Man Born to be King by Dorothy Sayers, Annotated by Kathryn Wehr

Man Born to be King Annotated Edition cover imageSummary: A series of twelve radio plays that ran on BBC radio from Dec 1941 until Oct 1942. 

Any attempt to portray Jesus artistically has to make artistic and theological choices. Those choices will be debated, but at the same time, if the story of Jesus cannot be shared, then people cannot hear. On the other hand, the natural choices are to make Jesus more understandable to a culture. That is not inherently bad, but those choices to make Jesus understandable will reduce Jesus in ways that make him less of a challenge to the culture. And so there is a catch-22, where to be so concerned about misportraying Jesus means that we keep the story of Jesus hidden, but to not be concerned enough about misportraying Jesus means that we can distort who Jesus is and make him into someone he was not.

I know this point may be a bit controversial. Still, generally, the more culturally and socially dominant an artist is, the more likely the distortions will accommodate Jesus to culture, which will tend to draw Jesus to bless hierarchy and culture. While generally, those that are less culturally or socially dominant will tend to portray Jesus in a way that rebukes culture. This is not a hard and fast rule but a tendency. In reality, no one is whole dominant or oppressed. Sayers was a woman in a sexist society that was very interested in maintaining class structures. It was unknown to most during her life, but after her death, it was revealed that she had a child out of wedlock, who was raised as her nephew. So she also had an acquaintance with social shame. She also was part of a culture and country that was militarily powerful, where racial hierarchy was practiced, and which thought of itself as a powerful world-leading country. There are places where I think that Sayers had blind spots and distorted Jesus and places where I think she did a good job showing a facet of Jesus that people may have missed.

For context to know how I approached the radio dramas, I read every word of this annotated printed edition (I recieved a digital copy of the book from the publisher for review). And I listened to all the radio plays from a copy I purchased from Audible, originally recorded in 1975. The audio and this print edition are not exactly the, but the differences are fairly minor. One of the common annotation points is to note some of the changes from the earlier edition of the play to the original broadcast version, but it does not compare to later versions.

The annotation includes introductions to each play by the editor, the cast of the original 1940s radio play, and the original notes that Sayers wrote to the director and performers. When the plays were first published, Sayers wrote an introduction and a second introduction by the BBC producer. And the annotation itself has an introduction. By the time I had read all three introductions, I was bored with the introductions, and I was impatient to start the play.

Overall I think the plays are worth listening to and/or reading. The distance in culture is enough that annotations are helpful for added context, but most things are fairly clear. But the culture is different enough that, in some ways, it may be better to listen to or read these plays than something closer to our current culture like the TV series The Chosen. About halfway through reading/listening, I realized that the distance between today and the original broadcast is just a bit longer than the distance between the original broadcast and the end of the American Civil War. In one of the notes to the cast and director, Sayers uses the N-word. The annotation discusses it a bit, and this edition doesn’t print out the word, but it does point out cultural biases within the plays.

I do not want to do a simple list of positives and negatives, but I think there are two main negatives to the presentation and one main positive that I want to note. The first area of concern is how Jesus is portrayed. Jesus is voiced by an actor that sounds like a standard BBC voice. Sayers says in her comments that she wants a variety of regional accents in the different disciples. Her point that it is easier to distinguish various clear accents or voices is true. And she also says that she wants it clear that the disciples and Jesus were not all upper-class aristocrats. I think that, like many children’s bibles that have started using a variety of skin tones, Jesus tends to be lighter-skinned than others on the page. So Jesus here is made a bit “better” than the regional accents of many of the other disciples. Also, Jesus is mentioned as being blond several times in the text. Sayers knows that Jesus was not blond in reality, but she wanted to distinguish him (again, like her voice comments.) But in a society where white racial superiority exists, making Jesus blond doesn’t simply make him identifiable to British people. Still, it makes him part of their caste in opposition to people of other ethnicities, races, and castes.

Jesus is portrayed as human in many cases. But there are places where I think the British objections to emotion were used to make Jesus less human. For example, there are no tears when Jesus comes to Mary and Martha after Lazurus’ death. This is one of the few places where Sayers deviates from scripture. There are some other examples as well, but at the same time, so many more places, Jesus is portrayed well as a human.

This leads me to where what I liked most about the plays, the background motivations. This is most easily seen in the portrayal of Judas. Sayers’ version of Judas is smart, self-assured, and a serious follower of God and Jesus. But in some ways, he thinks that he is more capable than Jesus. There are a few lines where Judas says (my paraphrase) if only Jesus had followed my directions, he would not be in this political mess. There is also good background that makes Caiphas, Pilate, and other characters make sense. For Peter, who cut the ear of one of the guards that were arresting Jesus, it was that guard that first confronts Peter in the courtyard where Peter denies Jesus.

With any artistic work, there are interpretative decisions that have to be made. And I obviously do not agree with all of the ones Sayers made here. But I think work like this should be taken seriously as a theological work, not just an artistic one.

I do want to make a comment about the actual audio. This is a recording from the 1970s and is pretty good. But I would like it to have been remastered to reduce some of the audio range. I tend to listen to audiobooks as I walk my dog. And I was constantly adjusting the volume up or down on this one because the volume range was too wide. There were places where the audio was not as clear as I would have liked, and reading really helped. There were other places where the emotion of the voices really mattered to my understanding, and I am not sure that the text, apart from the narration, would have given me the whole story.

Man Born to be King by Dorothy Sayers, Annotated by Kathryn Wehr Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Man Born to be King by Dorothy Sayers Radio Play: Audible Edition 

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