In 1940, storyteller Dorothy Sayers began writing a 12-part play series for radio on the life of Jesus Christ. Her venture was unprecedented. At that time in Britain, a prohibition banned any portrayal of Christ on the stage, but that law did not extend to the media of radio. Sayers, who had established herself as a detective-novelist, accepted the commission to write this gutsy new series for the BBC Sunday Children’s Hour, and she aimed to present the reality of Christ’s life to the best of her ability.
In short time her plays sparked an uproar and were called blasphemous—that is, by people who had never read nor heard them.
The initial accusations against Sayers’ plays did not prevail. Disproving the loud opposition, a wide variety of Christian leaders read the plays and responded with enthusiastic endorsements. The publicity brought about by the controversy eventually helped to promote the play cycle, which she titled The Man Born to be King. But the immediate hostility from those who had not read even one line of her plays also demonstrated the relevance of Sayers’ vision. Before the face of a public inclined to prejudge, Sayers gave The Man Born to Be King, an invitation via art to encounter really the life of the King whom no one can tame.
The storm in the media, fueled by sensational reporting, provoked some people to prejudice. They formed their judgments without considering the evidence, without hearing the whole story. Fearful that their cherished notions might be disturbed, some reacted to the promotion of the plays (not even the plays themselves) with condemnation. They resisted the idea of Sayers’ bold dramatization of the gospels, but not because they had reckoned with Sayers.
The unfounded suspicions cast on Sayers illustrated a clear discrepancy: people’s beliefs did not correspond to the truth. Sayers saw that this general ignorance—wilful or not—also translated to the story of the gospels themselves. The widespread perceptions of Jesus’ identity bore limited resemblance to the full story revealed in the scriptures. For Sayers, that was the real tragedy: “this story is a very great story indeed, and deserves to be taken seriously. I say further... that in these days it is seldom taken seriously.”
Sayers did not mean only that the unchurched were the ones who misunderstood Jesus. It was, rather, the Christians who underestimated and misrepresented him. She did not fault those who did not know but those who thought they did. To borrow her phrases: pious hands had treated Christ with frivolous and gingerly solemnity, inflicting upon him the indignant reproach of insipidity. In other words, Christians made Jesus look boring; no wonder people didn’t bother much with him.
Sayers was also a professed Christian, so she had courage to admit the blame was on her own camp. However, she resisted appealing to her own persuasion, since “truth or falsehood cannot be affected by any opinions of mine.” Instead she let the story speak for itself. In presenting the life of Jesus through The Man Born to Be King, Sayers clarified: “My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal—in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good or true in any other respect, and it is useless for any purpose whatsoever—even for edification—because it is a lie.”
To tell that story truthfully, Sayers did her research. In her work of dramatizing “a piece of recorded history,” and “a series of events that took place at a particular point in time,” Sayers wore out a Greek Testament and amassed a considerable library of exegetical and historical scholarship. She confronted questions of chronology, translation and culture with thorough scrutiny and “rigourous pulling and hauling.” From the original sources, Sayers translated the ancient idioms into their “current English counterpart(s)” for her modern audience. By unobscuring the language, she creatively transformed the ancient setting of her drama into a relevant, living scene. To portray the accounts artfully, Sayers became immersed in the story. She let go of her preconceptions, set aside her advantage of hindsight, and instead took on the limited viewpoint of the people involved. She envisioned “the events and the people as they appeared to themselves at the time.” She recognized the characters as real people who did not know the outcome of the story. She imagined their daily lives and full personalities. Empathy and honesty compelled Sayers to approach the history as one living in it.
With this humble attitude to the art of truthtelling, Sayers scripted The Man Born to be King. She did not betray her material by manipulating it into a platform for her own moralizing sentiments. By her selfless posture and single-mindedness, she served her art and mediated not her agenda but the story. Thus the qualities of the story permeated Sayers’ art. The drama of Christ’s life emerged with stunning clarity. The humor, realism, irony, tragedy, coherence, vigor, and shock delivered by Sayers’ play were not original to Sayers but to her hero.
For her hero defined originality. The uniqueness of Jesus was the crux of The Man Born to be King. Sayers revealed her premise: “For Jesus Christ is unique—unique among gods and men. …He is the only God who has a date in history. And plenty of founders of religions have had dates… but only this one of them was personally God.” Yet his identity was not fully recognized! Even those who hoped Jesus was the Messiah did not grasp the meaning of his destiny. When he went and got himself killed, that hardly seemed champion-material. Not until an unprecedented miracle, his glorious resurrection from the dead, was the revelation known “that the Messiah had to suffer all these things and so to enter into his glory.” The New Testament showed that God Incarnate was murdered by people who did not know what they were doing. Sayers picked up on that dramatic irony and highlighted its disturbing dimension: “God was executed by people painfully like us… If you show people that, they are shocked.”
The shock was not lost on Sayers, and she labored that it might not be lost on anyone else. Sayers called her source “the greatest drama in history” and gave it the highest compliment she could: wholeheartedly revealing it through pure art. In choosing the art of drama, Sayers shared her inspiration with others; her play engaged the audience and invited them to a personal experience of the content. For The Man Born to be King, the content was the untameable life of “Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” To all who lent their attention, Sayers’ art channelled a vision not easily dismissed, stepped over, or forgotten. Indeed, C.S. Lewis reread The Man Born to be King every Holy Week and found it inexhaustible. Today the new 2011 edition allows current readers to encounter the startling beauty of The Man Born to be King. And to encounter the drama of the King, God Incarnate, is to encounter his divine life, which he offers in abundance to all who would receive.________________________
 Sayers’ Introduction, The Man Born to be King, p.55 (Wipf & Stock: Eugene, 2011)
 Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker, Preface, 1941.
 Introduction, The Man Born to be King, p.38
 Ibid, p.39
 Ibid, p.37
 Ibid, p.41
 Ibid, p.40
 Ibid, p.38-39
 The Man Born to be King, p.354
 Introduction, p.41
 Ibid, p.55
 The Man Born to be King, p. 3
 C.S. Lewis, “A Panegyric for Dorothy Sayers” (Walmsley, Lesley ed. C. S. Lewis "Essay Collection Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories." London: Harper Collins. 2000. 2002. p. 161)