“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born.” –John 18:37
Dorothy L. Sayers has an impressive variety of books under her name. Detective stories, translations of medieval writings, essays and commentaries on literature, and last, but not least, plays. I have had the opportunity to get a brief sampling of each of these with the exception of her dramas. That is, until I recently read her series of plays under the title: The Man Born To Be King. These plays chronicle the life of Christ with sometimes free, but never irreverent or improbable, additions of suppositional history and dialogue.
Call it coincidence if you will, but I just happened to start reading in Matthew the week I began this book and, due to slow reading and many distractions, was still reading it all the way through Mark, Luke, and John. This turned out to be a good thing because, like most things that get stale and boring after much familiarity, the story of Jesus as contained in the four gospels was starting to get old. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems that sometimes we start reading and immediately disconnect our brain (or, equally fatal, our heart) and merely process empty words. At the end of a chapter we vaguely remember a string of platitudes and parables heard a hundred times before but don’t really care to recall them to mind or ponder who they were spoken to and why. The narrative of Jesus life hardly stirs our interest or emotions anymore. Even that piercing and heartrending cry uttered from the cross of suffering: “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” can eventually be read with indifferent and sleepy eyes. The Man Born To Be King, however, lets us experience the life of Christ anew. Like Ben Hur and other historical novels that introduce the sights, sound, and “feel” of a scene, so Sayers adds little details that make the bare facts more lifelike.
Knowing the end of a story can also make us less attentive readers. Sayers combats this by developing Judas’s character so that we don’t know if he will really betray Jesus for some time. He starts off as a good guy like all the other disciples but is slowly gnawed by mistrust of Jesus’ pure motives in the corrupt political landscape of Judea that Sayers envisions. Pilate’s role is also realistically done I thought. Why all the vacillating between having Jesus flogged and evading condemning him on the technicality that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction? Or between allowing Jesus to be crucified but immediately washing his hands of the whole affair? Sayers presents it as a sort of political chess game that Pilate was forced to play with the High Priest. Although Pilate was able to put the Jews in check with the admission that, “we have not king but Caesar,” he was checkmated by his own move when the Jews countered by charging: “if you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
To sum things up, The Man Born to be King retells the gospel story with a little suppositional history and plot development that make the real history more interesting for those that both have or have not heard it before. Originally, the goal of these plays on the life of Christ were to introduce people to Jesus apart from “religion” and the language of the King James Bible. The mid 20th century British language and employment of the hardly popular drama form will probably turn most people today off just like the King James Language often still does, but we can hope it was useful to B.B.C. radio audiences in the 1940’s. And, even now, for a few like me to once again follow in the dusty footsteps of the Carpenter from Nazareth who is the Man born to be King.