Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Karl Barth & Dorothy Sayers

Several years ago, I attended a fascinating lecture by the Rev. Dr. David McNutt at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College on “A Surprising Correspondence: Dorothy L. Sayers and Karl Barth on Artistic Creativity.”

Sometime in the late 1930’s, one of Karl Barth’s theology students from England gave him a collection of theological essays by Dorothy Sayers. It turns out Barth was already familiar with Sayers having learned English partly through reading her detective novels. But, he liked the essays enough to write her an appreciative letter which led to a brief exchange of letters between the two in 1939 just as WW II was breaking out.

Given Barth’s strict Reformed theology and Sayers’ Anglo-Catholicism, it seems an unlikely correspondence. As one might imagine, while Barth was mostly appreciative of Sayers’ articulation of the Christian vision, he was not wholly uncritical. For example, he suggests she has a (very Anglican) tendency toward semi-Pelagianism. Still, he appreciated her work enough to translate into German and publish in 1959 – two years after her death – two of her essays on Christianity. In the introduction to those essays, he wrote:

She vigorously made the message of the gospel her own in breathless astonishment about its central content and in a way that was open to the world but undaunted and quick-witted without any hint of apology – but above all: joyfully and in a way bringing joy, she produced stimulating work, and regardless of what one might think of its individual statements, we may be thankful.

I pray that God will raise up Christians in our day, lay and ordained, about whom something similar can be said.

In one of her letters to Barth in 1939, Sayers wrote of her own work:

All I try to do is tell people that the creeds are not arbitrary formulae; that they were intended to mean something, and do still mean something.

Again, one might pray for a reclaiming of such confidence among preachers and teachers of the Church.


  1. Wonder what Barth thought of Lord Peter?

  2. Good question. There was no mention of any comments he might have made to Sayers about that. Though I would love to, I haven't seen the actual correspondence. But, Barth must have liked Lord Peter well enough if those are the books he read to work on his English.