Review: Choosing Community

choosing community

Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L SayersChristine A. Colón. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A compilation of three lectures and responses on the theme of community running through the works of Dorothy L. Sayers.

Dorothy L. Sayers experienced real pain in her relationship with the community of the church. Yet, as Walter Hansen, in the introduction to this book notes, this was not reflected in the love of community reflected both in Sayers’ life and work. This work, drawn from the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectures at Wheaton College, examines the embrace of community reflected in Sayers work in the form of action, faith, and joy. One lecture addresses each of these followed by a brief response.

The first lecture looks at the idea of communities of action. Colón traces the development of her detective fiction, as she moves from solving a crime perpetrated by an individual and solved by a detective, a classic crime fiction trope, to a much more complex vision of community, deeply impacted by crime, and restored by the communal action of people of good will (Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, Bunter, and Inspector Parker, for example), each pursuing with diligence and collegiality their particular roles, serving the wider community.

Communities of faith are the focus of the second lecture. Colón turns to the plays of Sayers for this lecture, showing how these portray the disintegration of community, the formation of communities of faith in The Emperor Constantine and the necessity of atonement in her play The Just Vengeance. Even as Colón considers the plays, she also reflects on Sayers’ love of the players, of how the theater was a kind of community of faith for Sayers–particularly the quality of unflinching devotion to “the show must go on” no matter the personal circumstances of the players–a kind of devotion to one another and a greater purpose she longed for in the body of Christ.

Dorothy Sayers is portrayed by Colón as a joyful woman, delighting in her work, her comrades, sometimes in plain silliness, revealed in facsimiles of correspondence reproduced in the third chapter. She delighted in her associations with theater companies and the Detective Club, communities that combined serious work and celebration. She then turns back to the detective stories, Sayers development of Harriet Vane, and her finding of joy in return to her academic community in Gaudy Night, and in her marriage to Peter and return to the community of her youth in Busman’s Holiday.

Colón introduces us to a vision of community that is not sentimental but one that confronts evil, that gathers around serious work, that involves responsible action on the part of each person, that is formed around faith and devotion, and that is grounded in an undercurrent of deep joy. The responses are marked for brevity, grace, and brief expansions on each of the idea Colón introduces, reflecting the community of which Colón writes.

This is a valuable work for anyone who has enjoyed the writings of Dorothy L. Sayers. If you’ve only sampled the dramas, or the essays, or the detective stories, it takes you into the breadth of Sayers work (apart from her translations of The Divine Comedy and The Song of Roland). I came away wanting to read more of her dramatic works, having mostly read the detective stories and her theological works. It also probes our understanding of community, inviting us into both the responsibilities and possibilities open to communities of faith.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers


The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Have His Carcase


Have His CarcaseDorothy L. Sayers. New York: Harper, 2012 (originally published 1932).

Summary: While on a walking tour of the seacoast around Devon, Harriet Vane finds a man whose throat has been slit recently on some rocks. Lord Peter Wimsey eventually joins her and they find clues aplenty and possible suspects, yet none appears to have done it.

After being found innocent of poisoning a former love interest, with the help of Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane embarks on a walking tour of the Devon seacoast. This particular day finds her on the road from Lesston Hoe to Wilvercombe, a seaside resort favored by elderly women. She detours to the beach for a snatch of reading and some lunch and dozes off. She wakens to a cry shortly after 2 pm. On waking she explores the beach further and spots something that looks like a man sleeping on a flat rock by the shore. As she approaches, she finds that it is a man, but he is not sleeping, but dead, of a slit throat with a razor lying at the base of the rock. The tide is rising, she is several miles distant from the nearest town, and the rock and body will soon be submerged. She carefully examines the body, finding the blood liquid and not clotted, pointing to a recent murder. Perhaps the cry she thought was a bird was this man’s last cry. She takes a number of pictures and collects the razor and sets off to find help and report the murder.

After numerous detours, she makes it to Wilvercombe, reports the dead body, and as a shrewd writer building a reputation, leaks the story to the press. Because of this, Lord Peter Wimsey learns of her whereabouts, and comes to help explore what the authorities believe a suicide of a Russian emigre’, Paul Alexis.  Both Vane and Wimsey think otherwise and come across a number of clues that raise questions. Why did he take his life when he was engaged to a rich widow? Why did he by a two way ticket to the town nearest the rock where he was found, and why did he go there? Who was the mysterious Mr. Martin camping near the beach? What about Mr. Bright, the barber who had “provided” the razor that slit Alexis throat? Who was he really? Why was there a ring recently placed in the rock where Alexis died? Why did Alexis convert his savings to gold sovereigns, found in a waist belt on his dead body? How did the horse in the meadow near where Martin camped lose its shoe? Who was the mysterious woman, ‘Feodora,’ in the photo found on Alexis body? What was the role of the rich widow’s son, a struggling landholder, in all of this, despite his alibi? What was the content and significance of the letter in cipher found in Alexis’ pocket?

Each chapter adds new evidence yet seems to bring Wimsey, Vane, and the authorities no closer to a solution. Suicide, if not the best explanation seems the most convenient. Or perhaps Mrs. Weldon’s explanation that he was knocked off by some “mysterious Bolsheviks” is not so incredible after all. None of the other suspects could possibly have been at the rock at the time of the murder.

Nor does all their sleuthing bring them any closer together, despite Wimsey’s repeated “proposals”, which seemed an annoying distraction not only to Vane, but also this reader. Nevertheless, it is great good fun to see these two amateur detectives piecing together the puzzle of this mystery. And one can always hope for the future.

Along the way, we perhaps get a bit of social commentary as well. The women entertained by gigolos at the resorts make us reckon with the sadness of wealth without people to share it or a purpose to live for other than self-indulgence. One readily understands the eagerness of both Vane and Wimsey to clear out when it is all over.

Take this one to the beach or into a comfy hammock and enjoy!


“The Dogma is the Drama”

Dorothy sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers

Is contemporary Christianity in America on the ropes? Have Christians engaged in culture wars and lost? Why are increasing numbers of people identifying as “nones” religiously? And if this is indeed so, what might be done to recover and re-engage, if not in culture wars, in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the rising generation.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Rod Dreher has stimulated a national conversation with his new book, The Benedict Option, which advocates a kind of strategic withdrawal of Christians into a counter-cultural communal life with practices that shape the beliefs and behavior of their people. James Emery White writes in Meet Generation Z of reaching those born after 1993, and believes the church must embrace a similar counter-cultural model that combines savvy communication with integrity of life and belief. He argues that the faith of the church must be translated, but not transformed into something different. Gregory Alan Thornbury, in Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, contends for those who embrace the evangelical label, that the task is not to try to distance ourselves from our roots in order to be relevant but to recover them. In particular, he considers Carl F. H. Henry, and the model of his carefully argued work on epistemology, biblical authority and cultural engagement as worthy of reconsideration.

One thing each of these writers put their finger on is a contemporary uneasiness about or even active movement from central doctrines of the Christian faith. We associate dogma with dogmatism, which seems to be a cardinal sin–an intellectual rigidity about certain beliefs that seem to be “out of step” with modern times. The image is often of a sterility of belief divorced from a life of compassion. And what often seems now to be advocated is a life of compassionate concern for people and for the creation that mutes discussion of ideas and doctrines that may be “disagreeable” or “cause offense.”

The concern of these writers seems to be that when we make this move out of concern for relevance and not to cause offense, we run the risk of losing our “saltiness.” Salt in a wound may sting, but it also kills bacteria and preserves. The danger of moving away from dogma is that we move away from the faith altogether. Conversely, these authors would argue that it is the dogma that provides life and vibrancy and energizes Christian faithfulness.

Dorothy L. Sayers would agree. The title for this post is drawn from an essay by the same title. In her essay she writes about reaction to her play, The Zeal of Thy House:

“The action of the play involves a dramatic presentation of a few fundamental Christian dogmas — in particular, the application to human affairs of the doctrine of the Incarnation. That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the Eternal Word was supposed to be associated in any way with the work of Creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time Man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth, that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh: — all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the Faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. I protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the Creeds, to the Gospels, and to the offices of the Church; I insisted that if my play was dramatic, it was so, not in spite of the dogma but because of it — that, in short, the dogma was the drama.”

What I think Sayers is saying is that the real story of the Christian faith, embedded in the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, is indeed far more dramatic than anything she, or we, can come up with. True, these things may be presented in a “dry as dust” fashion. But Sayers would argue that the alternative to this is not relevance but chaos. Rather than mere religious sentiments, or inchoate beliefs we affirm, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.”

I wonder if the contemporary aversion to doctrine comes in part from either the actual experience of, or more likely, media portrayals of orthodox and yet loveless believers, or the argumentativeness that is a theological form of chest-bumping. Far less common, it seems to me are the models of those who have thought long and deeply and wonderingly on such statements as, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day He rose again.” Such things can turn a life upside down, or right side up.

As I write, we are approaching Holy Week, where the Church remembers and re-tells the story of Christ’s most amazing week, from the Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and crucifixion, the Saturday of waiting and the incredible news, shared first with the women at Jesus grave, “He is not here, He is risen!” It is the story we summarize in the Creed. But it probes us as we wonder, “why did Jesus die? And what do I do with one who undoes and conquers death?” When has anything occurred with greater significance? What could be more dramatic?

The dogma is the drama.

Review: Strong Poison


Strong PoisonDorothy L. Sayers. New York: HarperCollins, 2012 (originally published 1930).

Summary: Harriet Vane is accused of murdering her lover with arsenic. Lord Peter Wimsey believes she is innocent despite damning evidence and sets about to prove it.

Harriet Vane is awaiting the jury’s verdict. She is on trial for murdering a former lover, Philip Boyes after breaking off their relationship. Both are authors, Vane as a mystery writer the more successful. Her current novel concerns poisoning by arsenic and in her research she obtained samples of arsenic under assumed names. Following several meetings with her, Boyes suffered gastric distress. After going away for his health, he returns, and after dining with his cousin Norman Urquhart, he visits Harriet one more time to plead his case. That night, he falls terribly ill with gastric distress, of which he dies four days later. After a nurse’s suspicions are made known, an autopsy uncovers arsenic as the cause of death.

The cousin seems to have an airtight alibi–the two had shared the same food and drink, some of which Boyes himself had prepared. Hence Vane is the only plausible suspect with means, motive, and opportunity. Yet in the end, the jury comes back with a “hung” verdict. Wimsey takes an interest in the case, believing her innocent, and uses the reprieve to investigate. He focuses on Urquhart, whose alibi seems just a bit too perfect.

This leads to what is the most amusing part of the story as Miss Climpson and her typing agency, supported by Lord Peter, go undercover. Miss Murchison goes to work in Urquhart’s office. And Miss Climpson cultivates a spiritualist interest in the caregiver of wealthy old Cremorna Garden, an infirm relative of Urquhart and Boyes. And of course, the ever-resourceful Bunter befriends the household staff of Urquhart.

Time is winding down. Suspicions are confirmed. But will Wimsey get the evidence needed to exonerate Harriet? And how will she respond to Lord Peter’s proposal of marriage?

This is all great, good fun in what seemed to me one of Sayers’ fastest paced mysteries. Sayers introduces in Vane a strong female character who makes one wonder if she is modeled after Sayers herself. She inserts an egalitarian interest as Detective Parker becomes engaged to Lady Mary, Wimsey’s younger sister, with his full support. All wrapped up in a great story.



Review: Clouds of Witness


Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (originally published 1926).

Summary: Lord Peter is summoned to find out the truth concerning the death of Denis Cathcart, for which his brother Gerald is facing a murder trial before the peers of the realm.

Lord Peter Wimsey, just returned from a jaunt in France, is informed by his man Bunter that he might want to be off to Riddlesdale, the family home. It seems that his brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested on the charge of murder. The facts are these. Peter’s sister is engaged to Captain Denis Cathcart and is visiting Lady Mary, his betrothed. Now Cathcart is dead of a gunshot wound from Gerald’s revolver, and Mary finds Gerald over the body on a garden path as she comes down at 3 a.m., saying she has heard a shot.

Earlier that evening, Gerald received a letter from an old friend accusing Cathcart of being a card sharp. This is just about the ultimate offense among gentlemen and so Gerald confronts Cathcart in what ends up to be an angry exchange of words. Cathcart, who was planning to ditch Lady Mary, storms off. Gerald tries to get to sleep but cannot and gets up about an hour later, goes out, apparently wanders for several hours, and claims that he was returning and finds the body. But his gun is found nearby, and the evidence is sufficiently damning for the police to arrest Gerald. And Gerald does nothing to help himself, remaining silent about his whereabouts that evening. It doesn’t look good for the Duke of Denver.

Enter Lord Peter, who believes from the start that his brother couldn’t possibly be capable of such an act. And it doesn’t add up. Cathcart is leaving Mary and so no further intervention is needed. Yet the case seems open and shut. But some things don’t add up. There are conflicting reports of when the shot was fired–11:40 p.m. and 3 a.m. There are size 10 footprints that do not belong to any of the party. The window to the den was pried, even though the door to the garden had been left open. There is a diamond broach of a cat left by the body, but the woman with Cathcart when it was purchased does not fit Mary’s description. And there is the unfriendly Grimethorpe, and his exceedingly attractive wife, who seem to know something important.

Parker heads off to Paris, and Lord Peter takes a perilous plane trip to America and back, tracking down the clues. The trial before the peers of England opens, and Lord Peter has not returned and a terrible winter storm lies in his flight path across the Atlantic.  Will he make it in time (will he make it at all?) and will his evidence exonerate his brother and reveal how Cathcart died?  I will leave that for you to discover.

This is only the second of the Lord Peter Wimsey tales. I felt Sayers was still developing her craft, but already we see the development of the characters of Lord Peter, Bunter, and Parker, and their relationships. The description of the trial by Gerald’s peers, other Lords of England, is fascinating. Already, this is good writing, and I commend reading this before later numbers because it only gets better!

[A note on editions. This book is now in public domain and is now available in very inexpensive digital versions, one of which I downloaded. There were passages missing (noted) apparently from a quickly scanned version. From other reviews, I gather the current print edition may not be better. Open Road generally releases high quality digital versions. This one includes an illustrated biography of Sayers with photographs from the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. Older print versions may also be found at second hand stores or online sellers.]

Review: Whose Body?

whose body

Whose Body? Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Harper Collins, 1923. (Link is for trade paperback version.)

Summary: A body found in Thipps bathroom, a missing financier. Two cases that Lord Peter and his valet, Bunter, are called into simultaneously, apparently disparate, ultimately connected.

Imagine walking into your bathroom to discover a body in your tub with nothing on but a pair of pince-nez glasses. That is the unusual scenario that greets the retiring architect Thipps, who lives with his mother in a flat in Battersea. Thipps mother and Lord Peter’s are friends and so he is called in to investigate in the very first of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Then the unimaginative police Inspector Suggs arrests both Mr.Thipps and their maid Gladys on suspicion of the murder.

Shortly thereafter, his friend Parker, a Scotland Yard man, drops by to discuss the case, which he became involved with because he thought the man might be missing Jewish financier, Reuben Levy. Apart from a superficial resemblance, he is not. As best as they can tell, he was a workman who died from a blow to the back of his neck, who had been shaved, barbered and manicured and given the glasses post-mortem, and placed in the tub after being let down from the roof through the bathroom window.

The two cases seem unconnected until it is learned Levy was inquiring of directions to a famed physician’s residence late in the evening before the body was found in Thipps bathroom. An odd coincidence, and perhaps no more than that but one that will place both Parker and Lord Peter in peril, and awaken memories of Lord Peter’s World War I battle experiences, an early example in literature of the description of what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While I did not feel the writing was quite as polished as later writings and that Lord Peter seems overly silly at times, the characters of Lord Peter and Bunter are already well-drawn, with the fascinating element of Lord Peter’s war service, apparently dilettante life, and his simultaneous fascination and reluctance toward detective work. Bunter appears as the ever resourceful and somewhat independent-minded valet, the perfect companion to assist Lord Peter in his adventures. One of the most hilarious passages is Bunter’s account of plying of the famous physician’s, Lord Julian Freke’s man with Wimsey’s alcohol and cigars, very good alcohol and cigars at that. And there is a fascinating passage in which Wimsey questions a medical student about his activities a week before, that he swears he can’t remember, and the systematic questions that lead to a detailed recollection of events.

A good read in its own right, Whose Body? also heralds the promise of the other “Lord Peter Wimsey” mysteries, fourteen in all. If you’ve never discovered them and love mysteries, you should try them. And as a bonus, copyright has expired in the U.S. on Whose Body? and so it is available in at least two e-book versions on Amazon currently for $0.99 and for free on Feedbooks (in the U.S.). So if you like to start your mystery series at the beginning, here is an inexpensive way to explore the first of a series I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, even though set in pre-World War II England.

[Also reviewed on Bob on Books: Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors.]

Review: The Nine Tailors

The Nine TailorsThe Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1966.

Summary: Lord Peter, stranded in Fenchurch St. Paul due to a driving mishap, later is enlisted to solve the mystery of the death of an unidentified man, whose body is found buried atop the grave of a recently deceased woman. The “nine tailors” refers to the nine tolls of a bell when an adult man has died, after which the years of his life are tolled.

Lord Peter Wimsey suffers a driving mishap on the unfamiliar roads near Fenchurch St. Paul, in the fen country of East Anglia, on New Year’s Eve, and is forced to find refuge with the somewhat absent-minded village rector, Venables and his wife. Venables is a change ringer and the church has an impressive set of bells. Wimsey ends up taking the place of Will Thoday, taken ill with influenza and participates in ringing the bells for nine hours to ring in the New Year.

While awaiting the repairs on his car, Lady Thorpe dies and Wimsey learns that sad tale of the Thorpe house, whose fortunes were impaired by the theft of an emerald necklace from a house guest, Mrs. Wilbraham, whose loss was made good by Henry Thorpe. The butler, Deacon, and a London accomplice, Cranton are found guilty of the crime, but the emeralds are never found. Both went to prison, but Deacon’s body was supposedly discovered in a pit after a prison escape.

During the intervening four months, Henry Thorpe also takes ill. Daughter Hillary, dealing with impending loss, ascends the bell tower one day and finds a scrap of paper covered with unusual writing that turns out to be a cipher for the location of the missing emeralds. When Henry dies, he is to be buried in his wife’s grave, which when opened is found to hold another, unidentified body, missing its hands and with the face smashed in. Rector Venables calls in Wimsey to help solve the mystery of this death. And mysterious it is, not only because the man in this grave cannot be identified for lack of fingerprints, but also for how he died. Neither the rope with which he was bound, nor the injuries were the cause of death.

Wimsey’s investigations take him to London and to France, where he encounters the widow of the man in the grave. There is more to be learned of both Deacon and Cranton, and also the involvement of both Will and James Thoday. What did Potty Peake, the village simpleton, witness of the mysterious man’s death? And what will the mysterious scrap of paper found by Hillary Thorpe reveal of the hiding place of the necklace?

Sayers takes a risk in spending so much time in the book on the practice of bell-ringing and yet the bells are an integral part of the plot, including the mysterious man’s death. She also captures the ethos of the fen country of East Anglia where the story is set. Yet, the mystery is a favorite of many readers. According to Wikipedia, Sinclair Lewis judged it the best of his four “indispensables.”

The potentially tedious bell-ringing material is interspersed with methodical police Superintendent Blundell, spunky Hillary Thorpe, and the amusingly absent-minded Rector and his capable wife, who tend to both the spiritual and physical life of their parish, acting with aplomb when faced with the flooding of the fens at the end of the book. Of course, Lord Peter occupies center stage, with his faithful sidekick Bunter, as he unravels the mystery while playing mentor to the orphaned Hillary. No cold detective, this man, who discovers as he unravels the truth, the difficult and delicate work of exposing basically decent people caught up in a bad business. Sayers gives us an intricate, well-crafted, and winsomely human mystery.


Review: Mere Believers

Mere BelieversMere BelieversMarc Baer. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013.

Summary: Can individuals seeking to live faithfully to their calling change history? These profiles of eight British believers demonstrate that “mere believers” can indeed have a transformative influence in matters both of the heart and of the intellect.

Marc Baer, a professor of modern British history begins this book by narrating his own journey to faith during graduate school. And then he goes on to explain how and why he chose to write about the eight British figures profiled in this book (six individuals and a couple). Four he sees as those whose calling is a matter of the heart as they passionately gave themselves to causes of social justice and societal improvement. The latter four he identifies as those whose transformed intellect was employed in commending the Christian faith.

In the first group, he begins with Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, whose calling is reflected in her philanthropy and her efforts to improve the quality of preaching through the formation of a preachers academy and her ongoing support of a number of these ministers. Then we have the former slave Olaudah Equiano, whose narrative of his life and speaking on behalf of abolition played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery in the British empire, in concert with the efforts of the next two individuals. Hannah More was a gifted playwright, who, in addition to her advocacy for abolition, wrote Village Politics, which may have dissuaded her people from following France down the path of revolution, a series of popular tracts promoting moral improvement and religious faith, and several books related to forming the character of young women. Finally, we have William Wilberforce, a rich and gifted young member of the House of Commons whose conversion leads to devoting his life to slavery’s abolition, as well as a variety of other social justice issues, in concert with his friends in the Clapham Sect.

The first persons we meet in the second group are Oswald and Biddy Chambers. Oswald thought he was called to a ministry in the arts, only to find himself called to the work of training others in Christian thought and discipleship. This eventually led to service as a World War 1 chaplain, and strangely, to his premature death. Biddy was a full partner in his work, joining him both in lectures and hospitality. After his death, she took his papers and edited them into a number of books, the most famous of which is My Utmost for His Highest, a devotional guide given to many young believers (I still have a copy given me by a mentor) that fuses keen intellectual and spiritual insight. G. K. Chesterton not only wrote prolifically as an apologist for Christian faith who could turn arguments on their head, but campaigned vigorously against eugenics, forestalling Britain from going down the road Germany pursued. Dorothy L. Sayers, left an ad agency to write, first murder mysteries, and then plays and even a theology of work, perhaps her signal contribution as she saw Christian faith freeing people not from work but to work with excellence.

What I appreciated about this work is that Baer has given us brief vignettes of eight truly interesting people. He doesn’t spare us their flaws, whether it be Hannah More’s temper, Oswald Chambers’ struggles with doubt and despair, Chesterton’s gluttony, or Sayers’ illegitimate child. He sets them in their time, narrates their conversion stories (all as adults) and their search for their callings. Then, rather than an exhaustive treatment of their lives, he focuses on a particular pattern of faithfulness to that call and its impact on society and history. The chapters conclude with a “text” illustrative of the person’s thought and questions for reflection.

This is a helpful book both for those wondering about the difference Christian faith makes, and for those seeking to discern their own calling. What is so helpful is that we have eight unique individuals of differing temperament, gifts, and social situations (from wealthy heiress to former slave), and both men and women. We see that no matter who we are, we may find a life of meaning and significance as we pursue the calling of “mere believers.”