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Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Whimsical Christian

CHRISTIAN CLASSICS REVISITED

By James J. Thompson Jr. | October 1983

I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers’s Christian apologetics in a roundabout way. This robust En­glishwoman of many and diverse talents first at­tracted my attention when someone forced upon me one of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels; not being a devotee of tales of detection, I was unimpressed. (I freely confess that some terrible flaw of charac­ter, or perhaps a serious malfunction of the ratiocinative segment of my brain, prevents me from relishing even the sleuthing of Chesterton’s Father Brown.) Halfway through a reading of Dante’s Di­vine Comedy I realized that the translator — one Dorothy L. Sayers — was the same lady who had created Lord Peter. My estimate of her rose dra­matically: anyone who would lavish a labor of love upon Dante would have to be a person of elevated and sound thinking. I then happened upon several essays in literary criticism by Miss Sayers; they re­vealed an exceptional critic, one who discerned a reflection of the Divine Creator in man’s efforts to create. Finally I made my way to her writings on religion — Dorothy L. Sayers captured me once and for all.

In singling out one of Sayers’s works as a Christian classic one is bound to offend many of her enthusiasts, each of whom insists that his favor­ite is Sayers’s best book. I shall skirt this furious debate (a coward’s way out, perhaps) by choosing as my own candidate a volume of 18 essays drawn from a number of her books. The Whimsical Chris­tian, published by Macmillan in 1978 (it appeared originally from Eerdmans in 1969 under the title Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World), in­cludes selections from four of Sayers’s books, as well as several pieces she wrote for Punch maga­zine in the 1950s. This is not a mere pastiche thrown together by a publisher to cash in on a dead author’s fame. The Whimsical Christian is a classic in its own right.

One discovers in these essays a Dorothy L. Sayers at the pinnacle of her powers. All the traits that made her a master of apologetics are present: the mordant wit with which she skewered two gen­erations of secularists; the dazzling erudition that enabled her to claim as her province the whole of Western civilization from the ancient Greeks and Hebrews to the latest findings of 20th-century sci­ence; the unerring ability to forge metaphors that suddenly illuminate a difficult topic with the light of understanding; the unwavering devotion to rea­son and common sense; the talent for infusing the oft-repeated (and oft-misunderstood) doctrines of the Church with a renewed vigor. The breadth and diversity of these essays do not prevent the emer­gence of a guiding theme: the defense of the funda­mentals of the faith, both against secularists from without and lukewarm Christians from within. From first to last, from “Selections from ‘The Pan­theon Papers’” — a satire on humanism (“I believe in man, maker of himself…”) — to “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil” — a penetrating examination of Western man’s fascination with the Prince of the Dark Realms — The Whimsical Chris­tian provides the unadulterated pleasure of watch­ing the workings of a powerful Christian mind.

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