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The Plays C. S. Lewis Read Every Year for Holy Week

Familiarity breeds complacency well before it breeds contempt. When was the last time you noticed the color of your living room? How long since you’ve delighted in the flavor of the “new” recipe you’ve cooked every two weeks for the past two years? Even if you lived on the rim of the Grand Canyon, you’d eventually take the scenery for granted.

Similarly, if we’re not careful, the grandeur of the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection can become boring. Consistently walking through Scripture brings great blessing, but without careful attention, our familiarity with the gospel will lead to complacency.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s cycle of 12 radio dramas, The Man Born to Be King, offers an opportunity to disrupt the routine. Sayers was a mystery writer in the golden age of detective fiction whose novels and short stories about Lord Peter Wimsey remain popular today. She turned her attention to writing dramas for stage and radio in the 1930’s and eventually shifted her focus to translating Dante’s divine comedy into English. Originally broadcast in 1941 and 1942, The Man Born to be King is a succinct harmonization of the canonical Gospels that continues to move readers (or listeners) beyond seeing Christ’s teachings as “detached pronouncements unrelated to the circumstances that called them forth.”

C. S. Lewis, writing in a letter, celebrated how “D. Sayers [sic] Man Born to be King has edified us in this country more than anything for a long time.” The cycle of plays was so significant that he noted in 1958, “I have re-read it in every Holy Week since it first appeared, and never re-read it without being deeply moved.” High praise, and for good reason.

Concrete Content

The first play opens with the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem. Revolutionary rumors are in the air as two courtiers play dice, highlighting the attempted coup by Herod’s son Antipater. That background, often the historical garnish of evangelical sermons, takes concrete form in these plays, explaining Herod’s call for the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.

Without careful attention, our familiarity with the gospel will lead to complacency.

With his household full of traitors, Herod cannot allow the rumor to go out that there’s a man born to be king who is, as one of the three wise men describes him, “Prouder than Caesar, more humble than his slave: his kingdom shall stretch from the sun’s setting to the sun’s rising, higher than the heavens, deeper than the grave, and narrow as the human heart.”

Dramatic representation of the life of Jesus requires interpretation and ornamentation, of course. So we get James reluctantly obeying Jesus at the feeding of the 5,000:

Better put a bold face on it. . . . Now you people! The Rabbi knows you’ve come a long way and you must be tired and hungry. We didn’t expect such a large party and we can’t invite you to a banquet—only some bread and fish. But our Master makes you welcome to what we’ve got.

And imagined dialogue must be used to move the story along. Thus the man born blind (John 9), named Jacob in the drama, laments in a distinct dialect,

Well! . . . Funny world ain’t it? Turned out of ‘ouse and ‘ome at this time o’ night. . . . All very well to talk about gettin’ a job, but ‘oo’s goin’ to employ a bloke what’s been kicked out o’ the synagogue?

We see, through Sayers’s imaginative depiction, this working-class, formerly blind man experience the world in entirely new ways:

Excuse me, but ‘ave you every looked at the moon? Really to look at it, I mean? You wouldn’t think anything could be as pretty as that, if you wasn’t ‘ardened to it, in a manner of speaking. Think what you’d feel if it come all fresh to you, like it does to me—fresh as the day it was created.

We, as the formerly blind man suggests, can become hardened to the world because of our familiarity—we’re often complacent, too, about the jaw-dropping drama of the gospel. Sayers can help us see it “fresh as the day it was created,” which is the overall effect of the cycle of plays that ends with the wonder of Christ’s ascension after he issues the Great Commission. This imaginative approach makes these stories concrete again.

Public Controversy

The modern dialogue that brings the story to life led to controversy, as Sayers predicted in her early discussions with the BBC director who commissioned the plays:

The only difficulty I foresee is in a right choice of language. It would not, of course, be suitable to give to Christ any speeches which do not appear in the Scriptures, but if all the other characters ‘talk Bible’, the realism will be lost, whereas if they talk modern English we may get a patchwork effect.

Before a single syllable was read on the radio, public outcry arose. Word got out (and was exaggerated by some journalists) that Sayers used language not drawn from the Authorized Version. Additionally, some worried the divine Christ was being represented, which they held violated the prohibition against graven images.

Yet because it was a radio drama, where an actor read the words of Christ (which Sayers translated from the Greek herself), the production and broadcast went on as planned. “Not a single alteration was made to appease the organised opposition,” a BBC official claimed.

A few minor changes were made to limit the use of some contemporary slang terms. However, the substance remained intact. As in many public controversies, the more debatable issues—like Sayers’s invented political motivations for Judas’s betrayal of Jesus or her choice of chronology in the timing of the Last Supper—were obscured behind a cloud of superficial complaints. Concerns about form were prioritized over meaningful discussions about content.

Though Sayers suffered from the slings and arrows of outrageous public controversy, she largely achieved the desired result. Millions heard the original broadcast and Christ became real for them for the first time. Many knew about some “fairy tale” figure known as Jesus who spoke in Elizabethan English, yet as a secretary who typed out the manuscripts wrote, “I never believed Christ really lived!”

Doctrinal Drama

Sayers saw these radio plays as “an admirable medium through which to break down the convention of unreality surrounding Our Lord’s person” and  thought they “might very well pave the way to a more vivid conception of the Divine Humanity which, at present, threatens to be lost in a kind of Apollinarian mist.”

She was trying to bring the strong meat of Christian doctrine into the public imagination because, as she argues in “Creed or Chaos?,” “The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.”

Sayers allowed the doctrinal content of Christianity, as represented in the Gospels, to shock the audience.

Sayers allowed the doctrinal content of Christianity, as represented in the Gospels, to shock the audience.

She notes, “It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.” Her work was to faithfully transpose the Gospel stories into a modern idiom to strip away the mystique of regal-sounding language, which distracts from the electric truth. As she wrote,

It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.

This is precisely what Sayers does in The Man Born to Be King, which is why I, like Lewis, regularly revisit these plays. They disrupt my complacency about the spectacular story of the gospel, the A to Z of the Christian faith.


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