Truths and Lies in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
God is true and every man a liar. Liars, however, dress like their father. That is, just as the Devil appears as an angel of light, so he and his minions appear as tellers, indeed lovers, of the truth.
For this reason, we wrongly tend to attach that word liar to a specific kind of liar. We think liars are dishonest lawyers, cheating used-car salesmen, and drug addicts. They are instead pastors, news commentators, and doctors of philosophy.
Liars can also be silent. That is, what defines the liar is not just the speaking of lies but the loving of lies. To believe the lie is, at the very least, to lie to oneself. Enter The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Christopher Marlowe’s tale, based on earlier folktales, tells of the man who sells his soul to the Devil. It has been retold over the years in sundry forms, including Johann van Goethe’s poetic version.
What intrigues us about the story, however, isn’t the form in which it is told. Our interest in the story, what captures our attention, is the folly of the trade. Jesus, the Truth, wisely asked, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Dr. Faustus wants the whole world, and he trades his soul to get it. The truth is, however, that the deal Dr. Faustus makes is not selling his soul for the world but trading the truth for lies. Not content with what he has learned in his theological studies, he wants a different truth. Dr. Faustus leaves behind a medieval world of revelation for a renaissance world of science. In doing so, he comes to symbolize the whole of Western culture. His story is our story, and his end is our end.
The Beginning of It All
Things are not going well for us. The kingdom of God, in the West, in our day, is less visible than it once was. We are, culturally speaking, in full retreat. We have a U.S. government intent on protecting the “right” of mommies to murder their babies. We have “evangelical” leaders denying the reality of hell. Bible believers are, broadly speaking, perceived to be backward, throwbacks at best, unhinged jihadists at worst. What went wrong? Does Dr. Faustus have anything to teach us? It is certainly the case that moving from truth to lies is the beginning of the end. But where did that begin? Did our cultural decline begin with the advent of the Renaissance?
That particular epochal shift, the Renaissance’s rejection of God’s revelation in favor of our own wisdom, is small potatoes compared to the original epochal shift. If we really want to understand the horror of someone selling his soul to the Devil, we need to look to history rather than fiction. When Solomon sought the wind, he reaped the whirlwind of vanity. Earlier still, however, our first mother and father set the pattern. If we want to understand how we got where we are, if we want to understand how a learned man such as Dr. Faustus can play such a fool, we have to go back to the garden. It was there that a man and a woman did far worse than Dr. Faustus. They didn’t merely sell their souls to the Devil; they sold the souls of their children, their children’s children, and all who would follow.
Unlike Dr. Faustus, Eve was not looking to cut a deal. Faustus calls for the Devil, whereas Eve merely conversed with him. One could argue that the root of the first sin, if not the first sin itself, is found here. When the Serpent first offered up his lies, beginning his seduction with the deadly question “Did God actually say … ?” (Gen. 3:1), the wise thing, the prudent thing, would have been to end the conversation. To even begin to consider that perhaps the Word we have been given isn’t really God’s Word is just how we come to believe the lie that God lies.
Eve, however, corrected the Serpent. God had not said they could not eat of any of the trees in the garden. He had in fact said that they could eat of any tree in the garden, save one. That fruit, she explained, they had been forbidden to eat. Indeed, they were forbidden to touch it.
At this point, I suspect the Serpent was encouraged. Yes, Eve had stood firm on the generosity and grace of God. But she had taken the first step toward believing something other than the truth. She did not take away from what God had said; she added to it. God had not said they could not touch the fruit of that tree. Eve added her own wisdom to God’s, making the two equal. Her words became God’s words. Like every Pelagian who would one day call Eve “mother,” she wanted to contribute. She wanted to give rather than receive. And all it took was to “correct” God, to add to His Word.
It was not long, of course, before this tiny step for woman became a great leap for mankind. The Devil offered up a different truth. God had said that Eve would die if she ate of the tree. The Serpent said, “You will not surely die” (3:4). Eve believed the Devil, as have all her children since then. Imagine the folly of this woman. The Devil had to offer an explanation for God’s lie. Eve was living in a paradise that God had created. She enjoyed every imaginable blessing. God had showered her with grace from her beginning. “But,” the Devil explained, “God is jealous for His power, and if you eat of the tree, you will be like Him.”
A Losing Bargain
In dealing with sundry critics over the years, I have discerned how to discern what drives them. Whatever motive their “wisdom” deems must drive me is almost always what drives them. Eve believed God could be jealously guarding His power because she lusted for that power. The Serpent was more crafty than any of the beasts of the field. He knew what to offer. He knew how to cast a shadow on the character of God. He knew how to get good and loyal creatures to turn on their Creator. He knew this, of course, because he had been through it himself. He knew the thinking that had led to his own fall, and he led Eve right along that garden path.
Dr. Faustus is a much easier mark than Eve. He is already fallen, already given to heed the wisdom of his “father.” What sets him apart from the rest of us is that he is able to win. That is, the shocking part of the story is not that he gives up so much for so little — his soul for a lifetime of power — but that we give up so much for even less.
We are not promised great power, as he is. We are not promised astonishing insights, as he is. We are not offered the power to astonish the world, as he is. We are offered so much less. If we will believe the lie, all we get in return is our own pride. We sell our souls for the foolish notion that we can help to save our souls. We sell our souls for the fleeting, pleasant thought that we are better than our neighbors. We sell our souls so that we might believe this simple lie: we don’t already stand guilty before the throne of God.
This highlights the raw silliness of all such soul-selling stories. Since Eve believed the Serpent, we have all been born the property of the Serpent. He has our souls, and so he need not give up anything to get them. We are fallen from the start. We have nothing to offer Mephistopheles, and he has nothing to offer us. This world belongs to Jesus. Its wisdom is foolishness. Our souls, if we have professed our need to Him, belong to Him. Nothing, not even our own foolish pride, can free us from His loving grip.
God’s truth is not good for our pride. It manifests His glory. It exposes our sin. It is, however, true. It is pride that finally keeps Dr. Faustus from repenting. As his death approaches, as he sees the end of the line coming closer, he is given opportunity to turn from sin. Time and again he is called to repent. His contract includes an escape clause. All he has to do is release the lies and come to grips with what he is: a creature. But his longing for power denies him the ability to say the most potent words ever uttered on our planet: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”