"The Man Born to Be King"
the Risen Christ, now in stereo
During the heart of the pandemic, I didn’t bake sourdough, I didn’t adopt a puppy or a cat or even a plant, and I refused to learn the basics of even one foreign language. To this day the Duolingo owl is a convincing mobster who daily mugs me with shame, but no puedes obligarme aprender español, Duo you thug, and you never will! Instead, I camped in my living room with my wife while our son sleep-trained (again and again and again), I re-dedicated myself to watching as much TV as possible from 10pm to 2am, and I decided I might as well do my darndest to get Type 2 diabetes. Why wait for time’s inevitable ravages? Drink all the soda you can while you’re young, I say. And eat some frosting on graham crackers while you’re at it!
My health barely intact, there were a few less destructive habits I managed to collect that also felt pandemic-specific. I might have developed them without the aid of the last two horrible years, but they’re so intertwined with my experience of staying home full-time during a period of American history where “home” was besieged by pervasive cultural tensions, I can’t shake the association.
One habit, for a short period, was that I began re-listening to radio theater. I grew up in a house dedicated to radio, to the classical station playing as a default, to music from the family room pulsing through the house, and to radio dramas of mostly an evangelical bent. I fell asleep to the sounds of Adventures in Odyssey or G.T. and the Halo Express, and later to full-cast dramatizations of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and more. Road trips were chances to binge these, audiobooks, and other screen-free stories. In 2020 I went back to the old narrative sounds in a way I hadn’t for probably a decade.
Maybe I have my personal chronology wrong, but at some point in 2020 I also decided to read the text of Dorothy Sayers’s 1940s radio drama The Man Born to Be King. Aired during the early part of World War II, they’re twelve, one-hour audio plays about the life and death of Jesus. I’d put my kids down for a nap—which, you know, lasted 20 minutes usually—and I’d chip away at both the text of the plays and an assorted commentary from Sayers collected in my edition. Frankly, I loved them.
Controversial in their own time, Sayers’s plays capture a kind of magic. Her interpretation of certain events, her updating of language and interweaving of traditional (extra-biblical) insights, is funny, moving, sentimental, rich, challenging, and any other blurb-y adjectives I can think of. I cried more than once while reading them. I was stuck in an apartment with a toddler and an infant for twenty-four hours a day so I also cried at Adidas commercials.1 Sometimes the beep of the microwave as it finished preparing my limp, midnight quesadillas caused an entire breakdown. What can I say. I’m very manly and not at all in shambles. People who think you can’t bury your emotions just don’t try hard enough, in my opinion. There’s always a little deeper they could dig if they really wanted it.
As I was saying…
Sayers’s plays felt like a bridge between my childhood and my adulthood. They specifically recalled a certain two-part Adventures in Odyssey episode that led me to write a long piece on radio theater and the difficulties of producing art from within a censorial echo chamber.2 They impacted me on a literary and a spiritual level, which doesn’t happen a lot outside of poetry, for me. Or rather, it’s the only level at which any story makes sense (metaphor and symbolism being meaningless in a totally material paradigm, in my opinion), but the spirituality is rarely explicit, and usually deficit when that’s the case.
But I couldn’t listen to them. There have been five productions, and they’ve all aired exclusively on the BBC. The last recording was made in 1967, as far as I can tell (you know, from reading Wikipedia), and the last time it aired was in 2011. At one point in 2020, I was close to tricking an old BBC site into letting me listen to the plays online, but no dice. Here was a piece of the world that wove various threads of my mental life into one seamless tapestry, and I couldn’t access it, not fully. The internet and all its archival promises lied to me! The Man Born to Be King was a piece of culture whose memory was preserved, but whose recovery was unavailable.
Well, you’ll be happy to know the internet came through in the long run. In December of 2021, Audible released the 1967 production as an exclusive audiobook. I found this out mere days ago. I wish I’d discovered it weeks before, at the beginning of Lent. Having only listened to the first play, it’s remarkable how much campier it is than the text. Not bad, but not as contemplative an experience, not yet. All the same, I’m excited, almost anxious, to hear my favorite bits at volume. The part where Jesus tells a parable almost as a joke, or where Pontius Pilate hears the echoes of the Christian creeds to come, the reverberating chorus of “suffered under Pontius Pilate” that speaks from an eternal present. The one man other than Christ named in a pledge of faith in almost every Christian church for centuries, and it’s as a footnote of torture. I’m sure the scene won’t live up to my imagination, but I’m excited to hear it for the first time all the same.
I don’t have a larger point to make about Easter or The Man Born to Be King or the pandemic. I wish I did. There’s an easy analogy to be made between the suffering of Good Friday and the pandemic, between the opening of our lives and the dawn of Easter. I just can’t get there, for some reason. If the pandemic has done anything to me beyond my waistline, it finalized the way vital narratives of meaning are cocooned within the incoherent (fallen) experience of our lives. The fabric is moth-eaten and patchwork right until there’s a preserved fold, an edge I can trust. I believe in those folds, those moments of faith, but the incoherence isn’t conquered until we, like Christ, also pass through death.
Whether you believe or not you have to admit that the story of a God choosing barbaric death is pretty metal. If you believe, I think such a death can only be comforting. His anxiety in the garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal, his lacerations, his humiliation, his defeat—the God who bleeds understands this knife-sharp world. It’s the only paradox that meets the paradox of life, in my opinion, and transforms it.
From John Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward”:
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke. […]
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face.
Let’s all pray Paul McCusker gets the rights to The Man Born to be King, and gives us the modern edition we don’t deserve.
I love you all.
Yes, yes. We went to parks, we eventually saw family again, etc. etc. Hyperbole is useful, damn it, and I won’t be denied my emotional truth!
I won’t litigate the piece too much here, but while it was mostly well-received, it got some flack for being pretentious. I actually think parts of the beginning are kind of pretentious, and I wish I’d written them differently. Still, I was specifically accused of bashing on evangelical culture in a way I think the piece directly counters. Not that bashing shouldn’t be allowed. Some of you people need to confront the fact that you loved terrible, kitschy crap, just like I did (and do)!
At one point, though, I basically say that a lot of millennials’ disdain of evangelical culture is simply a misplaced frustration with ever having been children. Being embarrassed about being a child is a powerful force! What’s more, I think the piece, despite its faults, is more relevant now than ever. It’s about the wonder of producing something of artistic worth from inside a purity culture. Most current novelists, secular or Christian or otherwise, should recognize the dilemma as one they’ll also have to navigate.