*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 21st of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
On this day in 1941, the BBC premiered the first radio play in a 12 part series on the life of Jesus by novelist Dorothy Sayers. It was entitled “The Man Born to Be King.”
You may know of Dorothy Sayers- we’ve talked about her on the show before- she was a friend of C.S. Lewis, famous for her detective literature (her Lord Peter Whimsy is a favorite in the genre) and for her theological essays, many of which are collected in her book “Creed or Chaos.”
Religious programming over the public airwaves on the BBC during World War II was not unheard of- even if it did arouse opposition. In the same year that Sayer’s play was first aired, C.S. Lewis also aired his wartime radio talks that would be collected and published as “Mere Christianity.”
But the main opposition to the radio plays following the life of Jesus didn’t come from non-religious people but rather from concerned Christians.
If you are a modern like myself, you grew up with images of Jesus in the film- from the Jesus Project to directed by the guy from Lethal Weapon. But in 1941, depictions of Jesus in radio and film- especially for entertainment purposes- were shocking. And Sayers leaned into incredible her audience.
The language of the King James was eschewed for an earthy modern English with Matthew, among others speaking with a cockney accent. If Jesus had been depicted- ever!- it was in local passion plays where Jesus did not talk or solemnly say words verbatim from the Gospels. Not so with Sayers.
And it wasn’t just the language coming from the actors’ mouths, but Sayers writing purposely shocked the listener. Hear her explanation:
“Nobody cares…nowadays that Christ was ‘scourged, railed upon, buffeted, mocked and crucified’ because all those words have grown hypnotic with ecclesiastical use.” But if one wrote that Christ was “spiked upon the gallows like an owl on a barn-door,” this would not only get people’s attention, it would recall what actually happened to Him.”
Sayers was criticized for her use of American slang, for making interpretive decisions in the retelling of the story, and well… it was 1941, and she was a woman. She addressed her gender previously in a witty essay entitled “Are Women Human?”
C.S. Lewis wrote to Sayers congratulating her on the work and told her that he would read the cycle of plays every year for his Lenten devotions.
You can easily find audio recordings online; you can purchase printed and published versions of the play or noodle around online. I recommend listening- but equally as helpful is reading the version with Sayers own stage notes and direction. She gets into the specifics of why characters say what they say and sound like they do.
The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have been portrayed in numerous ways over the past half-century such that outside of absurd sacrilege, it hardly makes news. But today, we remember one of the first controversies surrounding the portrayal of Christ in modern media, and just in time for Christmas! On this day, the 21st of December in 1941 that “The Man Born to Be King” made its debut on the BBC.
The Last Word for today comes from the King James- from the Gospel of Luke:
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man born to be a sound engineer, pastor, and coffee roaster. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man with a shining star upon his highest bough; I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.