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Dorothy Sayers and the Other Six Deadly Sins

By June 8, 2012 No Comments

Dorothy Sayers is best remembered today as the author of fine detective fiction in the classic British mode. You can still buy her translation of and commentary upon Dante’s Divine Comedy as well. But in her time (the second quarter of the 20th century) Sayers was also a smart essayist on theology, ethics, and cultural affairs. Something of a Marilynne Robinson, then, only a couple generations earlier and high Anglican instead of Calvinist.

Sayers’ most apropos missive to our own time might be “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” the concluding essay in her collection Creed or Chaos? (1949). The piece originated as an address given in 1941 to the charmingly named Moral Welfare Society of the Church of England. The “immorality” that the good church folk were fighting, Sayers judged, had come to be so entirely associated with sexual offenses that a “man might be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct” and still not be deemed “immoral”—for, lo, he had kept his zipper zipped. Reformed folk back then would have translated her title to “Whatever Happened to the Other Ten Commandments?” It’s a great question for what passes as “faith-based politics” today. We have seen Sayers’ list of vicious attributes in action, not only but also among proponents of “family values.”

Sayers’ critique of this ethical reductionism mixed religious with socio-economic elements. First, drawing off her Dante studies, she divided the classic seven deadly sins into a set of three that are “warm-hearted or disreputable” (wrath and gluttony, along with lust) and four that are “cold-hearted or respectable” (avarice, envy, sloth, and pride). “It is interesting to note,” Sayers continued, “that Christ rebuked the three disreputable sins only in mild or general terms, but uttered the most violent vituperations against the respectable ones.” By contrast, “Caesar and the Pharisees”—the custodians of order in church and state—are particularly harsh on the warm-hearted set while actually esteeming the cold-hearted sort; indeed, these “they are in conspiracy to call virtues.”

Sayers’ diagnosis of this reversal, this betrayal, begins with Avarice, re-conceptualized in her time as “Enterprise” but already set loose toward its 21st-century Wall Street jag. “It gambles and speculates; it thinks in a big way; it takes risks. It can no longer be troubled to deal in real wealth” but pursues refined and remorseless commodity and financial speculation unto the uttermost parts of the earth. And all this the champions of “morality” endorse—until the game goes sour: “…we do not punish the fraudulent businessman for his frauds, but for his failure.” So also with envy, which seduces common folks into the consumer economy. One can only wish, for our delectation if not for her composure, that Sayers had lived to see the syndrome take over whole churches under the blandishments of health and wealth. Sloth? Cable, internet, and cell-phone have six times re-doubled the frenzy of activity that Sayers scoped out as that sin’s characteristically modern mask—a frenzy now opening up on gluttony, now covetousness, now lust in “that round of dreary promiscuity that passes for bodily vigor.” Nor would Sayers be surprised a moment by the mountains of Prozac we have to take as antidote amid this flurry, for our 24/7 is but the “disguise for the empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul of Acedia.”

Sayers was a traditionalist in putting at “the head and origin of all sin” the fault of pride, “the sin of trying to be like God.” Its specialty “is the making of blueprints for Utopia and establishing the Kingdom of Man on earth.” Sayers had in view the political progressivism of her own country and the totalitarian experiments that had joined in killing each other on the Continent in World War II. But we can go back to the very start of her essay to see what her proper target would be today—to see how pride and avarice have met in a ghastly parody of the embrace of justice and peace foreseen by the psalmist. “Now that contract and not status is held to be the basis of the state,” she observed, “Caesar is much less interested than he [formerly] was in the sleeping arrangements of his citizens” and so has renounced his erstwhile alliance with the Pharisees. Evangelical politics in America amounts to a desperately yearning to restore that alliance, while remaining blind to the contrary premises of the rest of their agenda. Hence their own allegiance to what can only be designated utopian thinking: the promise of a deregulated “free market” that is sure to bring prosperity and freedom on the American plan to all and sundry around the world, no matter how many failures pile up on the sand-heap of evidence to the contrary.

Sayers cited this ethical betrayal as a reason for labor’s turn away from the church in her own time and place. Her words might be an early foreshadowing of one explanation critics are now offering for the great falling away of evangelical youth from the sacred precincts of their rearing. “As a result of this unholy alliance between worldly interest and religious opinion, the common man is rather inclined to canonize the warm-hearted sins for himself, and to thank God openly that he is broad-minded, given to a high standard of living, and instinct with righteous indignation—not prurient, strait-laced or namby-pamby, or even as this Pharisee. It is difficult to blame the common man very much for this natural reaction against the insistent identification of Christian morality with everything that Christ most fervently abhorred.”


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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