Arts & Culture & Theology 101

Sayers: Why Beauty and Excellence Matter in Our Work

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Man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something. — Dorothy Sayers

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was a British author famous for her detective novels involving the character Lord Peter Wimsey. Outside of her fiction writing, she is most well-known for challenging Christians to transcend the culture and transform the world through everyday work.

The daughter of an Anglican priest, Oxford-educated, and the contemporary of such literary luminaries as G.K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie, Sayers was well-versed in theology and the arts.

In addition to her fiction, she wrote several influential essays. Among her favorite topics was the issue of vocation. She even said she had an “obsession” about the right attitude towards work.

That Christians lacked a biblical perspective on work was all too clear to Sayers.

She declared in her essay “Why Work?” that,

I have already, on a previous occasion, spoken at some length on the subject of Work and Vocation. What I urged then was a thoroughgoing revolution in our whole attitude towards work.

Sayers’s clarion call to rethink our view of work is still needed today. Much of what IFWE writes about regarding the biblical meaning of work echoes her core message:

 1. Work is a creative act. 

To Sayers, work was an art form. Speaking of work in the opening paragraph of “Why Work?”, she writes,

That it [work] should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

Genesis 1:26-28 reminds us that we are made in God’s image and called to put our creativity to work in subduing the earth. As Sayers points out in the above quote, God, as Creator, makes things. So, then, should we create, to reflect the God who created us. Work is one of the many creative acts we undertake throughout our lives. What would happen if we approached our work as an art form, producing something beautiful, and not as “just another job?”

2. Work points towards our ultimate purpose.

The Westminster Catechism teaches that man’s chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Work, Sayers argued, was one means by which we can carry out this chief end. She writes,

I asked that it [work] should be looked upon, not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God.

In other words, viewed as whole-life stewardship, work is not something, as Sayers said, we do to live, but something we live to do. What would happen if we approached our work as a means to glorify God?

3. There is no distinction between “sacred” and “secular” work.

Yet another implication of the biblical doctrine of work Sayers addressed is that we need to “recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred.” Sayers writes:

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious or at least uninterested in religion…. But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?

Often we think of exercising our faith at work as simply sharing our faith over at the water cooler or the coffee pot. While that’s important, our work means much more than that. Integrating faith and work means doing your work well. The quality of work is an important thing to emphasize. As Sayers writes,

No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth.

This is more than telling someone to “not be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays.” It is important to say, “work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.”

When we do our work with excellence, we bring glory to God.

Viewing work as a creative act, one purposefully carried out as an act of worship and excellence, could truly revolutionize how we view vocation and how we go about our daily tasks. Sayers’s desired “revolution in work” may yet be realized.

Editor’s Note: Read more about the biblical meaning of work in How Then Should We Work?

Help reach more people with the critical message that their work matters to God! Support IFWE today!

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