January 23, 2008

The Secularization of Dr. Faust

2008 1503 page17 cap German legend tells of Dr. Faust, who purposely sells his soul to the devil. The tale 
has been revamped, retold, and modified in music, verse, and prose by everyone from Christopher Marlow (1564-1593) to the rock group Radiohead. The most famous, and ambitious, version was Johann von Wolfgang Goethe’s Faust (1830). In it, Faust—frustrated by the emptiness of life and learning—makes a pact with the devil, who promises him anything he wants in this life as long as Faust will serve him in hell.
About 100 years later, another German writer, Thomas Mann, created his own version, a novel called Doctor Faustus. In this case, Faust is Adrian Leverkuhn, a theological student who offers himself, body and soul, to the devil in return for 24 years of musical genius and success.
What’s fascinating about Mann’s version, as opposed to Goethe’s and the original legend itself, is what Mann has done to the tale. Near the end of the story, Leverkuhn invites friends to his house and before the stunned crowd declares, “Already since my twenty-first year I am wedded to Satan and with due knowledge of peril, out of well-considered courage, pride, and presumption because I would glory in this world, I made with him a bond and vow.” As he continues his rant, the guests slowly leave, one after another, all thinking him mad.
Mann concludes with Leverkuhn having collapsed into insanity. His pact with the devil turns out to have been nothing more than the hallucinations of a man who, perhaps from syphilis, had lost his mind.
2008 1503 page17Then it hit me: Thomas Mann had modernized the Faust legend! A story that at its core effused supernaturalism had been secularized, and Satan himself turned into nothing more than twisted synapses. What a powerful metaphor for the times!
Sure, we’re supposedly in the postmodern era (or even past that now), when folks are antirationalistic, antiscience, and antitruth, seeking more how things will meet their needs rather than whether these things are part of some transcendent and eternal reality, which they think probably doesn’t exist anyway.
Yet if pushed from a cliff and accelerating at 32 feet per second (despite their disdain for overarching law), any postmodern would prefer to have their broken bones fixed by whom—a modern medical doctor, or a Santeria faith healer? And I’ve never seen a postmodern drive a car or fly in an airplane propelled by anything other than the laws and principles of mechanics, combustion engineering, and aerodynamics. Indeed, even the most irrational relativist assumes as givens many of the modernist and scientific presuppositions that underlie life today.
That’s because natural laws are part of the created world; they’re just not the whole part, something easily forgotten, submerged as we are amid the scientific rationalism of the age. We seek first a scientific or naturalistic explanation for just about everything: Joe Schmoe gets sick, say some, not because of Satan, but because he eats too much Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. But maybe he eats too much Chunky Monkey because, taking advantage of his proclivity to gluttony, Satan inspired him to.
Natural explanations, of which we have so many today, don’t exclude supernatural factors possibly hidden behind them, a point that Adventists, infused with the supernaturalism inherent in the great controversy, shouldn’t overlook but often do. In fact, two Adventists recently wrote a paper, arguing that many miracles in the Bible attributed to God were really just the forces of nature, nothing more. It’s bad enough, secularizing reality today, mak-
ing the great controversy between Christ and Satan nothing more than a struggle between, say, strong and weak nuclear forces; but to do that to the Bible as well?
Just because we shouldn’t see demons lurking behind every doorknob doesn’t mean those demons don’t exist. Let’s not unwittingly make our own Faustian bargain with the secular rationalism of our time and, as a result, sell our souls to the one who in the bargain dupes us into believing he isn’t in our faces when he really is.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. He also appears on the HopeTV program CLIFF!