The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition

Reviewed by:

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


The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition


Dorothy L. Sayers (edited by Kathryn Wehr)


InterVarsity Press

Publication Date:

January 24, 2023




464 pages


Many people today know Dorothy L. Sayers as the mystery writer who invented Lord Peter Whimsey. Others may know her for excellent lay theology works like The Mind of the Maker. Still others may know she was a good friend of C.S. Lewis and at least one other Inkling (Charles Williams inspired her to study Dante, leading to her famous translation of the Divine Comedy). Fewer people know that Sayers became the center of a huge religious controversy during World War II.

The Man Born to Be King, twelve interconnected radio plays produced from 1941 to 1942, told the story of Jesus’ life from birth to death. Since British law then forbade stage plays depicting Christ, and many people assumed the law applied to radio plays, the project’s concept upset some. Sayers shocked even more people by deliberately upsetting their sensibilities. Concerned that many people had gotten so familiar with church language that they overlooked the Gospels’ content, Sayers used modern English, including Cockney slang. Some people were so outraged that they called the fall of Singapore in 1942 God’s judgment on her “blasphemy.” The project went ahead despite protests, and many credited it for helping them understand the Gospel story for the first time.

This new edition contains the full play scripts, introductions by Sayers as well as BBC Religious Broadcasting Director the Rev. Dr. James Welch, production notes by Val Gielgud, and new material by Kathryn Wehr. Wehr’s material consists of a general introduction, introductions for each play, and annotations throughout. Her annotations include Bible verses whose details appear in the plays, notes about books that Sayers mentions, references to Sayers’ letters, and other notes clearing up areas of confusion.

Sayers’ and Welch’s introductions still make for fascinating reading. Welch’s repeated references to making these plays for children seem amusing, given that the plays have enough complexity for adult audiences. Sayers’ introduction is filled with discussions that will interest scholars (whether Christ’s story fits Aristotle’s model of tragedy) but also insights that lay people will appreciate. Some criticisms she recalls, like someone arguing she should have used “the sacred English original” Bible (apparently unaware the Bible is translated from foreign languages), are well-meaning but ill-informed criticisms that appear every time a major Bible story gets adapted.

Sayers’ defense of portraying Christ’s story as shocking, which it clearly is, generates great food for thought. What if, as Sayers claims, “ginger solemnity” becomes frivolous? What retelling Jesus’ story in an inspiring, inoffensive way becomes insulting? Sayers warns, “Not Herod, not Caiaphas, not Pilate, not Judas ever contrived to fasten upon Jesus Christ the reproach of insipidity; that final indignity was left for pious hands to inflict.” Wendell Berry warns in his new book The Need to Be Whole that we take God’s name in vain… when we say God’s name “with ostentatious piety or blabbingly or too often.” It may be more sinful to treat God the Son in a pious, cute way than to admit he was a controversial fellow.

Wehr’s introductions and annotations are a wonderful resource for any reader. She sets the scene for readers encountering the plays for the first time, giving them all they need to know. She clears up some common misconceptions Sayers specialists have stumbled over. For example, Welch refers in his introduction to Sayers translating the Gospels from the original Greek. Wehr clarifies that Sayers consulted a Greek New Testament alongside three Bible translations and the Book of Common Prayer. Wehr also draws on the Marion E. Wade Center archives to show how the plays’ scripts changed over time.

The plays themselves? They have aged well. The first play, “Kings of Judea,” is especially interesting since Sayers had told the Christmas story three years earlier in the radio play He That Should Come. She sidesteps retracing her past work by “Kings of Judea” with the Magi meeting Herod, bypassing the “Mary and Joseph find an inn” scenes. The dialogue hasn’t universally aged well, which inevitably happens as slang changes and some forms even disappear—one British scholar estimated in 2010 that true Cockney accents would disappear within 30 years. However, Sayers doesn’t rely so much on slang that the dialogue can’t be understood. The text still makes sense and is alternatively clever, funny, suspenseful… and always compelling. Readers can see how these plays reached their audience as a mix between The Message and The Passion of the Christ—the language so relatable it sounds like a new story, the plot unafraid to upset.

A nutritious new edition that is well worth reading and re-reading.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 Stars

Recommended Readers:

Fans of well-written Gospel plays, readers interested in Dorothy L. Sayers’ work, or readers looking for a new way to read the Gospel story.

Christian Impact:

Sayers helps readers understand Jesus’ role as Messiah, prophet, and king and what made him the most unexpected man his audience had ever seen.

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The Man Born to Be King: Wade Annotated Edition

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