In January I agreed to participate in a gathering at the local brewery in my small town. Each Thursday, about a dozen people buy pints and sit around an armchair where a designated reader reads from the work of an author. I chose Dorothy L. Sayers’s famous essay “Why Work?” Sitting under the tall lamp, inhaling hops and keeping my coat on because of the cool night air, I began slowly. “Sayers wrote and delivered this as a lecture eighty years ago,” I said by way of context. A white-haired woman turned to her daughter and whispered, “I was in second grade that year.”
We sat and absorbed Sayers’s logic as it unspooled aloud, all of us transported to 1942 London. Sayers was writing in the middle of war when rationing and communal sacrifice were a necessity on the part of British citizens. She argued that their efforts at conservation and purposeful work should not be a temporary situation. Rather, the requirements of the crisis had provided them a pause in which to reconceive the default social system, which had led not only to waste in vast amounts but also to unsatisfying work.
For Sayers, human beings are created to be workers, but that work should be profoundly fulfilling. She opposed the Fascist and Communist perspectives that each person does equal work without discerning personal calling, capabilities, or fulfillment. Instead, she argued, work should be “the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.” Sayers saw all work as equal, from brewing to farming to retail service to art. What was needed was human beings who worked in order to live and who served the work placed before them.
In the middle of my reading her essay aloud, an unexpected gasp rippled through the pub. One woman raised her hand and asked, “Could you read that again?” So I did. Said Sayers: “‘Service’ is the motto of the advertiser, of big business, and of fraudulent finance. And of others, too. Listen to this: ‘I expect the judiciary to understand that the nation does not exist for their convenience, but that justice exists to serve the nation.’” A pause, as Sayers must have observed. And then: “That was Hitler yesterday.”
The gasp had given way to silence. What did it mean that Hitler had approved a sentiment that we, too, would approve? Surely the dictum that “it is everybody’s duty to serve the community” (as Sayers paraphrased the “popular catchphrase” of the day) is a natural companion to the second great commandment, to love one’s neighbor. What was Sayers getting at?
In the same year of this lecture, Sayers’s friend C.S. Lewis wrote “First and Second Things”. He, too, was responding to the Nazis, but he pulled no punches with his own countrymen. Condemning the Brits, he wrote, “Just like the Nazis, but valuing too highly a real, but subordinate good, we have come near to losing that good itself.” Lampooning the British obsession with “civilization,” he wrote:
To preserve civilization has been the great aim; the collapse of civilization, the great bugbear. Peace, a high standard of life, hygiene, transport, science and amusement—all these, which are what we usually mean by civilization, have been our ends. . . . To be sure, if it were true that civilization will never be safe till it is put second, that immediately raises the question, second to what? What is the first thing?
Sayers was exploring the same question. “The catch,” she wrote, framing Hitler’s logic in sharp relief, “which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends upon the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare.” In other words, service to the community becomes idolatry when community is placed second to the work itself.
For Sayers, work well done was worship. It was the means by which you lived into God’s image. In The Mind of the Maker (1941), Sayers starts by highlighting what we know of God at the moment when the Trinity makes us in God’s image. By the culmination of Genesis 1, when God creates human beings, we know little of who or what God is other than God is a creator. Sayers concludes, “The characteristic common to God and [humans] is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.” If we are to imitate God, to fulfill his image, we should be makers.
For Sayers, work well done was worship. It was the means by which you lived into God’s image.
Her conception of human plenitude is broad: one need not be an artist to imitate God in one’s work. Rather, all of us, by making, are fulfilling our calling. Her concern in that essay is that, as human beings, we have been more moved to buy things (often made by machines) than to make. We have become more consumers than creators. As such, our work denigrates God’s image. Instead of serving the work, we idolize the profits; we manipulate others into buying what we’re selling; we value expediency and disposability. She describes our predicament as a “squirrel cage of economic confusion,” in which we’ve landed “by acquiescing [to] a social system based upon Envy and Avarice.” The way out of this dehumanizing system, which the Nazis exploit to full advantage, is a Christian understanding of work.
Sayers writes this brief theology of work in the middle of World War II, but her analysis is not a side issue. For Sayers, a wrong understanding of work will cause human beings to produce unnecessary evils that they view as goods. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, they will live lives of “quiet desperation.” With every good intention, they will foster weeds in their attempts to plant seeds of social change. Sayers saw this most clearly in the storm of the war, when the circumstances of the tragedy forced people to conserve rather than consume, to pause in the squirrel cage and examine their unexamined lives. However, she worried that after the war everyone would return to working for profit and “serving the community” first.
For Sayers, a wrong understanding of work will cause human beings to produce unnecessary evils that they view as goods.
A few years prior to this lecture, Sayers wrote a play called The Zeal of Thy House that was performed at the festival of Canterbury Cathedral (other notable playwrights chosen for this honor include T.S. Eliot and Charles Williams). The play centers on William of Sens, the architect contracted to build the choir of the cathedral after it burned down in 1174. When the audience first hears from William, he professes his willingness to “damn one’s soul for the sake of the work.” Such a confession might have been met with gasps similar to what I heard that evening in my small town. Yet Raphael, the angel overseeing William’s work, lauds him for praying with his work: “Behold he prayeth; not with lips alone, / But with the hand and with the cunning brain / Men workshop the Eternal Architect. / So when the mouth is dumb, the work shall speak / And save the workman. . . . To labour is to pray.” The angel’s description of work as sacramental should give us pause. Are we to praise such a blasphemous man because his art is good?
To this all the theologians undoubtedly respond, “Both/and.”
On the one hand, William the man is not laudatory, and his lack of piety and surplus of pride lead to a fall—both literally and figuratively. The drama is the dogma. William moves to place the keystone into an archway, and the rope slips. His fall cracks his proud veneer, allowing another angel, Michael, to move William from blasphemy to humility. William realizes that his work was meant to be glorifying to the God who gifted him as an architect, whose image he reflected in his work, and who did not need him but granted him participation in making beautiful things, such as the Canterbury choir.
On the other hand, in Sayers’s theology of work, “no piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself.” When Sayers received fan mail asking whether the actors who played the angels in The Zeal of Thy House were chosen for their moral character, she refuted this misunderstanding without hesitation. The angels were chosen for their ability to hold heavy angel wings on their backs and speak articulately and so forth. An actor praises God not by explicit sermons or pious plays but by good acting. Sayers asserts succinctly, “The only Christian work is good work well done.”
Sayers’s theology of work should free us from worries over how to change the world or how to ensure our work is ministry. When these concerns overwhelm us, we are likely putting second things first. We are seeking specific outcomes. We measure our success in our work by visible and quantifiable results. However, to be driven by the end product may lead us to the wrong means. If we place the end before the work, we may justify the means, imitating Machiavelli or Hitler more than we intended. Instead, we must attend to the work to which we’ve been called, without knowing whether it will show forth fruit in this life or the next.
When Sayers died, Lewis wrote a eulogy on her behalf. Although there was much to be praised in a life well lived, Lewis highlights that “she is first and foremost the craftsman,” placing her in a lineup with “Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare or Moliere” for her respect for craft. Of all her writing, Lewis gives three examples: The Mind of the Maker, The Zeal of Thy House, and her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (which was left unfinished at her death). He mentions the two we have discussed because in the first example we hear Sayers’s manifesto of vocation: work well done worships our Creator. The second exemplifies her art and life; as Lewis says, “[The architect William’s] disinterested zeal for the work itself has her full sympathy. But she knows that, without grace, it is a dangerous virtue.”
We could look back at Sayers’s life and offer many good words to echo Lewis, for there is much that provides us an example. At Oxford, as a student, Sayers formed the Mutual Admiration Society with friends; later in life, she was a member of the Detection Club and a participant in the life of St. Anne’s: she did not see a Christian’s work as a solo endeavour. Sayers wrote bestselling mystery novels that are still being read nearly a century later, showing her ability to delight readers through literature not swayed by trends and contemporary issues. In later life, she became an award-winning playwright for stage and radio, whose work confronted the gnosticism of her time period with embodied performance, philosophical dramas, and an enlivening of the gospel that became devotional for thousands. Before she died, she invested years learning Italian (she was fluent in French and an expert in Latin and Greek) in order to make Dante’s epic poem accessible to twentieth-century readers.
I’d love to be Dorothy L. Sayers when I grow up. I’d love to finish as well as she did. But we lose much of the value of her example if we try to reduce her life to bullet points for emulation or a program for others to copy. If we want to continue to harvest what she planted, we will read her work. We will enjoy Gaudy Night in our book club, study The Mind of the Maker in Sunday school, see The Zeal of Thy House performed at our local theater, or read her essay “Why Work?” in a brewery for an hour with those who have never heard of her and hear for the first time a Christian understanding of work. As we discover, in Sayers’s work, that labour is love, may we move from consumers to creators and from collective gasps to continuous applause.