Monday, September 27, 2004

Sayers, Judas Iscariot, and Intellectual Humility

I have recently been reading Dorothy Sayers' play-cycle The Man Born to be King. The plays, twelve in all, were written for BBC radio, and were first performed from December 1941 to October 1942. When they came out (but beginning before they had actually come out!) they were extremely controversial, people condemning them (without having heard them) for being "irreverent," "blasphemous," "vulgar," and the like. But they were also very popular.

Sayers, who had written several other religious radio plays before being approached for this project, using John to reconcile any apparent discrepancies in the Synoptics, translated large selections directly from the Gospel Greek into a very colloquial, readable English dialogue; she builds her dramatic apparatus around these selections. As one might expect, there were plenty of people who complained about both the colloquial English and the dramatic apparatus. In one scene she has Herod tell his court, "Keep your mouths shut." Someone wrote in protesting that such coarse expressions shouldn't be attributed to anyone "so closely connected with our Lord". To this Sayers replies sarcastically:

Sacred personages, living in a far-off land and time, using dignified rhythms of spech, making from time to time restrained gestures symbolic of brutality. They mocked and railed on Him and smote Him, they scourged and crucified Him. Well, they were people very remote from ourselves, and no doubt it was all done in the noblest and most beautiful manner. We should not like to think otherwise. (The Man Born to be King, p. 22)

Part of Sayers's intention in the plays is to refute the notion that the people who did all this "were people very remote from ourselves."

One of the most interesting aspects of the play-cycle is her characterization of Judas Iscariot. For dramatic purposes there is some need to develop his character beyond the minute amount we find in the Gospels themselves. This she does by starting Judas out as a disciple of John the Baptist, and building the story of a sort of running debate between him and Baruch, a Zealot, on the course Israel's future should take. In her first characterization, she calls him "infinitely the most intelligent of all the disciples" (p. 69), and, in fact, makes him almost understand Jesus through sheer native intelligence alone. But always there is a serious problem with intellectual pride. Judas has an idea in his head about how Messiah should operate; he approves of Jesus because Jesus conforms to it. But he never allows that his idea could be flawed. As Sayers says of him:

He means to be faithful--and he will be faithful--to the light which he sees so brilliantly. What he sees is the true light--only he does not see it directly, but only its reflection in the mirror of his own brain; and in the end that mirror will twist and distort the reflection and send it dancing away over the bog like a will o' the wisp. He has all the gifts--both the practical and imaginative; and his calculating friend the Zealot is quite right in saying that he will fall, like Adam, by the sin of spiritual pride. (p. 114)

Sayers does an excellent job of portraying Judas as she intends. There is always a hint, even when Judas is at his most sincerely devoted to Jesus, that it is always in his eyes Judas standing in judgment of Jesus (even if only to approve him) and never once Judas standing before Jesus in order to be judged. Judas knows what Israel needs; the question on Judas's mind all along is: Does Jesus know what Israel needs? He is walking, as Sayers says of him later, by sight and not by faith: so long as Jesus obviously seems conforming to his standards, Judas is the most loyal of followers. Once Jesus doesn't seem to be, however, Judas assumes that Jesus has sold out (and, worse, it turns out that Judas was simply mistaken in his interpretation of Jesus' actions).

This struck me as very powerful. In June I wrote a post on the book of Job, in which I suggested that the problem with Job's friends is that they reasoned something like this. As I said:

They take a truth with which everyone in the book agrees (Job 9:2, 12:3, 13:1-2), namely, that God who is just and wise, gives affliction to the wicked as just punishment. They see a fact before their eyes: Job has been afflicted. They fallaciously conclude: Therefore Job is wicked. Job denies this, of course. The three friends, taking this reasoning as solid, take the original principle, which the book is clear should not be held in doubt, to depend entirely (by modus tollens) on the claim (which we, God, Satan, and Job all know to be false) that Job is wicked. Therefore, to preserve the justice and wisdom of God, they must prove that Job is wicked....

And it never really occurs to them that they might not be as knowledgeable as they think they are, nor that they might be making a mistake in their original reasoning (despite the fact that it certainly is fallacious: from God's punishment of the wicked they cannot validly conclude anything about Job). And so with Sayers's characterization of Judas Iscariot. It seems to me that this is always a very deep danger; and that the more educated and intelligent people are, the more likely they are to make it. Hence the need for us all to cultivate the virtue of intellectual humility.