A Christian liberal arts education should undermine certitude: something I learned from Dorothy L. Sayers, whose twelve radio plays about Jesus were so cherished by C. S. Lewis that he read them every year until he died. In my new book, Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers (Broadleaf 2020), I recount how those plays challenge certitude. The publisher gave me permission to quote the following extract, which details the shocking way Sayers presents the character of Judas in her scripts, published as The Man Born to Be King in 1943.
Though she follows the biblical account of Judas committing suicide after betraying Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, in her early plays she establishes that Judas is the most intelligent and committed of all the disciples. The first to recognize that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, Judas also realizes that he is a Messiah born to suffer. Judas will do anything to protect Christ’s mission, fully believing that humanity can be saved only through sacrifice. As he tells High Priest Caiaphas, Jesus “is the Messiah not of an earthly but of a spiritual Kingdom.” Sayers even has Jesus compliment Judas for his impressive “understanding, and courage,” calling them “great gifts.” Listeners were shocked, some to the point of outrage. Sayers had betrayed tradition about the famous betrayer!
But Sayers was quite intentional in her betrayal. She believed that to make Judas an obvious villain from the start would be an insult to the Son of God. It would imply either that Jesus was not smart enough to recognize Judas’s evil intentions, or that he was slyly manipulative, using a despicable man to achieve his own purposes—like something Herod might do. Very early in her writing process she wrote the BBC Director of Religious Programming to explain that Judas “can’t have been awful from the start, or Christ would never have called him.” And she proceeds to argue that Jesus was too psychologically astute “to have been taken in by an obviously bad hat.”
Sayers challenged conventional images of Judas, I believe, for another significant reason. Wanting both skeptics and Christians to see biblical characters as real and hence relatable human beings, she gave Judas a characteristic that tempts and corrupts the most earnest followers of Jesus to this day: certitude.
In contrast to the Jewish Zealots, Sayers’s Judas fully understood that Jesus did not come to lead a revolution against Roman oppressors. Convinced the Kingdom of God was to be spiritual, not political, Judas defended Jesus when others questioned his motives. But as Jesus became more and more popular, Judas began to worry that Jesus would abandon the role of suffering servant in order to satisfy his adoring fans. Then something happened that confirmed his suspicions: the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Mt 21, Mk 11, Lk 19, Jn 12). Much as politicians today enter rallies with fans cheering and waving signs, Jesus entered the city with admirers yelling “Hosanna” and waving palm branches. As a result, Judas thinks Jesus has fallen for the temptation of celebrity status.
What Judas didn’t realize is that a Zealot named Baruch, one of Sayers’s most important fictional additions to The Man Born to Be King, had contacted Jesus in advance, telling him that if he wanted to fulfill his political role as a revolutionary Messiah, he should ride a horse into Jerusalem. This would signal to the Zealots that Jesus was ready to have warriors follow him into battle in order to overthrow Roman control. But, Baruch adds, if Jesus is too timid to make war against political oppression, he should ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. Judas, of course, saw only the triumphal entry, not realizing the symbolism of Christ choosing the donkey over the horse. Convinced that Jesus has sold out to political celebrity, Judas sells out Jesus to traditionalists.
Sayers’s Judas thus acts like many Christians today, certain that his interpretation of the truth was absolute—much as those who denounced Jesus for healing on the Sabbath were certain that their understanding of the truth was absolute. The Jesus-following Judas, echoing the anti-Jesus Scribes and Pharisees, trusted his own certitude more than he trusted Christ. Sayers thus implies that betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver is merely an intensification of the exchange that many Christians fall into. When culture cheers on disturbing new practices, we have a tendency to exchange our trust that Christ is in control for certitude that we know proper biblical behavior, picking and choosing Bible verses that reinforce our certitude. Seeing only the surfaces, we make absolute judgments, believing our certitude is a sign of faith.
I speak of certitude from personal experience. In my youth I was certain that Christians who did not baptize through immersion were heretical; Christians who spoke in tongues were demonic; Christians who endorsed the Sacraments were superstitious; Christians who drove horse-and-buggies were legalistic; Christians who smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol destroyed the temple of the Holy Spirit; Christians who had icons in their churches were idolatrous. In other words, only the interpretive tradition of my Christian denomination was authentically true.
Clearly, I had totally missed the profundity of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Paul famously ends his sermon about love with, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (I Cor 13: 2, 13). Rather than love, I had made “faith” the “greatest,” but only my particular interpretation of “faith”—like Sayers’s Judas. Feeling contemptuous of Christians who did not interpret the Word of God the way I did, love did not abide with me. Even worse, I had exchanged faith for its exact opposite: certitude. I had made human interpretations more absolute than my Savior, failing to offer the gift of love to those who interpreted Scripture differently. Like Judas, I had betrayed Jesus.
This, of course, was Sayers’s point. Christians throughout history have similarly betrayed Jesus. Religious certitude led Christians to denounce and later burn the body of theologian John Wycliffe (1320-1384), not only because he translated parts of the Bible into English, but also because he questioned purgatory, transubstantiation, and other traditional beliefs of his day. Religious certitude led Christians to torture 16th century Anabaptists because the latter believed that baptism should be held off until participants could understand what it meant: a belief that subverted infant baptism, the tradition of their day. Religious certitude caused hundreds of Christians in 1940s England to denounce [Sayers’s] BBC radio plays about Jesus that failed to use King James English.
Ironically, according to Strong’s Concordance to the King James Bible, forms of the word faith and faithful appear around 350 times in Scripture, whereas the word certitude appears . . . wait for it . . . not one single time. Even the word certainty occurs a mere seven times, and, of its three instances in the New Testament, only one reference has to do with certainty about the Gospel message (Lk 1:4). The discrepancy, of course, is easy to explain: God calls us to faith, which is the opposite of certitude.*
*From Crystal Downing, Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers (Broadleaf Books, 2020). Reproduced by permission.