Book Review: Creed or Chaos? – By Dorothy L. Sayers

Sayers Creed or ChaosLetter DDorothy L. Sayers is an author whom I sorta randomly stumbled upon. I had seen her books in the library, and had heard this book mentioned once in a lecture, but had never read her and had never really heard much about her. However as I started looking around at information on her my curiosity was piqued, and so I picked up this book.

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The book opens with the powerful assertion that “We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.”(p3) And this is one of the chief goals of the text, to outline the Christian faith, to demonstrate not only its relevance but its brilliance.

It is an argument for a creed, for a dogma – simply, for a conscious philosophy and theology (both for the nonbeliever and the believer). Thus, “if we are going to disbelieve a thing, it seems on the whole to be desirable that we should first find out what, exactly, we are disbelieving”(p8) and not only is this knowledge desirable for disbelief, but belief and worship all the more.

Creed or Chaos? is a brilliant book much in the vein of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or Lewis’ Mere Christianity, an attempt to outline the essentials of orthodox Christianity in vibrant and compelling fashion. These creeds and dogma are not boring, but quite the opposite, and not only are they not boring but they are life altering and awe inspiring. The political and religious context of Sayers’ war-time era during WWII is clearly seen in the text and brings all the more life to her words, seeing that they are clearly grounded not only in a strong philosophy but a strong experience of life and practicality regarding the world, thus she is able to draw parallels with the world events and trace causal relations between nations and sins in a way rarely seen today.

Sayers covers the topics of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the doctrines of God, man, sin, judgement, work and society. This general discussion is followed by a more in-depth and lucid essay on the proper role of work, and finally an analysis of the seven deadly sins.

All in all this book is an excellent discourse on Christianity aimed at the layman and written by a layman. It gives the practical relevance of dogma, of absolutes, and of knowing what you believe, with tons of insights tucked in between.

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Memorable Quotes:

-“But if He really was both God and man, then when the man Jesus died, God died too, and when the God Jesus rose from the dead, man rose too, because they were one and the same person.”(P8)

-“If spiritual pastors are to refrain from saying anything that might ever, by any possibility, be misunderstood by anybody, they will end -as in fact many of them do – by never saying anything worth hearing.”(p11)

-“God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it. He did not stop the Crucifixion: He rose from the dead.”(p17)

-“It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is.”(p20)

-“Finally, there are the more or less instructed churchgoers, who know all the arguments about divorce and auricular confession and communion in two kinds, but are about as well equipped to do battle on fundamentals against a Marxian atheist or a Wellsian agnostic as a boy with a peashooter facing a fanfire of machine guns.”(p32)

-“But if Christian dogma is irrelevant to life, to what, in Heaven’s name is it relevant? – since religious dogma is in fact nothing but a statement of doctrines concerning the nature of life and the universe.”(p35)

-“Teachers and preachers never make it sufficiently clear, I think, that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying a bout of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy.”(p40)

-“When the war broke out, I was very must distressed about [the baby], because I found I was taking it for granted that life ought to be better and easier fro him than it had been for my generation. Then I realized that I had no right to take this for granted at all – that the fight between good and evil must be the same for him as it had always been, and then I ceased to feel so much distressed.”(p46)

-“The fallacy being that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only something he does in order to obtain money and leisure… That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.”(p52, 63)

-“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand.”(p64)

-“It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred… The only Christian work is good work well done.”(p76, 78)

-“Nine-tenths of the bad plays put on in theaters owe their badness to the fact that the playwright has aimed at pleasing his audience, instead of at producing a good and satisfactory play.”(p82)

-“Civilization was finally debunked till it had not a rag left to cover its nakedness.”(p106)

-“[Sloth] is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”(p108)

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Specific Criticism

One small criticism I have is Sayers’ statement that Paul, Augustine and Calvin are all in part to blame (an in increasing manner) for the idea that matter and the body are evil. On this point I really think Sayers is simply ignorant of the writers she is criticizing. Augustine helped sex to be viewed as the primary sin, but he saw evil as an absence of good, not in any necessary way connected with matter or the body. Calvin as well keeps far away from this gnostic view of the spirit/body division.

One idea which I was unsure of was Sayers’ idea that ‘It is the worker’s duty to serve the work.’ This isn’t necessarily a criticism, I simply don’t see the value or rationale in looking at it in this manner, although I do think that Sayers’ overall theory of work is quite admirable.

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Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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