Book Review: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers

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Dorothy Sayers (1893 – 1957) was the author of the Lord Peter mystery series, numerous plays, and a translation of the Divine Comedy. She was part of the Christian literary flowering in the early 1900s which also encompassed T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “She explored by-ways of knowledge, delighted in puzzles and enjoyed many a fight which she conducted with wit and good humour. Her formidable presence, magnificent brain and logical presentation put her in great demand as a lecturer.” (About Dorothy Sayers)

Me and Ms. Sayers

This particular book, The Mind of the Maker, turns out to have a personal history for me. I’ve been vaguely aware of it for years as a book “I really should read some time.” I first remember hearing it recommended by C.S. Lewis in one of his short apologetics books, where in the process of pointing out that any thinking about nonphysical things will necessarily be metaphorical, and that this does not mean that the thinker is taking the metaphor literally, he remarks that “anyone who wishes to think clearly about this topic must read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.”

My dad has a large personal library, and last year, while I was poking around in it looking to borrow some other book(s), I came upon TMoTM, and borrowed that one too. And lo and behold! According to the inscription on the inside cover, this very book was actually given to me by my dad, almost 30 years ago. Even back then he knew I was a creative writer, though at the time I was a very immature and inexperienced creative writer, and was apparently not ready for Sayers. I don’t know how TMoTM made it back into his library. Perhaps I left it there when I went off to university, or when I went to move overseas. Anway, now, after having done some living and some creating, I am ready for this magnificent work of Sayers’, and what a sweet reunion it has been.

I should mention that I have also read many of Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries, which is helpful because she uses them as illustrations sometimes in The Mind of the Maker. I have not read her translation of The Divine Comedy.

A Must-Read for Artists

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s delightfully readable. Sayers was, after all, a good writer, and she had worked for some years in advertising. This book is full of bon mots, terrific quotes, and so forth, and in fact I plan to post quotes from it for a long time on the Thursday quotation post on Out of Babel. So, although the subject matter might seem kind of abstract, the book is not difficult to read or understand. If you want to read it, don’t be afraid: go ahead and read it. Ms. Sayers will not allow you to get lost or even bored.

The thesis of this book is easy to summarize, but hard to believe until you’ve seen it fleshed out. Ms. Sayers, an Anglican, asserts that we can understand the Mind of the Maker (i.e. God) by looking at the dynamics of the creative process in the minds of lesser makers (people, specifically creative artists). God is, after all, the ultimate creative artist. She talks about “the artist” a lot, but inevitably most of her examples are drawn from the art forms she knew best: novels and plays. Her insights about the creative process were instantly recognizable to this novelist.

Diving a little deeper, she maintains that we can understand the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity (yes, the Trinity) by looking at the dynamics of how an artist produces his or her work. The work itself, she says, is present in what you might call three persons. There is what she calls the Idea, which is the work as a whole, as author first envisions it when she “sees the end from the beginning.” Then there is the physical manifestation of the work (its incarnation, as it were), which is the only means by which any other person can know it. This is the physical book or play; and, in the case of a play, the stage, actors, costumes, etc. … the whole event. The process of converting the Idea into this physical form is hard work, and the artist carries it out by means of what Sayers calls Energy or Activity. Finally, there is the work as an experience that the reader or theater goer has as they read or hear the story. This too is the piece of art itself, and this Sayers calls the Power. Each of these states of the play or novel, Idea, Energy, and Power, can be legitimately said to be the entire play or novel, not just a part of it. Yet they can be distinguished from each other. All three have to be present if the reader is to have an experience of the novel, or the audience an experience of the play. In the Trinity, the Idea corresponds to the Father, the Energy to the Son or the Word, and the Power to the Holy Spirit.

I hope this does not sound blasphemous. As we read through the book, it is striking how well the dynamics of bringing a work of creative art into being parallel the doctrines of the Trinity, and help us to understand them. Sayers would say, of course, that this is no coincidence. It is because people are indeed made in the image of God, and when we engage in creative work, there is something in our structure that parallels His structure as a Maker.

There is, as you might expect, an interesting discussion of the process of the author creating characters that in some sense exist independently of herself, and how this relates to human free will.

Even if you are not interested in the Trinity, I recommend this book to any writer who wants to read the insights of another writer who is intimately familiar with reading and writing literature, including the dynamics of plotting and pantsing, and of being asked if your characters’ tastes and opinions are the same as your own and why you can’t “make X character do Y.” There are also some delightful examples of bad writing that Ms. Sayers quotes as she illustrates different ways in which the creative process can break down. I don’t know how relatable this book may be to artists in different media, such as music or visual arts, but I would encourage them to check it out as well.

“In the past, He let all nations go their own way”

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.

Paul, speaking to a crowd of pagans in the city of Lystra, Asia Minor, Acts 14:15 – 17

Happy New Year! We are not going to die in a flood.

On New Year’s morning, my son and I looked out our window to the East, and this is what we saw …

A sun dog.

In just a few minutes, the sun dog had stretched or sprung upward …

… forming what was obviously one foot of a very large rainbow, the other foot of which was visible out our window to the South:

If you’ll notice, they are bending not inward but outward, which means that the bulk of the circle is above the earth.

Now technically, technically, the proximate cause of these rainbows was that there were a lot of ice crystals in the air on New Year’s morning. Someone sent me this picture, taken apparently before dawn, about an hour north of us:

So, yes, ice crystals.

But given that God is in control of all proximate causes, including atmospheric conditions, and given that atmospheric conditions do not always form a rainbow on New Year’s Day, I take this as a hopeful sign. From our house, the rainbow appeared to be stretching from the Shoshone-Bannock reservation north of Pocatello; over Pocatello; over the Snake River reservoir and several other small communities in our region. The rainbow was originally given as a promise to withhold a certain particular kind of judgement.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations (!): I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is set in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:12 – 16

Repetitive? You bet. God repeats important things.

So, thank you, Lord, for once again sending this sign. You know that our whole region desperately needs Your mercy, as does every region on the earth. I pray that You will continue to extend your mercy to Southeast Idaho in 2022, and in fact that You would pour it out more than ever before.

The Five Points of Calvinism Book Tag

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Back in 2017 (or, you might say, in “eternity past”), Bookstooge put up a request for a “serious” book tag. At that time, I did not even know that Bookstooge existed (hard as that is to imagine). But in the providence of God, I stumbled upon that forlorn request recently, and this is the result.

The Five Points of Calvinism

These five points are not all of Christian theology, or even all of Reformed theology. There is a lot more to it, and it’s all good stuff. These five topics are simply things that Jacob Arminius and his followers disputed in the early 1600s, after the Reformation was well under way and John Calvin had been writing for some time. All of this caused a huge kerfuffle in the Dutch Reformed churches, and eventually, in 1619, the Synod of Dort adopted the Canons of Dort which answered the Arminians’ objections point by point. So, though these five points are not the whole of Reformed theology, they do represent some of the doctrines that people are most likely to have issues with, as demonstrated by Arminius, his followers, and in fact most people down to this day.

Due to their Dutch character, the five points, if put in terms that are somewhat misleading, can be shoehorned into the acrostic TULIP:

T – Total Depravity

U – Unconditional Election

L – Limited Atonement

I – Irresistible Grace

P – Perseverance of the Saints

Because this is a tag, I’m not going to parse or defend these points deeply. I’ll just explain each one in a short paragraph, then apply it to a book tag purpose. Since these things deal with the nature of man and God, they turn out to be fruitful for reminding us of our literary experiences.

T – Total Depravity

Arminius taught that people are free in their will to choose God or reject him. The doctrine of total depravity (or “sin nature”) holds instead that people, if left to themselves, are spiritually dead and will never voluntarily seek God. (Dead people cannot choose things.)

Name a book or a series that you appreciate for its jaundiced or realistic portrayal of human nature.

U – Unconditional Election

Election means that God chooses to draw some people to Himself, making alive their hearts so that they are then able to seek, hear, and trust in Him. Arminians taught that God elects people for salvation in this way on the basis of some quality in them, such as humility, faith, “responding to the light they have,” etc. The doctrine of unconditional election holds that God does not choose people because they are better than other people. He chooses them just because He wants to.

Name a book where someone chooses someone else unconditionally.

L – Limited Atonement

The most confusing of the five points as far as I am concerned, Limited Atonement means that Christ’s death was actually just for “his people” – those God chose to elect – not for everyone generally. If it were for everyone generally, and some people rejected salvation, that would mean that God’s work in salvation was ineffective in some cases, which would throw the determining factor back onto the individual.

This point is confusing for two reasons: 1) Since we don’t know who is going to be saved, we are commanded to proclaim the good news to everyone as if they were all elect. 2) We know that the number of those who believe will be a very great number, enough that Christ can be said to have saved “the whole world.” So, “limited” does not mean a small number of people.

This is one of those fine distinctions that is kind of hard to squeeze down into a two-word phrase, which then fits into a flower acrostic.

Name a book that has a complex, confusing, or seemingly unworkable philosophy behind its worldbuilding.

I – Irresistible Grace

When God chooses someone, He works on their heart, giving them a new heart with a will that is now able to choose Him. This also frees their mind to be able to hear and understand His word (since, as we know, our intellect is embarrassingly tied up with our will). When this happens, they freely choose Him, now that their will has been freed from the sin that bound it. It is never the case that God gives someone a new heart, and they then reject Him. His grace is irresistible.

What book did you find irresistible?

P – Perseverance of the Saints

This doctrine means that once someone has been regenerated, heard God’s word, and begun to believe, they will not ultimately, or permanently, fall away. You cannot “lose your salvation.” This is a very comforting doctrine, for without it, we tend to panic every time we fall into sin (or have some previously unnoticed sin revealed to us that, unfortunately, has been with us all along).

Name one of your favorite redemption arcs in a book or movie.

Go and Read Some More!

I tag Bookstooge (hope this is serious enough for you, Booksty!), and Colin cause I know he digs Reformed theology. Anyone else can do it if they want to.

Can’t … Stop … Posting … Isaiah

As a woman with child and about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pain,

so were we in your presence, O LORD.

We were with child, we writhed in pain,

but we gave birth to wind.

We have not brought salvation to the earth;

we have not given birth to people of the world.

But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.

You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy.

Your dew is like the dew of the morning;

the earth will give birth to her dead.

Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you;

hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.

See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling

to punish the people of the earth for their sins.

The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her;

she will conceal her slain no longer.

Isaiah 26:17 – 21

The Whole Earth — Judged, and Renewed

Wow! Here we are at the last Isaiah passage before Christmas! And I haven’t even gotten to the famous messianic passages like chapters 41 through 44, and chapter 53. But this one is really good too, so buckle up.

See, the LORD is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it;

he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants —

it will be the same

for priest as for people,

for master as for servant,

for mistress as for maid,

for seller as for buyer,

for borrower as for lender,

for debtor as for creditor.

The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered.

The LORD has spoken this word.

The floodgates of the heavens are opened,

the foundations of the earth shake.

The earth is broken up,

the earth is split asunder,

the earth is thoroughly shaken.

The earth reels like a drunkard, it sways like a hut in the wind;

so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion

that it falls — never to rise again.

In that day the LORD will punish the powers in the heavens above

and the kings on the earth below.

They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon;

they will be shut up in prison and be punished after many days.

The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed;

for the LORD Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem

and before its elders, gloriously.

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare

a feast of rich food for all peoples,

a banquet of aged wine — the best of meals and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples,

the sheet that covers all nations;

he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces;

he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.

The LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 24:1-3, 18 – 23; 25:6 – 8

More Isaiah-y Goodness

His Enemies Becoming His People

In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD Almighty in the land of Egypt. When they cry out to the LORD because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. They LORD will strike Egypt with a plague; he will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the LORD, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them.

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

Isaiah 19:19 – 25

It might be kind of hard to appreciate how bizarre all this would have sounded in the context in which Isaiah gave this prophecy. Egypt and Assyria were the two big baddies. They were not the chosen people of God; they were their enemies. “Blessed be Egypt my people”? A blessing on the earth?

But if we think about it today … are there Egyptian Christians? Are there Assyrian Christians? Why yes, yes there are!

That Surreal Feeling

They set the tables, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink! Get up, you officers, oil the shields!

O my people, crushed on the threshing floor, I will tell you what I have heard from the LORD Almighty, from the God of Israel.

What troubles you now, that you have all gone up on the roofs, O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry? Your slain were not killed by the sword, nor did they die in battle. All your leaders have fled together; they have been captured without using the bow. All you who were caught were taken prisoner together, having fled while the enemy was still far away. Therefore I said, “Turn away from me; let me weep bitterly. Do not try to console me over the destruction of my people.”

The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”

Is. 21:5, 10; 22:1 – 4, 12 – 13

Can I get an Amen?

Isaiah Quote of the Week

See, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will lop off the boughs with great power.

The lofty trees will be felled, the tall ones will be brought low.

He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax;

Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;

from his roots a branch will bear fruit.

The spirit of the LORD will rest upon him —

the spirit of wisdom and of understanding,

the spirit of counsel and of power,

the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD —

and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;

with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.

Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,

the leopard will lie down with the goat;

the calf and the lion and the yearling together;

and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,

their young will lie down together,

and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,

and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 10:33 – 11:9