Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers


Crystal Downing


Broadleaf Books (an imprint of 1517 Media)

Publication Date:

November 10, 2020




200 pages


When scholars talk about C.S. Lewis and the writers he associated with, certain names pop up immediately. J.R.R. Tolkien comes up first, followed perhaps by Charles Williams. Then there’s a woman who may not technically have been an Inkling but who Lewis considered a good friend and one of the most influential Christian writers he ever read: Dorothy Sayers. A successful fiction writer, lay theologian and Dante translator, Sayers courted controversy by criticizing lukewarm Christianity and reminding people how counter-cultural Christ was. In Subversive, Crystal Downing looks at that counter-cultural side of Sayers’ work and how her belief in Christianity’s compelling and even shocking qualities is still important today.

It’s become quite routine to say that young people are not interested in Christianity. Statistics by various organizations have showed a growing number of young people listing “None” as their religion, church leaders bemoan church attendance, and Christian parents share stories about children who don’t share their faith. Early on in this book, Downing makes the case that Sayers’ work provides an answer to such religious apathy. This is a well-argued and insightful argument, because it cuts to the core of what many young people complain about Christianity: they find it either boring or insubstantial.

The Barna Group’s book You Lost Me noted that many millennials describe their religious upbringing as defined by “helicopter parenting,” giving the impression faith required living in small artificial worlds (which, being artificial, were easy to knock over). Sayers, who wrote that some Christians talk about faith as if Jesus is a geriatric man sitting in a corner who must be protected from hard questions, would certainly sympathize with young people’s concerns. Much of her work focused on the idea that Jesus was more substantial and subversive than many Western Christians realize. The things he taught were often shocking, forcing people to drop defenses and consider what they really believed. His death was shocking on the physical level (historians describe crucifixion as perhaps the most brutal execution method ever) and on the spiritual level (what kind of radical love would motivate someone to die for people didn’t deserve it?). Christ’s story may be many things, but it certainly isn’t boring or shallow. In Sayers’ words, the story of Christ is “the greatest drama ever staged.”

As Downing explores other key elements in Sayers’ thinking, she continually shows how those ideas are vital today. Sayers’ concern that many Christians see faith as doing things to get God’s favor seems highly relevant when many Christians say they’re disillusioned by teachings that make faith sound like something one gets in a supermarket. Sayers’ arguments that poorly-made religious works (be it Christian books or church furniture) don’t impress anyone is a vital critique in today’s “Christian subculture” where people seem to be making more mediocre Christian products than ever before. Over and over, Downing shows that Sayers’ ideas haven’t aged much. If anything, they may be more important today than in her own lifetime.

A terrific book on an underrated and under-read Christian thinker.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 stars

Suggested Audience

People interested in Dorothy Sayers’ life and writing, with a particular emphasis on her views about cultural Christianity and how develop a more substantial faith.

Christian Impact

The author cites theology and Scripture throughout the book as she analyzes Sayers’ work, along with references to C.S. Lewis on several occasions. In doing so, the author emphasizes how the Gospels call people to be more than just respectable and how Jesus is frequently a subversive figure in his interactions. Thus, this book pushes readers to be more than just respectable Christians and live a faith that embraces Christ in all his glory.

Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers


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