Dorothy Sayers on Work

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?

Benedictine Theatre Company: Arising & Running

I’m here at the Wade Center at Wheaton College doing research for my thesis on “C.S. Lewis on the Moral Responsibility of the Christian Artist,” supervised by Dr Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and Acting Chaplain of St Peter’s College, Oxford. I’ve finished my primary research, which included reading all C.S. Lewis’ work that has been published in book form, including his collections of essays, poetry, letters, and diary. I’m now working on the secondary reading, and should have that done by the end of the week, which will finish up my research, except for a few bits and bobs that I can access elsewhere. I drive to D.C. this weekend to do ADR for The Fellows Hip: Rise of the Gamers, and then a one-day shoot of an educational video that I just booked, for a guy I worked with a couple summers ago. So I will make a (little) money acting this summer, not just spend it on research trips! (I have some good news about The Fellows Hip, too, but that will have to wait until I’m given the go-ahead.)

And now for a continuation of our series on a Benedictine theatre company:

Prologue – Day 2

Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
“Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep” (Rom. 13:11).
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
let us hear with attentive ears
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
“Today if you hear His voice,
harden not your hearts” (Ps. 94[95]:8).
And again,
“Whoever has ears to hear,
hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Matt. 11-15; Apoc. 2:7).
And what does He say?
“Come, My children, listen to Me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 33[34]:12).
“Run while you have the light of life,
lest the darkness of death overtake you” (John 12:35).

***

The Rule of St Benedict is meant to be read daily to the monks, and therefore there is a section assigned for each day, such that the entire Rule is read three times in a year. The Prologue is accordingly divided up into several sections. Today’s section is the second of the Prologue, for Jan 2 / May 3 / Sept 2.

It doesn’t give us much meat for our purpose, but is rather a call for the hearer to take notice, and begin the task of following God. We are back at the beginning of the Rule – a time for fresh starts, no matter how inert or unsuccessful we have been in the past.

This call to action reminds me of a blog post I read recently, on a “post-evangelical” Christian blog called the Internet Monk. In this blog post, blogger Jeff Dunn outlines a calling he has to start an artists’ “retreat/school/monastery,” a place where Christian artists can come “not to work on their art, but on their spirit,” as he said to me when I spoke to him via phone this past Saturday. Jeff and I both agree that Christian artists don’t have to make art that is explicitly Christian – that art is not merely an evangelism tool, but is in itself a way to glorify God. As he says in his post:

I love to help set artists free from the little Christian art box we like to put them in. You know—if you are a Christian painter, then you can only paint pictures of a pasty-white Jesus knocking on someone’s door, or of cottages in gardens with unusual light coming from their windows. If you are a Christian songwriter, you have to write plastic lyrics that portray Jesus as your girlfriend. And if you are a Christian novelist, you have to create fake characters acting in unrealistic ways in an unreal world. None of this brings glory to the Lord. It is simply an attempt to make money from people who need to feel good about themselves.

What’s different about Jeff is that he is right now starting his artists’ monastery. He’s got a plot of land lined up in Ohio, ready for purchase and renovation. You can find more info at his follow-up post.

I’ve let Jeff know that I’d like to help in whatever way possible. Right now that way is prayer. So if you all would please keep Jeff and this artists’ monastery in prayer, we would appreciate it. (And if you’d like to help, especially with funding, why not contact him?)

This past week I also met with Dan Roche, a professional actor/director who’s unusual in that he left Syracuse’s BFA program to study theatre at Wheaton, a college without even a theatre major, but with a close-knit theatre community and an opportunity to do plays more meaningful than the postmodern cynicism subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged at many of our professional undergraduate training programs. After starting Stone Table Theatre Company, which came out of a drama ministry started at his church, he worked in the Nylachi market for several years, before returning to Wheaton. He basically picked up where he left off, and recently started the Bird and Baby Theatre Company, which has as part of its mission the mandate to produce at least one play a season by or about one of the Inklings or related authors (C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, etc.). (You’ll see that I’ve added Bird & Baby to the list of links on the right-hand side of the page.) Their most recent production was a stage version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Jeff and Dan have risen from sleep and started to run. I know of other folks, like the Pacific Theatre in Vancouver and Cambiare Productions in Austin. Who else do you know that’s running? I’m thinking of doing a tour in the future of theatres that either have a Christian mandate, or are run by Christians, to talk about their approach to creating theatre for general audiences. Who should I visit?

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

Wildest Dreams Wishlist for 2010

Bonnie Gillespie is an L.A. casting director and author. She also happens to be one of the most positive voices around (online or offline), and her writing always exudes joy, confidence, and love. A feature film she cast, Another Harvest Moon, premiered recently, and is getting buzz for its excellent cast. In this week’s installment of The Actors Voice, Bon’s column at Showfax, she mentions the “wildest dreams wishlist” she asks all her directors for when she first starts working with them – basically, who in their wildest dreams would they want in these roles, “if money is no object and all offers will be taken seriously.” Bon’s suggestion for this New Year is that, yeah, goals are good, but think about what, in your wildest dreams, you want to see happen, this year and beyond, for you and for the world you’re in. As she says, “‘Why have blocks?'” Dream it, do it.

In that spirit, here’s my wildest dreams wishlist for 2010:

1) Get a predicted First degree on my exam results from all my tutors.

2) Go on an awesome promo tour for The FellowsHip: Rise of the Gamers this summer, with my director and the rest of the FellowsHip, as a kick-off for a wide studio release in theatres nation-wide.

3) Write my extended essay on theatre and theology, with a topic entirely of my own choosing, and have it be both exciting and inspiring to myself, my supervisor, and other artists. It will be publishable and reach a wide academic and artistic audience. I’d say what the idea is, but I have several stewing that I like. I think if I had to pick right now, it would be on how to run a Christian theatre company, perhaps looking through the lens of the Rule of St. Benedict or the Dominicans. Hey, it could even jumpstart a movement.

4) Be cast in a lead role in The Hobbit. (Hey, it’s wildest dreams, right?)

5) Be accepted into a Masters-to-Ph.D. program at St Andrews or Oxford in Theology and the Arts, with a supervisor who’s just as passionate about the type of art I want to do as I am.

6) Plant the beginnings of the Unicorn Triumphant Theatre Company by producing The World Over here at Oxford, in a production at the Oxford Playhouse or OFS Studio, in tandem with Fr John at the Chaplaincy and his dreams for a Chaplaincy drama group.

7) Lose 15 more pounds and get a 6-pack.

I think seven dreams parallel my earlier seven goals nicely.

Bon also talks about wildest dreams for the world in which one moves about, like the acting industry. What would I like to see in the world of theatre?

1) A renewal in theatre like that in literature that came out of the world of the Inklings (and Inklings-by-association and -by-influence), from which we not only got brilliant manifestoes on religion (The Everlasting Man), education (The Abolition of Man), and art (Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”), but also great art that revived old ideas for new audiences (the pinnacle of which was The Lord of the Rings, but which also included the Chronicles of Narnia and Charles Williams’ Arthurian poetry).

2) Christians taken seriously as artists again.

3) A plethora of new branches of college/university theatre programs that provide professional training equal to that at Juillard, NYU, or Yale, but that are fed by the deepest roots of the Christian tradition.

4) Recognition in the wider artistic culture that the artist has a moral responsibility to his audience, to live with them in community and compassion, and that self-expression alone does not great art make.

5) Less related to the artistic world, but definitely related to the world in which I move: A return to actually doing theology in an academic theology program, instead of doing socio-historical-linguistic criticism and calling it theology. The Synoptic Problem is not theology, it is only a preparation for doing actual theology.

6) Increased church support for Christians who have vocations as artists, even those Christian artists who don’t do explicitly Christian art.

7) World peace. ‘Cause, you know, it’s wildest dreams and all.

What about you? What are your wildest dreams?