While primarily known for her detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from the University of Oxford, gave lectures and wrote essays about Christianity, wrote religious plays for the Canterbury Cathedral Festival and the BBC radio programs, wrote original poetry, and translated Dante. It is difficult to write a book that engages her full body of work, but Christine Colón has done just that in Choosing Community: Action, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers. Colón argues that Sayers “articulates three particular qualities she believes are essential in order to successfully perform this ritual of community: action, faith, and joy” (2). She explores those three qualities through the lenses of Sayers’ detective fiction, religious plays, and personal life, respectively.
Originally presented as the Marion E. Wade Center’s annual Hansen lectureship, Choosing Community has been adapted into a book that retains the original lecture structure with Colón’s three essays and the three responses by Tiffany Eberle Kriner, Andy Magin, and Bryan T. McGraw, allowing the reader to get a sense of the original format of the presentation. This chapter-and-response format can feel a bit stilted upon first read without the actual atmosphere of the lecture, but ultimately it enhances the book by presenting practical proposals for applying the ideas Colón uncovers in Sayers’ body of work. Colón has successfully navigated the waters of robust academic presentation and public scholarship, creating an invaluable resource for the Christian church community that also propels Sayers scholarship forward.
In the first chapter, Colón traces Sayers’ theological and authorial development as she demonstrates how Sayers’ formula changed from that of typical detective fiction in which a detective solves a crime that restores a community back to its state of innocence to a more complicated vision of community in which the community may have not been so innocent to begin with and requires a group of individuals doing excellent work to truly change society (22). This idea of the individual doing excellent work in order to contribute to the life of the whole community was one that Sayers held dear, and Colón articulates the point effectively through anecdotes from Sayers’ own life and writing. The second chapter brilliantly outlines how both Sayers’ positive personal experience in the theater community and her plays contributed to her view of communities of faith as communities of individuals committed to their own excellent work and to supporting one another, utilizing the image of the keystone of an arch from The Zeal of Thy House (1937) to powerfully illustrate the point (42). The third and final chapter demonstrates how Sayers built and enjoyed communities of joy in her own life through groups such as the Bach Choir at Oxford, the Detection Club in her professional life, and her correspondence with her many friends (including C.S. Lewis). Colón argues her point further by outlining the character development of Harriet Vane, a popular character from the Lord Peter Wimsey novels who goes from alone and depleted of joy to thriving in community. The tracing of Vane’s character is significant to Colón’s argument in part because Vane shares many biographical details and character traits with her creator, though she is not a direct parallel, as Colón is careful to point out.
Each of the response chapters to Colón’s papers on communities of action, faith, and joy truly enhance Colón’s arguments and build on them. In a fascinating turn, the first two both emphasize embodiment as a crucial way to understand Sayers and the third emphasizes civic friendship. Each one provides potential practical applications for Sayers’ vision for communities of action, faith, and joy through illustrations from literature, the theater, and politics. Like Colón’s work upon which they build, these responses are accessible, well-illustrated, and applicable for communities of faith.
One area that could have received more attention was the influence of the Mutual Admiration Society on Sayers’ life as a community of joy far beyond even their Oxford years. Though Colón mentions this group of women that Sayers helped to found as a society who would read one another’s work and critique it (and eventually provide emotional and professional support to one another for the rest of their lives in varying degrees), she does not dedicate more than a sentence or two to them, choosing instead to emphasize the Detection Club and Sayers’ multiple correspondents and friends who encouraged her. These sections are strong, but could have been enhanced by sharing more of the story of her Oxford colleagues who helped her grow throughout young womanhood into maturity in an enduring way that the Detection Club and Bach Choir did not.
A great strength of Choosing Community is its lack of jargon and the author’s choice to speak plainly (a quality Sayers would have surely admired). The straight-forward style enhances the theological points that Colón draws from Sayers in the book about community and the individual’s responsibility to do excellent work for its sake and how observing the entire body of Sayers’ work can truly show how developed her ideas on this were. Colón’s book has a wide potential appeal: university classrooms, book clubs, Sayers scholars, church small groups, lovers of detective fiction, and individual people who are Sayers or Inklings enthusiasts could easily make up the audience of Choosing Community.
With this work, Colón contributes to Sayers scholarship in a way that Sayers contributed to theology: excellent work done by an individual, affirmed and added to by other individuals in the community, and written for the entire church community—not just a few select academics. It encourages everyday Christians to reflect on their own life and work and how it affects society, while also allowing them and Sayers scholars to reflect on Sayers’ life and work and how it affected her society. Colón has provided an excellent resource for the church and for the academy.
Luci Frerichs Parrish is a postgraduate research student at Nazarene Theological College.
Luci Frerichs Parrish
Date Of Review:
November 28, 2021
Christine Colón (Ph.D. University of California at Davis) is a professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois and specializes in nineteenth-century English literature.
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