorothy reasoned, they would come to realize that "God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own."
When the plays aired, after much wrangling with the BBC and British religious authorities, Dorothy's viewpoint was justified. Most of the audience responded with delight and, more importantly, deeper understanding. Clergymen and unchurched people alike told her how much the plays had meant to them. Dorothy's friend C.S. Lewis said of the series years later, "I have re-read it in every Holy Week since it first appeared, and never re-read it without being deeply moved." And Reynolds wrote in 1993, "Thousands are still alive who heard the broadcasts when they were young and whose lives were lastingly affected by them. . . . It was a great evangelistic undertaking, an unprecedented achievement in religious education and one which has never since been equalled."
That was the same year I fell in love with the plays, collectively titled The Man Born to Be King, in a college class. I would encourage every Christian to read them. But almost as significant as the plays themselves is the story of how they were written.
That's because the challenge posed to Dorothy Sayers is the challenge posed to every Christian. Although the world has changed greatly during the past 60 years, some things have remained the same. Just as in Dorothy's time, many people know nothing about the gospel. Many others are hostile toward it. And still others have heard it so many times without giving it one serious thought that they might as well not know it. So the task falls to every one of us to share the story in the most compelling way that we can. This being the case, we can learn a lot from the way Dorothy handled that task.
Share Your Inadequacies
In some ways, Dorothy was the last person you'd expect to undertake such unconventional evangelism. As a "high church" Anglican, she had little interest in altar calls and none at all in public displays of religious emotion. And although she had been a believer for most of her life, she had strayed from the Christian life in the past, having given birth to an illegitimate son at age 30. She also confessed to struggling with her own "intellectual and spiritual pride, vainglory, self-opinionated dogmatism . . . polemical fury, shortness of temper," and much more.
On the other hand, all this meant that she clearly understood the need for God's grace. Consider a speech she wrote for Mary Magdalen after the crucifixion:
The Master's the only good man I ever met who knew how miserable it felt to be bad. It was as if he got right inside you, and felt all the horrible things you were doing to yourself. . . . But I don't suppose Judas ever let him in. He was too proud. I think it was harder for him than for people like Matthew and me and that poor robber on the cross. We know we're so awful anyhow that it's no good pretending we're not, even to ourselves.
How many of us are willing to admit that? I remember attending a Christian high school where everyone was so obsessed with being perfect that you'd think they didn't even need a Savior. Like many people, they seemed to think the most important part of the Christian life is presenting a squeaky-clean front to the world. But as my pastor once remarked in a sermon, sharing the gospel has to mean sharing our own inadequacies. The truth is that each one of us is an unlikely evangelist, unable to help ourselves — let alone anyone else — except by God's grace and power.
Use Your Gifts
Oddly enough, though Dorothy enjoyed writing religious dramas and essays, she didn't consider evangelism her "proper job." Her role in life, she believed, was that of a storyteller, and she got fed up with appeals to make speeches, participate in debates, and share her testimony. Writing to Lewis about her attempts to explain Christianity to a confused atheist, she complained, "You like souls. I don't. God is simply taking advantage of the fact that I can't stand intellectual chaos, and it isn't fair."
That attitude seems unusual today. But Dorothy may have had a better basic understanding of the gifts given to each Christian than many of us. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord." Not all of us are good at writing, or public speaking, or door-to-door visitation, or even handing out tracts. Yet all of us have the responsibility of sharing Christ with unbelievers. So we each have to discover our own gifts — both talents and spiritual gifts.
Maybe you're an artist, a musician, or an athlete. Maybe you're planning to go into accounting or to become a scientist. Perhaps you like to work with children or the elderly, or spend time with the sick, or counsel abortion-minded women or disturbed teenagers, or serve meals to the homeless. It doesn't matter what your gifts are; the important thing is that you find them and use them to obey the One who gave them to you.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that we have to trust God to use us in the way that He chooses — because although He wants us to use our gifts, He also has a way of springing surprises on us. As Dorothy discovered with her atheist, it's amazing what we can accomplish when we let God stretch our boundaries.
Know Whom You Have Believed
It seems incredible now that such a fuss was made over a few words of slang in Dorothy's plays. Yet I know Christians today with that same fussy attitude — people who are downright disturbed by the suggestion that Jesus ever may have laughed. Perhaps we've seen too many travesties like The Last Temptation of Christ to be enthusiastic about fresh approaches to the story. But too often, we err in the opposite direction, making it seem dull, conventional, sentimental — in a word, safe.
"To make of His story something that could neither startle, nor shock, nor terrify, nor excite, nor inspire a living soul is to crucify the Son of God afresh and put Him to an open shame," Dorothy wrote. "Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest drama in history." If we can't remember what Jesus is really like, how can we explain to the rest of the world that He loves and understands them? Why would they be interested in a remote figure in a stained glass window who seems hopelessly far from their immediate realities, a Man who stalked the earth with nothing but a frown on His face?
Have we forgotten who Jesus was and what He came to do? He was God incarnate — living on earth as a human being. He ate, drank, wept, suffered, and triumphed, and incidentally made some of the wittiest, most profound statements ever uttered. And the dregs of society — the very people we would expect to avoid Him — came to Him in droves. If they don't anymore, is it His fault or ours?
'The Life Was With You'
Again, Dorothy's Mary Magdalen gets to the heart of the matter when she says to Jesus in the seventh play,
Did you know? My companions and I came there that day to mock you. We thought you would be sour and grim, hating all beauty and treating all life as an enemy. But when I saw you, I was amazed. You were the only person there that was really alive. The rest of us were going about half-dead—making the gestures of life, pretending to be real people. The life was not with us but with you—intense and shining, like the strong sun when it rises and turns the flames of our candles to pale smoke. And I wept and was ashamed, seeing myself such a thing of trash and tawdry. But when you spoke to me, I felt the flame of the sun in my heart. I came alive for the first time. And I love life all the more since I have learnt its meaning.
May that meaning come alive in our own hearts, that we might share it with a world in need.
Copyright 2002 Gina R. Dalfonzo. All rights reserved.