Dorothy Sayers, Individuals and Community

Excerpted From
Choosing Community
By Christine A. Colón

Today, we tend to think of The Mind of the Maker primarily as a fascinating exploration of the Trinity, for Sayers uses the analogy of the creative mind to help her readers understand the ways that God the Father, Son and Spirit interact in relationship. However, Sayers was attempting to do much more with this work. Published in 1941 during World War II, The Mind of the Maker is also a response to the realities of that war, realities that Sayers had earlier (in Begin Here) related directly to a false conception of community. In The Mind of the Maker Sayers builds on her ideas in Begin Here and attempts to help her readers understand God’s purposes both for individuals and for society. The core of her argument is that “the Trinitarian structure which can be shown to exist in the mind of man and in all his works is, in fact, the integral structure of the universe, and corresponds … with the nature of God, in whom all that is exists.” Even more specifically, Sayers contends that the “creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe” and is therefore “exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman.” Sayers believes that God has created each individual with a unique creative mind that mirrors the Trinitarian structure of the Godhead. She then uses that foundation to argue, first, that society has fallen apart because people have ignored this fundamental truth and, second, that true community will be restored only when individuals fully engage their creative minds and embrace the unique work God designed them to do. For Sayers, this type of work is both “a sacrament and manifestation of man’s creative energy,” and she believes that God ultimately uses it to preserve the essential balance between the needs of the individual and the health of the community.

Sayers develops these ideas more directly in her essay “Why Work?” (1942), and it is here that we see even more clearly the connection between work and community that she had already been exploring in her detective fiction. For Sayers, work is intensely personal. It should be not only “the work for which [the worker] is fitted by nature” but also “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.” Therefore, it is only by aligning our creative minds with the work God has created us to do that we will ever find true satisfaction. This is also, according to Sayers, the only way to establish and preserve true community. She asserts that “the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work.” The underlying assumption here is that if individuals faithfully channel their creative energy into their proper work, God will ultimately combine each individual’s work with the work of others in perfect harmony so that the overall community functions effectively.

Sayers, perhaps surprisingly, does not explicitly address God’s role in preserving the community’s health in “Why Work?” For a clearer expression of this idea, we must return to The Nine Tailors, the detective novel with which I began. Toward the end of that novel, Peter struggles with the idea that by doing his proper work as a detective he may be hurting the community rather than helping it. He complains, “I rather wish I hadn’t come buttin’ into this. Some things may be better left alone, don’t you think?” In response, Mr. Venables, the minister of the small community where the crime took place, declares, “My dear boy … it does not do for us to take too much thought for the morrow. It is better to follow the truth and leave the result in the hand of God. He can foresee where we cannot, because he knows all the facts.” Earlier in the story, Peter had compared his frustrations with figuring out the mystery to the complexities of change ringing, complaining that his bell was “lying behind the whole way.” It is thus significant that Venables, both a minister and an avid change ringer, is the one who reminds Peter of the need to trust in God’s knowledge of the whole picture. As a change ringer, Venables has been trained to listen for the order that lies behind the seeming confusion of the bells, and as a faithful minister, he is confident that God’s order ultimately governs real life even when humans cannot perceive it. As Sayers portrays throughout her works, living well in community is a much more “intricate ritual” than even the complex art of change ringing, and at times, we may not understand how our particular work fits with the work of others to create the beautifully complex order of society. Unlike expert change ringers, we cannot always hear the order that exists behind the “monotonous jangle” of individuals doing the work they are called to do. But Sayers, like Venables, seems confident that if we focus on serving God through the proper work for which he has designed us, he will ultimately bring order to the community.

In response to the realities of World War II, Sayers began to reflect more theologically on both work and community. She acknowledges that “it may well seem … that I have a sort of obsession about this business of the right attitude to work. But I do insist upon it, because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work.” This obsession was, in fact, one that she had already been developing in her detective fiction, for as she began to explore the evils of society in more complex ways, she also began to realize that these evils demanded a more complex solution than the one usually created by detective writers.

Sayers did not write her detective fiction intending to present a theological perspective on community. But as an artist trying to do her proper work with integrity, she began to recognize that preserving the complex communities she was beginning to create within her novels required more than simply the brilliance of Lord Peter Wimsey. It required Miss Climpson’s insights into human nature and her ability to fake a séance just as much as it required Inspector Parker’s plodding police work, Freddie Arbuthnot’s knowledge of the stock market, Marjorie Phelps’ insight into the artistic mind, and Miss Murchison’s secretarial skills. By focusing on their unique work and taking action when needed, they all ended up serving the wider community. Their skills came together with everyone else’s, ultimately providing a powerful model of the balance between individuals and community that Sayers hoped would help transform her own society.

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Excerpted from Choosing Community by Christine A. Colón. Copyright (c) 2019 by Christine A. Colón. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Christine Colón
Christine Colón

Christine Colón is professor of English at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.