Faust And Us

Western humans have been fascinated since at least the latter portion of the thirteenth century by the notion of a man who makes a pact with the devil. The two most famous stories of this pact deal with the marginally fictional character of Faust. I say “marginally fictional” because there were stories going about during the medieval period concerning an actual magician by the name of Dr. Johann Georg Faustus who sold his soul to the devil for personal advantage.

In Christopher Marlowe’s version of Faust, the main character agrees to sell his soul to the devil for pleasure, money and power. In its way, it is a story of a man who succumbs to the temptations offered to Christ in the New Testament. Marlowe’s Faust is very human and, unlike Christ, is unable to resist the temptations, though his struggle generates a tragic story that is extremely well told. Some would say this portends the story of modern man who has succumbed to the same temptations and is therefore doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But most of us are far too sophisticated to listen to such gloomy predictions. Besides, it’s just fiction.

But more interesting, and in its way much more profound, is the story of Goethe’s Faust, a story that Goethe spent 50 years writing and which tells of a pact between the brilliant scholar Faust and Mephistopheles (the devil). Not only is Mephistopheles an intriguing character as Goethe presents him to us, with his humorless, cold, uncaring demeanor, but the character of Faust is fascinating as well. Like Marlowe’s Faust, Goethe’s character is driven and every bit an egoist. Unlike Marlowe’s Faust, however, Goethe’s main character is saved in the end. He is saved because while he initially succumbs to the temptations the devil offers him, seducing a young woman and abandoning her after she has killed their illegitimate child, in the end, after spending years wasting his time in pointless pleasures, he turns his attention outward and finds meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence: he is saved through his works. More to the point, he is saved because he finds satisfaction in doing something he loves that benefits others. He finds himself by losing himself in good works. It’s a thoroughly Christian message, as found in the epistles of St. Paul, but it is one we could all learn from, since we seem to resemble Marlowe’s Faust so much more than we do Goethe’s.

Marlowe’s Faust wants pleasure, money, and power. Goethe’s Faust is simply bored. He wants to discover an activity that is totally absorbing, so much so that his boredom disappears and his delight in the moment is such that he wants it to last forever. He finds that moment in helping the Dutch (presumably) recover their land from the encroaching Oceans — another prescient message for us moderns, should we choose to listen! Goethe’s is the more profound story because, while initially succumbing to the temptations of Mephistopheles, he is able in the end to turn his back on them and find salvation by devoting his life to good works. Marlowe’s Faust simply makes a deal and then wallows in pleasure and debauchery. He struggles in the end, because he realizes what his pact entails; but he is lost.

It is fascinating to think that stories written so long ago can have application today. But human beings don’t really change, and great minds sense the problems that we all face now and in the future. Their stories are timeless. Both Marlowe and Goethe sensed that the modern era would bring with it temptations on an order never before witnessed. Marlowe was convinced humans would succumb; Goethe held out the hope that by imitating Christ humans could save themselves in the end, by working to help other humans who are worse off than they. Christ rejected the temptations of the devil. Goethe’s Faust initially succumbed to them, but realized that these were fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying — that way did NOT lie happiness — and then turned his mind toward the needs of others. The devil was confounded: he thought they had a deal! But Faust escaped from his clutches, not because he was a good Christian (in so many ways he was not), but because in the end he was a good man.

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Putting the “You” In Church

One of the fascinating things to think about in this self-involved culture we love to call our own is the current situation in the churches. They live on the edge of a contradiction that is fascinating in its way.

As we all know, the traditional churches are losing parishioners at a rapid pace. After all, self-absorbed people don’t want to be told what to do and cajoled into making sacrifices when they are used to being stroked and entertained. Both Protestant and Catholic Churches have lost large numbers of members in recent years as many people raised in traditional churches either drop out of church altogether or transfer to other, more “friendly” churches that will give them what they want. What they want is to be entertained and this is what the mega-churches promise. And they deliver.

The Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. It is so big that they now hold their services in a renovated sports arena.Their services come complete with expensive coffee and doughnuts, lounge chairs, TVs, and a bookstore they can visit during or after the service as parishioners are welcomed in with messages designed to assure them that absolutely nothing will be asked of them (except for a small contribution); their need to be stroked as they were when young and in school will be continued and kneeling is optional; they may sit where they want and take in a service that is sure to thrill and delight them.

These devout people are assured that winning is a good thing and that God wants them to be wealthy. Three of the four largest churches in this country practice what is called “prosperity Christianity” which tells parishioners that God wants them to be rich.The self-esteem mantra is repeated steadily that assures them that they are special and that they will be successful if they really want to be successful — because God would never let them desire something they couldn’t achieve. As pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church says “God would not have put the dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it.”

The contradiction to all this comes once they are lured into the mega-church and they are then told that they really should love their fellow-man (except homosexuals, of course) — though they must love themselves first (repeating the false cliché that insists that self-adoration leads to healthy relationships with others). They are also told that God doesn’t want them to sin, even though He does want them to prosper. So under all the hype there is a trace of the traditional message of Christianity as Osteen and others of his ilk tell the gathered throng stories about St. Paul and Jesus that warm their hearts. He also admonishes his parishioners that they must “take time for people [most people]. . .learn to appreciate them. When you go to the grocery store, encourage the cashier. Be friendly.” There are also rules: no adultery, no idols, go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff — faint echoes of the Ten Commandments. And this from a man who has been telling these people that first and foremost is their love of self and that God wants them to be successful and prosper.

The contradiction between self-adoration and the friendliness they are supposed to show toward [some of] their fellow humans (which frequently demands that they actually pay attention to others) is passed over lightly as people flock to the services and go home feeling good about themselves, assured that as long as they are pleasant to the cashier at the local grocery store they are living the good life and that while they must keep one eye on their weaknesses and make sure they don’t fall too deeply into sin, they are on the right track and doing just fine. And meanwhile the traditional churches where God comes first and parishioners are reminded to be humble and care about others see their pews slowly empty, their doors close, and the buildings turned into homes, apartments, or public houses.