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The Globe’s flat Doctor Faustus shows belief in the Devil is fading

Marlowe’s mighty drama about salvation is reduced to the level of a television gameshow

By on Monday, 25 July 2011

Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Do people still believe in the Devil these days? I certainly do, but belief in Satan seems to be fading from popular culture. Or so the current production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus at the Globe Theatre (details here) seems to prove.

Some critics, at least the ones mentioned on the theatre’s website, seemed to like the production. However, Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph was less than impressed by all the jolly japes and Brian Logan over at the Guardian puts his finger on it for me, writing:

[The production] musters little by way of divine terror. You leave feeling you have plumbed the contents of the theatre’s wardrobe department, not the depths of the spiritual abyss. The problem is partly that we don’t believe in hell any more.

Faustus is a problem play: much of it consists of low and rather tedious comedy, book-ended by scenes of the utmost grandeur and seriousness. But if we no longer believe in the Devil, and his appearance on stage seems no more frightening than that of some pantomime villain, then Faustus’s bargain – his immortal soul for 24 years of devilish power – seems less than gripping.
But even today works of art can evoke the devilish. I am a huge fan of The Exorcist, a truly frightening movie. It leaves us in no doubt that Satan and his evil ways are a danger to us all. By contrast this production of Faustus makes little impact because Lucifer, when he appears on stage, seems no more threatening than any other imaginary bogeyman.

Marlowe’s play is one that I have read many times, but never seen until now, so I was tremendously disappointed. The hero struck me as infantile in his defiance of God, someone who clearly did not understand what he was rejecting. In this he struck a curiously modern note, reminding me of our own angry atheists, who reject God and pontificate about religion and yet never ever say anything that betrays the slightest understanding of what it is they reject. Their anger is existentially flat: a real tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But what about Marlowe himself? Did the man who wrote these lines hold religion in contempt?

Oh, I’ll leap up to my God: who pulls me down?
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.
One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ!

I do not think one can hear these mighty lines properly delivered and not feel that the drama of salvation is precisely that – a drama, the most serious and engaging drama there is. But if we have lost sight of the Devil, and the concept of evil, and the terror that damnation should inspire, then what is left to us? Paradoxically, Faustus himself provides the answer, as he fritters his 24 years in a series of silly practical jokes: he does not get much from his side of the bargain.

One wonders what the audience, which was predominantly young, made of it all? They presumably live in a world where good and evil have been replaced by the concepts of appropriate and inappropriate: Faustus then seems rather like one of the less fortunate participants in a television gameshow.

A play like Doctor Faustus simply can’t work outside the framework of Christian theology. Our loss of belief leads us into existential and cultural impoverishment.

Incidentally I have often preached about the question of evil and mentioned the fact that Satan does exist, and that damnation is a real possibility, and that our lives on earth will have an eternal resonance. Some people have thanked me for this, but not all: I was once severely told off by a lady for mentioning Hell in front of children. One cannot blame the clergy for our fading belief in hell. Uncomfortable truths…

  • Annie

    I do like Marlowe.This takes me back to 4th year watching the U6 boys’ school production; The set fell over, footstools were cast down, Helen shivered in nylon, and campness abounded, it was magic.

    As John Constantine says (in the movie Constantine), when the cop says she doesn’t believe in the devil : ‘You should. He believes in you.’

  • Amanda

    One of the devil’s greatest triumphs…. persuading people he doesn’t exist!

  • Anonymous

    For anybody other than Christians this is hardly surprising, but one wonders precisely how one can call oneself a Christian without belief in the Devil. Christianity, or any other world view, must incorporate some admission of evil and anybody who believs in a personal God must admit the existence of evil in the form of something like Satan. Any man who believes in God but not Satan is simply believing a child’s Christianity and cannot truly be called a Christian or even a religious man.

  • Francisco Samour

    Belief in the devil is dualistic and anti-christian. The devil is a symbolic figure in the Bible. He is never presented as some sort of evil god as some people seem to believe. Remember that in Genesis God, the only one true God, says EVERYTHING THAT HE CREATED IS GOOD. So, no, there’s no devil and IT IS NOT CHRISTIAN TO BELIEVE IN THE DEVIL.

  • Annie

    Jesus said the devil exists.

  • Francisco Samour

    So. Not everything God created is good. That’s what you are saying. And you are contradicting the Bible.

  • Annie

    No, I’m not contradicting the Bible, or Christian doctrine. It’s not dualistic to believe Satan a fallen angel.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Annie is perfectly right here, Francisco. Your objection, by the way, was answered very satisfactorily by St Augustine many centurues ago. Evil is a privation of good.

  • Parasum

    People know that Hitler existed, and murdered huge numbers of people. They know Stalin existed, and murdered huge numbers of people – very many more than Hitler ever managed. They know of the even vaster hecatombs butchered by Mao. And there are the smaller cruelties, like the bloodbath in Rwanda, the Armenian genocide, the slaughter in war-time Croatia, the blood-letting in the Spanish Civil War, the two (!) World Wars, the glorious achievements of Pol Pot & his  fellow-butchers, and countless other crimes of every description. Why should they believe there is a devil, when man does a outstanding job of being the devil ?

    People are asked to believe in God – & that is too much for many. Why should they believe in an equally unverifiable (& unneeded) spirit of evil ?  The existence of these human murderers is not dubious, but the same can’t be said of the devil; to believe there is such a being, probably looks from the outside like wilful & unreasoning indulgence in mythmaking. When you have a Hitler to gas industrial numbers of Jews, what is there for a devil to do ? Reinforce the impression made by Hitler, who has been thought (though wrongly) to be purely evil, with the attainments of super-Hitlers like Stalin & then Mao, & the number of corpses – about 150 million, at a conservative estimate – is impressive. And that is “thanks to” just three men. If murder were an Olympic event, they would be on the podium for sure.  Add all the other corpses supplied by the other slaughterers, and the numbers don’t get any smaller. 

    For many people, belief in God is too much as it is; to ask them to believe that there is a malign & powerful spirit seeking to compass their destruction is to heap one improbability upon another; and to make belief in an Almighty & Good God even more difficult.  Yet orthodox Christianity affirms the existence of both. No wonder it looks absurd – such a reaction is entirely understandable.  

    On a technical point: one “believes in” God – & one “believes there to be” the devil. The distinction is in St. Thomas. “Belief in”, IIRC, includes confidence in Him.

    Perhaps belief that there is a Hell has not been helped by certain kinds of preaching about it, that represent God as a  particularly ingenious & minutely fastidious - but eternal and omnipotent – member of one of the torture-squads that seem to be so common these days. Forms of Christianity that represent God as creating human beings solely for the purpose of damning them to an eternity of torment; especially as some passages in the Bible can be brought in to shore up this revolting picture, one which is discussed by Sir Arnold Lunn in an exchange of letters with C.E. M. Joad in 1934. When God is represented as differing from the devil only in being infinitely cruel, no wonder  people reject such Christianity. The Satanisation of God by those who should know better has done incalculable harm.   

  • Francisco Samour

    You give Satan godlike powers. No one can challenge God, except only if there was another god. We are the only ones responsible for our sins and that’s why we need God’s Grace in order to be able to Love. Not because we are evil but because in our God given freedom we mistakenly tried to be like God.

  • Parasum

    This implies that evil can be attributed to a cause. It may be less traditional, but closer to the Bible &  much better philosophy, to say that the existence of evil in the world is an insoluble riddle, & one that is part of the human condition. That would mean it is insoluble to us – not that it is outside Divine Providence. I would be less uneasy about “devil-talk” if the devil did not seem to have so many mythological connections.

    What is is more, it’s not clear that a myth about a fallen angel/divine being, however valid in the past, is of any use to us now. Probably no-one now explains thunder as coming from the hands of Zeus, “Father of gods and men” – they explain matters, not by considering what the  gods might be doing on Olympus, but by looking to scientific explanations. And the two aren’t seen as complementary, but as mutually exclusive, as arising from different modes of thought, one useful, & one out-moded. When epilepsy is in Mark 9.14-29 ascribed to the action of demons, even though it is controllable, not by exorcism but by the correct medication, one is left with a “devil-of-the-gaps”, as it were, a being whose alleged activity has no explanatory function because it explains nothing that cannot be explained on other & better grounds.

    I call myself a Christian because I believe in Christ – which is probably the answer many others would give. Whether there is a devil is of no importance in comparison with Him. BTW, satan as spirit of evil, a sort of rebel god in miniature, is a late-comer to Biblical tradition. For most of the Biblical period, evil is sent by God or men. Only slowly did the “demonic” aspects of Divine personality become separated from God and solidified into a different & evil & antagonistic “personality”.  

  • Anonymous

    This is amazing.  The comments I’ve read on this site show an abysmal lack of understanding of the devil, the teachings of the Church, and the nature of evil.  The devil is very real.  That he is permitted to work his mischief is a mystery — the mystery of iniquity.  All of creation was created good by God, but he gave (and gives) each person (including the angelic ones) a free will.  Those who choose other than God suffer the consequences — eternal separation from God and the loss of all that is good within themselves.  This is easy to understand.  Hell is this condition — rational supposits that have no longer any reference to Good.  The reason that the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate was to recreate our human nature, irreparably damaged by the rejection of God by our first parents, and to offer us an even more exalted status — that of adopted sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of the Incarnate Word.  However, we must want to serve God, to submit ourselves to Him in this life.  This is something Lucifer and the fallen angels refused to do, and what many today refuse to do.  They also refuse to serve God.  Having lived for almost 6 decades I’ve had my share of run-ins with the infernal denizens of hell.  They are very real, and very malicious.  Don’t take my word for it though.  Read the Fathers of the Church if you want real theology about evil — something the neo-Modernist “theologians” of today don’t believe in or address.  Too bad that they will one day meet their master and be very unpleasantly surprised that he exists.

  • Lguymoore

    The idea of the devil was borrowed anyway from primitive beliefs long before the power hungry Romans decided to use it to subjugate Europe and beyond. 
    Some looked to the morning star and saw that after it’s appearance came light. So they made wishes to Venus which they hoped would be followed by light. 
    This threatened only those who stood to lose from this kind of worship. The fear of the loss of power is at the root of transforming Lucifer into a being of ‘evil’ who ‘steals’ the  light of the ‘true’ god.  
    Just as Pan and many others have been demonised and have had all sorts of attributes attached to them until their ‘persona’  was transformed only to suit those who sought power themselves from depicting pagan objects of worship in this distorted way.
    Personally if their is evil in this world, I believe it is in that moment that someone appropriates what is beautiful and denounces it as damned  (ie the equation of the morning star with some hitherto unheard of devil)  and obscures historical facts about who we actually are to control and attain power over others.
    Of course the establishment of the church has benefitted enormously from obscuring earlier teaching, and  left a huge gaping hole in the human spirit , a sense of loss, disassociation, absence of meaning to life, which, suprise  suprise!  Is precisely what they offer us ‘back’  on condition we join the church and worship in their churches.  
    Well personally I would rather not belong to an establishment which persists in obscuring the truth about the invention of the ‘devil’ and frightening people into their throng. 

  • Peter

    The devil is very subtle.  He can do 99 things right so you trust him and then do one thing wrong which you trustingly follow which leads to your damnation.

  • Lguymoore

    It is perfectly obvious that life is full of change.  Things grow and things deteriorate. Try to imagine a world where things only ever grew and didn’t decompose- or a world where it was always hot and never cold. Is it possible to be always in equilibrium? No it is not , it is obviously impossible; as impossible as it is to be black and at the same time white. 
    If we do not learn to accept that extremes of all kinds exist of their own accord across a spectrum of every degree of change in between these extremes, we are likely to fall prey to the temptations of religious belief. Only those who fall prey to this temptation; a weakness of vision; will ever have problems with the devil  :-)

  • Anonymous

    I agree, but the devil’s normal modus operandi is whispering little lies and half truths. The first thing he says in the Bible (to Eve) is a little lie that causes all sorts of trouble and even if you don’t take the story literally, the point is clear. The devil is ordinary, commonplace and mundane, and his temptations are something we have to deal with every day. That is very different from the portrayals of the devil in popular culture nowadays, especially in films like the Exorcist.

  • Francisco Samour

    Annie is dead wrong and Saint Augustine ain’t infallible. His theology is for another time when biblical exegesis was non existent.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Um, I wrote a blog saying that belief in the devil was fading away, and guess what happened? Whole load of people whose comments reflect that – er – belief in the devil is fading away. Thanks for proving my point, chaps.
    What should the Church do about this? Any ideas?

  • Annie

    Tell it like it is, that the devil does exist.

    I don’t see how a Christian can not believe in the devil when Christ is so explicit.

  • Annie

    No, the devil doesn’t have the power of God, but he’d like you think he has. I think people challenge God all the time with their sinful behaviour, we do have the freedom to do good or bad. But it doesn’t change the fact that the devil exists (Jesus Himself says so in scripture) and tempts us to do wrong.

  • Annie

    On page 88 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it explains very clearly about the devil, and the next page explains original sin.

    You can also find the relevant section in the catechism online, here: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s2c1p7.htm

  • Ignatius

    “Do people still believe in the Devil?” It depends what you mean by “the Devil.” Do you mean some kind of creature with a real independent existence, a figure in Christian mythology, a symbolic personification of evil or what? Those who say they do believe in the Devil and talk about the Devil “doing” this or that and berate others for not believing in him are somewhat dishonest in their rhetoric because they never make it clear what they mean by the term.

  • Francisco Samour

    You are now just lying. Number 88 of the Catechism says the following: “The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the
    fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes truths
    contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes in a definitive way
    truths having a necessary connection with them.” Check the real catechism at the Vatican website, not the crazy fundamentalist version.
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__PM.HTM

  • Francisco Samour

    Also on the UPDATED real Catechism it says:
    “388
    With the progress of Revelation, the reality of sin is also illuminated.
    Although to some extent the People of God in the Old Testament had tried to
    understand the pathos of the human condition in the light of the history of the
    fall narrated in Genesis, they could not grasp this story’s ultimate meaning,
    which is revealed only in the light of the death and Resurrection of Jesus
    Christ. We must know Christ as the source of grace in order to know
    Adam as the source of sin. the Spirit-Paraclete, sent by the risen Christ, came
    to “convict the world concerning sin”, by revealing him
    who is its Redeemer.

    389
    The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the “reverse side” of
    the Good News that Jesus is the Saviour of all men, that all need salvation and
    that salvation is offered to all through Christ. the Church, which has the mind
    of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation
    of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.

    How to read
    the account of the fall

    390
    The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a
    primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of
    man.Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first
    parents.”

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P1C.HTM

  • Francisco Samour

    The Catechism says:
    390
    The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a
    primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of
    man.Revelation
    gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is
    marked by the original fault freely committed by our first
    parents.”

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/

  • Oconnordamien17

    I think I can paraphrase this article in two sentences.

    “I can’t use the threat of hellfire to frighten people”.
    “I can’t use Pascal’s Wager to cajole and bribe people”.

  • Amette

    I was just taking a breath, so to speak, to explain that, Father!  Of course, we do have to accept, on that thinking, that although the devil is a vast and terrifying abyss in that he lacks so much of the angelic nature he should posess, yet in order to still exist at all, that which remains is the remnant of good.

  • Amette

    Maybe Annie was using the page number instead of the usual paragraph number.  The Charles Borromeo site has exactly the same Catechism as on the Vatican webside, but has the advantage that you can search it.

  • Oconnordamien17

    Very simple idea!
    Come up some some actual evidence of the it’s existence.
    Or indeed evidence god exists.
    If the church can prove the existence of one we will, I’m sure accept the other by default.

  • Martin

    I’m not sure if you are stating your position out of total ignorance or just lack of biblical knowledge. You are twisting what God said in order to justify your position.

    Everything God created was good, it was perfect.

    The only problem about being made good (as with the angel)s was that everything that was created had free will and was therefore capable of (although not required to) sin. (that is do things apart from God).

    All the way through the Bible the Devil is depicted as real.

    Have a look at the following references:

    Isaiah 14 12 – 15 and Ezekiel 28 12 – 18.

    Whilst satan may be guilty of thinking of himself as a god, NO WHERE does the bible call him anything other than a Angel or the Power of the Air.

    The Devil does have real power although it can only be exercised under the tolorences that God allows him (see the book of JOB).

    For you to disregard the devil is to totally disregard scripture and one of the goals of Christ….to destroy the work of the devil.

    You need to rethink your theology i think.

  • Anonymous

    Just because the devil may be similar to figures found in ancient myths does not make him any more or less real; and I have yet to see a pagan myth that sounds so like the Christian concept of the devil that it would make me uneasy. Also how is it closer to the Bible to say that the world is an insoluble riddle? The figure of the devil is mentioned specifically in the Bible and his role is essential to prove the Bible’s points; several of the miracles of Christ, his temptations and even the fall of man are best explained by the tempter who presents makind with the temptation to turn away from God and to abandon themselves; also the belief in devils may be old but that is in no way relavent to the discussion.

    Also the belief in the devil is not, as you say, a latecomer to the Bible. As I say he is mentioned several times in the Bible itself, specifically and by name. Possibly people may try to remove this by scientific methods but any such attempt is doomed to failure to prove, or disprove, the existence of anything supernatural (be that God or Satan.) These two are both final causes of good or evil and so we can talk until blue in the face about science and still not have an answer concerning their existence.

    Also Satan’s role in the Bible is made clear throughout and the doctrines that come into play concerning his character as a fallen angel and an enemy of God are most obvious in the book of Job; God allows Satan to excercise his free will and test Job (just as he allowed him to excercise his free will and turn away from God) and Satan does this to cause evil and pain to humanity as anybody who has belived in his existence has believed. One last thing: please do not refer to Satan as “a rebel God in miniature” – he is not a God and it is bordering on blasphemy to say that he is.

  • Tim Robertson

    At Fatima Our Lady showed the children a vision of hell, in order to reveal that God had a plan to save sinners from going there through establishing in the world devotion to her Immaculate Heart. 7 year-old Jacinta, the youngest of the seers, loved God so much, and was so appalled that souls could be lost in hell for ever, that she said to Lucia: “why doesn’t Our Lady show hell to sinners ? If they saw it, they would not sin”.

  • Anonymous

    Twit

  • Annie

    Yes, I said ‘page number’.

  • Annie

    If you read the post you will read ‘page number’.

  • Tomasbroder

    Wonderful to hear Francisco ! Why is Jesus and others talking about the Devil? That is an important questions for all polyteists (having one good and one evil god).

  • Hellenataylor

    I am grateful to Fr Alexander for highlighting the important work that goes on at The Globe.  It is a wonderful and fruitful treasure for this country.  Moving aside from Marlowe for a moment, Shakespeare’s plays are of great import to anyone of the Catholic faith.  He was undoubtedly Catholic, as Claire Asquith proves in her wonderful book “Shadowplay,” and Joseph Peace discusses in his “Quest for Shakespeare.”  When we Catholics can claim back our greatest playwright, the Globe will be an important place for us to nourish and celebrate that understanding.  His great plays highlight the emotions that were brought about by those times and are still pertinent for us today.  Thank you Fr Alexander and thank you to the creators that bought The Globe into being.  

  • Djhbhj

    ALLAH! ALLAH! ALLAH!

  • Fred

    which wouldn’t be your fault, would it? If you were caught out by a loan shark, would you or he be in the wrong?

  • http://twitter.com/philoec Nora Smith

     Au, but the devil truly exists. Have you read the part of the Holy Book where the most beautiful angels got full of pride to the point to deny the existence of God by turning themselves into god. God and the devil are real, just look around your world. Denial of the devil is foolishness. The creature must acknowledge its place and stay there, for God is Omnipotent.

  • http://twitter.com/philoec Nora Smith

     Pride is the mother of all sins!