The Drama is the Doctrine

The Drama is the Doctrine

          The most frustrating thing I hear (and cause for pulling my hair out if I had any!), is when Church leaders say, the church needs to spend less time worrying about doctrine and more time getting on with our ministry. Why do Church leaders say this? Because they believe doctrine is dull and irrelevant. The fact is the precise opposite. As Dorothy Sayers, known for her Peter Seller’s mystery books, says, It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. Then Sayers goes on to say, The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.[1]

            This drama is summarized in the Creeds of the Church, and if we think it dull it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents or have recited them so often and mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. But upon close reading we learn this. The plot of this drama pivots upon a single character, and everything that takes place in relationship to this one character is the answer to the single problem: What do you think of Christ? Before we dismiss Christ as a myth, idealist, demagogue, or lunatic, as many do, inside not just outside the church, let’s consider what the Church says about him in the creeds.

            The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising. It says that Jesus who was a carpenter in Nazareth was in fact the God ‘by whom all things were made’. His brain and body were that of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a demon pretending to be human but in every respect a genuine living man. Yet he was not merely a man that was ‘like God’ – he was God! He was also God who was ‘born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King’ and in the year when Caesar Augustus was taking a census so he could get more taxes from the people.

            And this is not just a pious story. For what it means is this, among other things, that for whatever reason God chose to make humankind – limited, suffering and subject to sorrow and death – He (God) had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. He exacts nothing from humanity that he has not exacted from himself. He himself has gone through the whole of human experience, from the irritations of family life, cramping restrictions of hard work, lack of money to the worst horrors of pain, humiliation, defeat, despair and death. In fact, he experienced the life of man that is much worst than ours. He was born in poverty, died in disgrace yet thought it worthwhile to do so.

            But He did not suffer and die quietly. The common people back then indeed heard him gladly. But the leading religious and civil authorities believed he talked too much and proclaimed too many disconcerting truths. So they bribed one of his friends to hand him over quietly to the local police who tried him on a rather vague charge of creating a disturbance, had him publically flogged and hanged on the common gallows, ‘thanking God we are now rid of this knave’. Little did they know this harmless, crazy preacher was God himself!

            So that is the outline of the official story – the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men and women he had made who in turn broke and killed him. This is the dogma that is so dull – this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and the hero.

            But if this is dull what, in heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Jesus never, to do them justice, accused him of being boring. On the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It was left to us to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah by turning him into a meek and mild teacher who can only offer us some moral truths. Thus, for many clergy and laity in the church Jesus is a household pet not Lord and savior of the world. Now if this is the Jesus our doctrines talk about, I’d be the first one to say, ‘forget doctrine’!

            Those who dismiss doctrine do it for this reason: they know that true faith is not primarily about comfort, but a truth about ourselves. We don’t want to hear we’re sinners, in need of God’s grace and thus, utterly dependent on Him. We don’t want to hear that if this Jesus is who He says He is, the God-Man, our life belongs utterly to Him. That’s why we dismiss doctrine and water down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Instead of adapting men and women to Christ we adapt Christ to us. No wonder people don’t come to church!

            No beautiful phrases, comforting sentiments, vague aspirations to be kind or the promise of something nice after death will do. Only when turn to the drama of doctrine that terrifying asserts that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grace and gate of death can make a difference in the world. The modern person may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a person might be glad to believe.           

[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Letters to a Diminishing Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine. Publishing Group: 2004, 1.

The Drama is the Doctrine

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