One Quote Review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers was a close friend of CS Lewis, she hung out often with Tolkein and she wrote bucketloads of best-selling detective novels. It reflects poorly on us that her writings on Christianity are so little read and rarely discussed. I have sought, in vain, for copies of her play The Man Born To Be King and while my college library has a copy of some essays from close to the time they were written, us chumps who weren’t around in the 1940’s have to make do with ugly reproductions of the original texts which are hard to read and in the case of my particular copy, missing most of page 39.

Page 39 just trails off

She was the first woman to be offered the prestigious Lambeth doctorate by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Temple) but she turned it down. The reason she gave was that she thought her potency as an advocate for the pale Galillean would be strengthened by not being seen as someone under a licence from ecclesial authority. One can only speculate that a woman so fiercely committed to orthodox and ecclesial practice was influenced to reject the honour because she had given birth to an “illegitimate child” and wanted to save the church from scandal should this horrendous fact ever be revealed.

Few tricks of Satan were as successful as convincing those who worship an “illegitimate child” that children should be the subject and topic of shame.

The Mind of the Maker exhibits all the same qualities I have enjoyed in everything else I can track down by Sayers. The prose is crisp and sharp and witty and argumentative. The logic is impeccable. The whole effect is refreshing. It helps that her emphases so closely match my own: dogma matters, work should be something from which we reap joy, the market economy is warping our moral vision.

So in The Mind of the Maker she more fully develops an argument that began in early essays. Humans are marked by having a mind capable of creativity. For Sayers, this is the definitive aspect of our being. And the argument in this book is that the nature of that creativity reflects the very nature of reality in that it is Trinitarian.

Therefore, we could propose that Sayers says because authors are, God exists.

Regardless of your stance on the whole Jesus-as-the-son-of-God question, you have to admit that a series of essays that claim that the creative process mimics the character and action of God is pretty audacious.

For Sayers, all creativity is trinitarian but she focuses on the writer because that is what she knows. In short, here is her argument:

The Bible says that God created reality.
The Bible goes on to reveal God as a trinity – one God in three distinct but inter-penetrating persons.
For Sayers, the Christian claim is thus that God the Father composed the idea of reality and redemption, God the Son is the means through which creation and redemption is actualised and God the Spirit is the power of God made available to the subjective experiences of those persons who exist within reality.

Can that be followed?

Sayers then turns her attention to human beings when they create. Firstly, they get an idea. The idea has to be fleshed out, to speak in a simultaneously idiomatic and precise fashion. And when the idea is worked out as a product, it is set free to exert its influence depending on how well it is constructed.

So Rembrandt has the idea of how to paint the return of the prodigal son. Then he has to actually exert the energy to make that real. Then that painting astonishes us as we sit slackjawed in front of it on our trip to St. Petersburg. Or, because she thinks this trinitarian pattern of creativity holds for all our creations, not just the great ones or the ones done by Christians, Dan Brown has the idea for a story, then he writes the story and then we throw the Da Vinci Code across the room in frustrated boredom.

Like every argument for the existence of God, this can come across as sterile theorizing. But while the Internet Atheist is likely the only person who’ll get very excited about it, the benefit of the argument is how it honours and investigates human creativity. This is a strangely compelling little book and the direction it compels the reader is to writing. I have never before realised how deeply satisfying the task of writing fiction might be for my spiritual life. But Sayers is able to give us a glimpse into her vocation as a teller of stories and it is tempting.

I’d love someone with more knowledge about these things to tell me how the following argument influenced or didn’t influence John Howard Yoder in his famous claim that the grain of the universe goes with those who carry crosses. For Sayers, the grain of the universe flows with the creative act. I don’t think that these are incompatible positions, but Yoder is more Biblically accurate and more anthropologically generous. Still, this is not the sort of thing you find in a contemporary apologetics text:

… Newton, being a rational man, concluded that the two kinds of behaviour [apples and planets] resembled one another – not because the planets had copied the apples, or the apples copied the planets, but – because both were examples of the working of one and the same principle. If you took a cross-section of the physical universe at the point marked “Solar System” and again at the point marked “Apple”, the same pattern was exhibited; and the natural and proper conclusion was that this pattern was part of a universal structure, which ran through the world of visible phenomena as the grain runs through wood. Similarly, we may take a cross-section of the spiritual universe at the point marked “Christian Theology” and at the point marked “Art”, and find at both precisely the same pattern of the creative mind; it is open to us to draw a similar conclusion.

But if we do – if we conclude that creative mind is in fact the very grain of the spiritual universe, we cannot arbitrarily stop our investigations with the man who happens to work in stone, or pain, or music or letters. We shall have to ask ourselves whether the same patterns is not also exhibited in the spiritual structure of every man and woman.

– Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, p. 148-149.

Your Correspondent, He gets drunk on words and hence is rarely perfectly sober

6 Replies to “One Quote Review: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers”

  1. I’ve an old copy of The Man Born to Be King here if you’d like it? It’s just sitting here unloved and unappreciated on my shelf

  2. email us your address *again* then and it’s yours. I’ve list of other things I’ve got to spend my love and appreciation on

  3. I’m going to be controversial and say I find the relation between God and creativity tendered by Sayers trivial and uninteresting, but I find her description of the trinity very interesting.

    I say the relation is trivial because it seems to be a relation we could draw with any form of deliberate interaction with others, as interactions can be parsed into the intent, the means, and the result. I want my guests to enjoy their visit (The Father). I clean my house (The Son). The guests enjoy my clean house (The Holy Spirit). I want to cross the road (The Father). I push a button (The Son). I get to cross the road (The Holy Spirit).

    But what I find interesting is how she describes the Holy Spirit, not as an entity in and of itself, but rather a result or a consequence. If man kind were to disappear off the face of the earth, what would be the nature of the Holy Spirit?

  4. Well you are fulfilling the role of Internet Atheist. 🙂

    To answer your question on behalf of Sayers, I think she’d say that before man arose, the Spirit was active. Subjectively, we experience God through the Spirit but the Spirit is not a product of our subjectivity. The Spirit’s objective action is central to the creation.

    As I alluded to in my review, I’m not interested in the God-existence aspect of the book but the insight she brings to the creative process. She might however quibble that we’d find it hard to think of a 2-part or 4-part process in lieu of the 3-part process you’ve described as being so universal as to be trivial.

    By the way, there appears to be a minor oversight in your argument. Your motivation is that your guests enjoy their visit but your completed action results in your guests enjoying your clean house, which is a somewhat smaller outcome. 🙂

    Anyway, let us not get bogged down in the mapping on to God aspect of things…

  5. Oh I have no interest in the existence of God aspect of the discussion, and I would guess Sayers doesn’t either. I just didn’t find the parallels she was drawing particularly illuminating. But this might be because I have not actually read her book.

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