Dorothy Sayers on Work

by Cole Matson

This week I’d like to share with you some quotes from Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Why Work?”, which can be found in her essay collection Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (which I HIGHLY recommend). I was reading this essay in the Bird & Baby and began underlining heavily half-way through:

The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.
Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly–but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.
Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.
And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work. (139-140)

The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word. (140)

The only Christian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God: then all the work will be Christian work…As Jacques Maritain says: ‘If you want to produce Christian work, be a Christian, and try to make a work of beauty into which you have put your heart; do not adopt a Christian pose.’ (140; Maritain quote from Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays, Ch. 8, “Christian Art,” sect. 2)

The worst religious films I ever saw were produced by a company which chose its staff exclusively for their piety. Bad photography, bad acting, and bad dialogue produced a result so grotesquely irreverent that the pictures could not have been shown in churches without bringing Christianity into contempt. (141)

And a section that really made me pull up short and reconsider my language about the artist serving the community:

…[T]he worker’s first duty is to serve the work. The popular catchphrase of today is that it is everybody’s duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it…
The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment [‘Love your neighbour’] depends upon the first [‘Love God’], and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.
If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things. Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble–and that is precisely the catch about serving the community…
…There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work. There are three very good reasons for this:
The first is that you cannot do good work if you take your mind off the work to see how the community is taking it…
The second reason is that the moment you think of serving other people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains; you begin to think that you have a claim on the community…
And thirdly, if you set out to serve the community, you will probably end by merely fulfilling a public demand–and you may not even do that…
…The danger of ‘serving the community’ is that one is part of the community, and that in serving it one may only be serving a kind of communal egotism. The only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community, to be oneself part of the community, and then to serve the work, without giving the community another thought. (142-145)

The end of the work will be decided by our religious outlook: as we are so we make. It is the business of religion to make Christian people, and then our work will naturally be turned to Christian ends, because our work is the expression of ourselves. But the way in which the work is done is governed by no sanction except the good of the work itself; and religion has no direct connection with that, except to insist that the workman should be free to do his work well according to its own integrity. (145)

If work is to find its right place in the world, it is the duty of the Church to see to it that the work serves God, and that the worker serves the work. (146)

-Sayers, Dorothy L. Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004. (Page numbers in parentheses.)

I’d be interested to hear your responses. It seems to me that C.S. Lewis was focused more on serving the community, and Sayers more on serving the art, though of course they would both agree that first things should be put first, i.e. serving God comes before serving your neighbour. They would also agree that you can’t serve either God or your neighbour by creating bad art. But Lewis seemed to keep more an eye on how his art would serve the community than Sayers did. What do you think? What reaction do you have to Sayers’ statements?

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