Skip to main content

In my current book project, The Wages of Cinema: Looking through the Lens of Dorothy L. Sayers, I argue that full appreciation for the relationship between Christianity and film necessitates knowledge about the history of theater: a word that comes from the Greek “to see.” Seeing the medium, whether on stage or screen, echoes one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity: “we wish to see Jesus,” an embodied medium of salvation, who proclaimed, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness” (John 12: 21, 46). To grapple intelligently with the relationship between Christian belief and film—both of which bring light into darkness—one must understand what both have inherited from the stage.

As is well known, the seeds of narrative cinema were incubated on theatrical stages. In the silent era, filmmakers often adapted stage plays, like those starring Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who reprised her famed theatrical roles for the screen. When “talkies” took off in 1927, studios recruited Broadway playwrights to compose dialogue. French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol went so far as to argue, in 1933, that “talking films” demonstrate “the art of recording, preserving, and diffusing theater.” Even into the 1960s, as James Monaco notes, “Much of the best British cinema . . . was closely connected with the vital theater of that period.” In addition to common words borrowed from theater—director, protagonist, prop, lighting—one of the most important terms in film theory comes from the French stage: mise-en-scène, which originally referred to everything theater audiences saw on the stage in any particular scene.  In cinema it means everything audiences see on the screen in any particular shot1

Even denouncers of theater and cinema have much in common. In his magisterial work Theo-Drama, Hans Urs von Balthasar outlines the anti-theater teachings of Christian theologians like Tertullian (160-220 CE) and Augustine (354-430 CE), polemics that anticipate the anti-movie attitudes of Christians in the twentieth century. When bishops at the Fourth Council of Carthage (399 CE) wanted to excommunicate anyone attending theater on a Sunday, they adumbrated followers of Canon William Sheafe Chase, pastor of Brooklyn’s Christ Episcopal Church, who proclaimed in 1908 that attending cinema on the Lord’s Day was a “desecration.” In 1909, Pope Pious X authorized a decree prohibiting priests from entering film theaters in Rome—not just on Sundays, but at any time.2

This genealogical connection between stage and screen is essential to The Wages of Cinema, because theater, having nurtured narrative cinema from its very start, developed in response to the wages of sin. As Sayers succinctly puts it, “All drama is religious in origin.” 3 While Jews were sacrificing lambs to Yahweh, the Greeks were sacrificing goats on their altars to Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Both forms of sacrifice were about new life: the sacrifice of the Jewish lamb for reconciliation with God, the sacrifice of the Greek goat to guarantee the resurrection of crops in spring. Furthermore, like the Hebrews who sang and danced in honor of Yahweh (Ex 15:20-21), the Greeks performed hymns called dithyrambs in honor of Dionysus.

Theater began with the embellishment of these dithyrambs, as choruses of up to fifty males danced around the sacrificial goat while singing stories about the life of Dionysus. The event became known as “the goat song,” from which we get our word “tragedy”: tragos = male goat; aeidein = song (or ode). A tragedy, then, establishes that a sacrificial goat (or lamb) must shed its blood in order for human life to continue. This explains the plots of classical tragedies, where powerful individuals, having defied the gods and/or human laws, must suffer the wages of sin in order for harmony to be restored to society.

Shockingly, Dorothy Sayers believed that some people might benefit by reading classical playwrights more than by reading the Bible. In a 1950 letter to a woman who kept prodding her renegade brother to read Scripture, Sayers writes,

[H]onestly, if anybody implored me “in every letter” to read the Bible and quoted texts at me, I should feel an unregenerate urge to throw the sacred volume straight out of the window! . . . The Pharisees, after all, read their Bibles from cover to cover, and were none the better for it—they might have done better to wrestle with the great human problems of Aeschylus or Euripides.4

An outspoken defender of Christian orthodoxy, Sayers valued the Bible greatly, studying the Greek New Testament and Bible commentaries in preparation for radio plays she wrote about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—plays that Christians tried to censor in the early 1940s because Sayers did not use King James English. But that experience made her realize how often Christians, rather than reading the Bible as a guide for faith and practice, instead make a fetish of it, idolizing its language. 

Sayers’s privileging of Greek playwrights over “bibliolaters,” as she calls them, reflects how “Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides,” in the words of Diarmaid MacCulloch, “explored the depths of human tragedy and folly, in ways which have never been surpassed.” Dramatizing the wages of sin, classical theater “crystallizes the most profound dilemmas in human life,” establishing a need for salvation. 5 Sayers, of course, believed that redemption from life’s “most profound dilemmas” comes only through accepting the gift of forgiveness made available through Christ’ death and resurrection. However, rather than quoting Bible verses out of context to support theological and/or political positions, Sayers repeatedly encouraged Christians to study the contexts of Scripture, including the history of canon formation and the historical contexts of biblical authors who sought to describe the mise-en-scène of Jesus Christ. Some of these contexts, as Sayers well knew, illuminate the influence of Greek theater on Scripture itself–influences that will be the subject of my next blog.


  1. Pagnol as translated and quoted in Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 58; James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 269; David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 2nded. (New York: Knopf, 1986), 119, 151.
  2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol 1: Prolegomena, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 93-97. Balthasar notes that, as late as 1917, Roman Catholic clerics were forbidden to attend theater (104n.52). Canon Chase is quoted in William Romanowski, Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 17; John P. Welle, “Early Cinema, Dante’s Inferno of 1911, and the Origins of Italian Film Culture,” in Dante, Cinema and Television, ed. Amilcare A. Iannucci (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 30.
  3. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Introduction” to The Man Born to Be King (1943; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 2.
  4. The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol. 3, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Cambridge, UK: Carole Green, 1998), 524-25
  5. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking Penguin, 2010), 35, 34. Sayers uses the term “bibliolaters” in her “Introduction” to her radio plays about Jesus, The Man Born to Be King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 3. 

Crystal L. Downing

Wheaton College
Crystal Downing is Co-Director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College (IL)