Most of us have used expressions like “Faustian bargain” and “selling your soul to the Devil.” That, unfortunately, is all we know about the legendary Dr. Faust and the transaction that turned his name into an adjective.
“Unfortunately” because Goethe’s poem articulates, in dramatic form, parts of the human experience that still—if you’ll pardon the pun—bedevil us today: our longing for freedom from any kind of authority, our thirst for knowledge, and our desire to bend nature to our will.
Faust, however, is a hard read, which is why you need a guide like my friend Ken Boa and his Great Books Audio CD Series.
As Ken tells his listeners, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe didn’t invent the character of Dr. Faust. The German legend of the man who sold his soul for knowledge dates back to at least the 16th century.
In the age of the Reformation, the story of Faust was seen as an object lesson and a warning. But in Goethe’s era, the Enlightenment, Faust was a prototype of man’s ideal aspirations. Faust had become a symbol of man’s emancipation from authority. His salvation no longer mattered—what mattered was his courage in seeking to obtain previously unobtainable knowledge.
Goethe’s idea of a hero as one who shakes off the bonds of religion in order to seek knowledge was central to the Enlightenment worldview, and turned the Christian message on its head.
In Part One of Faust, a scene reminiscent of the prologue of Job, we see God and Satan, called Mephistopheles in Goethe’s poem, debating the merits of Dr. Faust. Mephistopheles questions Faust’s goodness and devotion to God, citing Faust’s ceaseless search for knowledge and the inner turmoil this causes.
God acknowledges Faust’s turmoil but says that ultimately Faust’s soul will be saved. Mephistopheles bets God that by offering Faust what he strives for, he can turn Faust away from righteousness.
Mephistopheles offers to show Faust the secrets of the world and let him experience the profoundest pleasures in exchange for his immortal soul. Faust agrees, seeing himself as risking little, since he doubts the immortality of the soul.
In the end Faust is “saved,” but, as Boa points out, his redemption is anything but Christian. He is saved not because he repents of pursuing knowledge and pleasure but because he strove after them. Goethe employs Christian imagery to turn Christian beliefs upside down.
According to Boa, Goethe’s Faust is the supreme expression of faith in man’s humanity—humans as the center of everything. That this is expressed using Christian imagery makes the rejection of the Christian worldview that much clearer and exposes the same “bargain” that we’re being tempted with every day. I wish all politicians could understand this.
Studying Faust is worth your time, with the right guide of course—a great way to see what is false in our culture. This work will help build your capacity for discernment.
So visit our website, BreakPoint.org, and find out how you can subscribe to Ken Boa’s Great Books Audio CD Series—and how you can strengthen your Christian worldview as you read the great classics of Western thought.