Communion, Community, and Our Common Book: Or, Can Faustus Be Saved?

By Jeffrey, David Lyle | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Communion, Community, and Our Common Book: Or, Can Faustus Be Saved?


Jeffrey, David Lyle, Christianity and Literature


Some of you will know that my family was in the cattle and horse business. As a teenager I was strongly inclined to continue in that same direction.

One late spring day I was putting out hay to the young cattle when my father came suddenly alongside and spoke to me. "See that bull over there?" He pointed toward our first-string polled Hereford bull, one of the best we ever had and, as a four-year-old, probably also the biggest. Given the time of year, Bozo was itching to get out of his pen and on about his work: pawing the ground, tossing up the dust on his back, he was throwing his head in the wind to catch a whiff of the possibilities. "Yes," I said, realizing that my father meant more than he said. "I see him."

"What's the difference between you and that bull?"

Now a teenager can think up quite a few smart-aleck things to say in a situation like that, and I was thinking some of them. But if you had known my father, you probably would have responded pretty much the same way I did: "I don't know sir," I said. "What's the difference?"

"That bull does not understand the principle of delayed gratification. You do."

I came only later to understand that this brief Socratic exchange would be my singular experience of "the talk"--an entire sex education in three sentences. (Actually I have always been grateful for the brevity of it.) My father was a man of few words; his language formed by the Bible, he took seriously the biblical adage that "he who restrains his lips is wise" (Prov. 17:27).

My father did not readily approve my decision to go to college rather than buy some good bottomland not too far from the home place. His argument was again succinct: "David, you show me a college-educated Baptist, and I'll show you a backslider." (I have come to appreciate this sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as a kind of dour realism.) But I went, of course, and into a world of words, as he would say, in the multitude of which there "wanteth not sin" (Prov. 10:19). It is a source of relief to me, and of peace, that my father came in the end to accept my sense of calling to a kind of work in which my tools would be books, and to a world of new neighbors who would be part of a quest for common understanding that has stretched much further than either of us could have foreseen.

I

A most excellent benefit of membership in an academic community is that we continue, lifelong, to learn from one another. Iron sharpens iron. In literary study this can be most richly evident when we are obliged to reconsider a favorite work in the light of fresh readings (or interpretations) offered by a sister discipline such as music, cinema, theology, or theater--or by a literary scholar whose perspective is sharply divergent from our own.

It recently happened that I was asked to review a stage script and offer, as promised a year earlier, an introductory lecture for our theater company's production of The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus. The script, when it arrived, proved rather forbidding. My colleague the director, in his effort to make Christopher Marlowe's sixteenth-century tragedy more accessible to twenty-first-century students and lay audiences, had interspersed (at some cost to the original burlesque counterplot) excerpts from hellfire sermons of the eighteenth-century theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards. To make the anachronism plausible, he had moved the venue from Wittenberg to Yale and introduced, as Professor Faustus's rector, Elisha Williams.

Now, howsoever much I strive to keep promises to my colleagues, I confess that I felt a certain doom settling upon me in this instance. In fact, my foreboding was such that I asked for my lecture to be scheduled the afternoon following (rather than, as first planned, preceding) the opening-night performance. It didn't help much. Through the dim and strobe-lit chemical smoke the dashing young Mercutio-like Faustus zipped through his speeches like a practiced telemarketer. …

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