Friday, May 17, 2013

Karl Barth & Dorothy Sayers

Last month I attended a  fascinating lecture by David McNutt at the Marion E. Wade Center on “"A Surprising Correspondence: Dorothy L. Sayers and Karl Barth on Artistic Creativity." You can listen to the lecture here.

Sometime in the late 1930’s, one of Karl Barth’s English theology students gave him a collection of essays by Dorothy Sayers. It turns out Barth was already familiar with Sayers having learned English partly through reading her detective novels. But, he liked the essays enough to write her an appreciative letter which led to a brief exchange of letters between the two in 1939 just as WW II was breaking out.
Given Barth’s strict Reformed theology and Sayers’ Anglo-Catholicism, it seems an unlikely correspondence. As one might imagine, while Barth was mostly appreciative of Sayers’ articulation of the Christian vision, he was not wholly uncritical. For example, he suggests she has a (very Anglican) tendency toward semi-Pelagianism. Still, he appreciated her work enough to translate into German and publish in 1959 – two years after her death – two of her essays on Christianity. In the introduction to those essays, he wrote:

She vigorously made the message of the gospel her own in breathless astonishment about its central content and in a way that was open to the world but undaunted and quick-witted without any hint of apology – but above all: joyfully and in a way bringing joy, she produced stimulating work, and regardless of what one might think of its individual statements, we may be thankful.

One can only pray that God will raise up Christians in our day, lay and ordained, about whom something similar can be said.

In one of her letters to Barth in 1939, Sayers wrote of her own work:
All I try to do is tell people that the creeds are not arbitrary formulae; that they were intended to mean something, and do still mean something.”

Again, one might pray for reclamation of such confidence among preachers and teachers of the Church.


Bob Kusiolek said...

Father Matt,

You've reminded me: there is a quote from Barth, 'Men have never been good, they are not good, they never will be good,' which is usually sourced to a Time magazine article. Indeed, no Pelagian (or Semipelagian) was he! (Of course, I'm sure that, being Barth, he meant that in the nicest possible way!) :-)

As an aside, I thought your recent "moist robot" sermon in which you took Daniel Dennett and the "Brights" to task was excellent.

Bob Kusiolek

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Bob.

That does sound like classic Barth, bless his fuzzy little heart. And, yes, it was probably meant in the nicest possible way and with a twinkle in his eye.

Much as I appreciate Barth, I think I am more like Sayers. And whatever her semi-Pelagian tendencies, she is not sentimental about human sinfulness and brokenness. In 'Creed or Chaos' she wrote, "There is a deep interior dislocation at the very center human personality." Not quite as emphatic as Barth, but she is clear that we need a Savior.

I am glad you liked the sermon.