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Writing Martin Luther
Martin E. Marty

At the turn of the millennium, both the late Life magazine and the Biography Channel featured lists of the purportedly most influential people of the past thousand years. Martin Luther came in third, ahead of Darwin, Shakespeare, and Marx. Of course, playing the "most influential game" is as silly as it is fun. In this case, however, it at least served as an alert to the public to take Luther seriously in a context called variously post-religious, post-Christian, post-Western, post-modern, and almost every other kind of "post-" on which one might hang a hat.

Not many years ago the sixteenth century professor of Old Testament had been cast on the heap of carcasses labeled DWEMs (Dead White European Males) by a generation that itself has by now passed on into its own shadowlands of irrelevance. Sometimes I visit campuses where early-stage deconstruction and multiculturalism are regarded as waves of the future, some years after late versions of the same have had to go on the defensive. Not that the "multi"-voices of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or Native America have been heard as much as they might or must be heard. Not that the voices of the 1980s were all wrong in their criticisms of "hegemonic" and dominant cultures. Not that European males merit exemption from scrutiny. After all, or before all, in the century just past they gave us two world wars and a legacy of colonialism whose deficits still cost us moral interest. They generated murderous philosophies such as Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Yet, that is not all that is in their heritage, and now we are again free to explore it. In that company, Luther is receiving a new, and well-deserved, round of attention.

The new and, to my eye, generally accurate and quite engrossing recent film, Martin Luther, and a British-made television program on the same subject evidence interest among audiences convoked by electronic media. Literarily, the monumental three-volume biography of Martin Luther by Martin Brecht, Englished and published by Fortress Press between 1985 and 1993, has appealed, as it should, to the scholarly world. The flow of monographs on Luther and his impact seems unceasing. (I was told that in libraries of the West there are as many entries for Luther as for Napoleon and Lincoln, the other list-leaders; I have not been able to confirm this.) But biographies for the public are few. Go into a library and ask for a straight-out life of Luther, and you are likely to be guided to Roland Bainton's half-century-old classic, the always worth reading Here I Stand. Two signals of renewed popular interest in Luther are short biographies by fellow-Lutherans James M. Kittelson and James A. Nestingen, the latter designed to accompany the new Luther film. Kittelson and Nestingen were able to incorporate insights from the work of those called "social historians" such as Steven Ozment, but they also were able to bring theological nuance to their portrayals, as most social historians could not or did not care to do.

Two other recent books from our time deserve mention and praise for the ways they have occasioned fresh thinking about Luther. They both have "between" in their titles. The late Heiko Oberman, a titan among the scholars, called his Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, and Richard Marius named his Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Without question, the devil and death shadowed everything Luther wrote and said and did, but by casting his life against those two cosmic themes these historians had to slight many ordinary things about him. For instance Marius, a superb stylist, a fine biographer (of Thomas More, his hero), and a despiser of Luther, all but reduces Luther to a "nothing-but" sort, someone preoccupied with almost nothing but death. Marius had to slight the extraordinary in Luther's thought, the strong resurrection and life themes that animated him.

On this terrain of publishing achievements the editors at Penguin Books asked me to write Martin Luther for their series of lives. Viking Penguin editors tend to select authors broadly associated with their subjects, but not career-long specialists who, in some ways, might have gotten so close to these figures that they cannot well provide some of the distance that permits a perspective to develop. In this series Luther joins Churchill, Napoleon, Newton, Dante, Lincoln, Darwin, and many more. Maybe to spice things up, there are also lives of Brando, Warhol, and Elvis Presley. Notables as varied as John Keegan, Paul Johnson, Roy Blount, Jr., Jane Smiley, and R. W. B. Lewis are among the authors.

I am not alone in naming Garry Wills's life of Augustine so far the most notable in the series. (There I go, also playing the "most" game!) Wills had to make the case for "his" Augustine against the background of Peter Brown's biography, a paragon for writers of "lives" and on subjects of early Christian history. Brown subsequently reviewed Wills favorably. I can hope that the career-long specialists on Luther will be as patient with me, an intruder on their turf, as others were with Wills. I think that critics will catch on by the end of page one of Martin Luther that the assignment to authors of religious figures in this series is to keep in mind a diverse audience that includes readers tabbed "secular." That means an audience that may be anti-religious, non-religious, and other-religious, along with those inside, in Wills's case, the Augustinian world and, in mine, the Lutheran.

While in my graduate student days I concentrated on Luther and the sixteenth century through Masters Degree studies, my later vocation took me into modern American and, eventually, global historical inquiries. So this assignment to write about Luther was a welcome occasion to revisit old scholarly haunts and to catch up on a literature that through the decades has kept posing new questions for students of Luther and the Reformation. It also forced me to revisit Luther-an themes in the light of cultural contexts that kept me from seeing this subject as a "modern."

When consulted by authors of memoirs and autobiographies I have often quoted publisher William Sloan, who said to such: "I will not read you to find out about you. I want to find out about me, and will use you as the mirror." That sounds narcissistic, and out of context it could be deadening. In context, Sloan was reminding us that lives, also as they appear in biographies, make sense to us when we can somehow connect them, positively as well as negatively, with our own experience and perceptions. If the biographer does well, that connecting can occur even when stories of people from remote times and places speak to us. Martin Luther became my challenge. At the risk of giving much of the plot away and rather than try to cover all the themes and events that appear in this Penguin Lives life, let me here concentrate on a few central problems and how I address them in this book.

Martin Luther was not a modern, not that being a modern is all that attractive to everyone. What matters here is that contemporary biographers are tempted to promote the relevance of their subjects by making them appear as if they would be immediately at home and recognized in a world such as ours, with its rock concerts, access to cyberspace, psychoanalysis, stem cell research, opinion polls, "the inner child," the search for self-esteem, and the like.

Luther had enormous influence on the world subsequent to his passing and in the era code-named modern, but if one must lock him into the kind of chronological caskets we historians use, he was still at the hinge between "late-medieval" and "early-modern" sensibilities, events, and programs.

Choosing to treat his life without interrupting the narrative every few paragraphs to demonstrate that Luther is relevant and current involves taking some risks and showing confidence in the imagination of serious readers. Will they grasp the intrinsic relevance of a life interestingly lived long ago in this day when talk-show hosts, therapists, advertisers, and politicians-those only extrinsically connected with their lives-clamor for their attention?

Entry into a world where not everyone projects the details of human history against a cosmic cast of characters such as Oberman's "devil" is not easy for contemporary readers. As for Marius's theme of "death," matters are not much simpler. In a world where everyone dies-as Dr. Lewis Thomas used to say when trying to get people to talk about death, "There's a lot of it going around these days"-readers should be able to make sense of earlier acts of facing death and of dying. But then again, we now live in a world where technologically-leveraged medicine, hospital insurance, palliative care, inoculation, and books on "a good death" provide a buffer, or at least an illusion of a buffer, against our common fate.

A biographer of Luther also has to picture readers tempted to turn off someone like him because, though their own movies are full of grotesques and horrors, they do not live in a world haunted by poltergeists and demons. How can one find interest in and empathy for someone in so spirit-filled a world? But in a century when sophisticates have little difficulty getting inside the horror of Picasso's Guernica, the claustrophobia-inducing world of Sartre's No Exit, the hells that playwright Edward Albee and compulsive novelist Franz Kafka depicted, and when slasher films are prime in popular culture, why should it be hard to come close to Luther? Luther's living "between" man and the devil or death should not seem inaccessible.

One asks: is his world, his myth, his cosmic backdrop, so far removed from our imaginations and consciousness that he cannot speak to us, although we are still at home with Dante's Inferno, Goethe's Faustian bargains, and the Canterbury Tales? What the biographer has to attempt, then, is to reach for universal human themes, as Sartre and Kafka or Dante and Goethe did, fully aware that the particulars change in every culture, and from individual to individual within cultures. So: here was Luther, in his world, not ours, speaking to ours.

The revelation that Luther felt insecurity both when he thought God was too close and when he thought God was too far away is an easy connect for most of us. His turmoil and his agenda make little sense apart from the story of his tormented conscience, his obsessive sense of guilt, his apparently pathological sense of a threatening and annihilating God. He was not alone in the history of such worries. In the Bible, the Psalmist typically manifested these features of life. Diaries, letters, and biographies from medieval Europe make clear how menacing such attacks on the inner self appeared in a world of the Black Death, the Crusades, vulnerability to feudal lordly maniacs, and more. Luther lived in such a world, a world in which God's nearness can be perceived as menace and not only as grace. Do we?

John Osborne's play, Luther, tried to cross the gap from contemporary life to Luther's world by seeing him in three various acts: first as someone who wanted to experience the existence of God; then as a subject for psychoanalysis; and in the third act as a person facing a world of absurdity. One gives Osborne credit for thus trying to recreate him, but then what is a writer to do when Luther comes across in his writings as someone for whom God the Existent is too close, too threatening, too capable of creating negative meanings in the stricken soul? How does one create empathy enough to engage the reader in his life?

Happily, few of us give evidence of "making a river of our beds" with tears, as the Psalmist and Luther did. Guilt is a great animator and paralyzer in our time, but one cannot assume that it is always theologically normed, born of fear of a personal God who threatens hell. Hell shows up as a subject of generalized belief among Americans, many of whom believe a little bit in everything, but data collected a half century ago, and re-confirmed at all the chronological stops since, shows that almost no one fears being pushed into eternal punishment there.

A US Catholic poll some years ago found that a majority of Catholics included the category of "hell" in their cognitive inventories, but when pressed to designate someone who would be found there, few came up with names beyond those of Hitler and Stalin. In the world surrounding Luther, however, hell was vivid, though Luther spent less time than one might have expected showing concern for its temperature and furnishings.

Evangelists on television may on occasion preach hell-fire and damnation, but far less than the cartoonists and satirists suggest they do. Instead, to attract and hold audiences they have to advertise the imminent benefits of the moment more than any ultimate threats to the guilty. These benefits include membership in the company of the saved, material prosperity, and therapeutic rewards. Sure enough, the God they picture is a God of Law and laws, someone who is civilly and politically necessary for citizens and their governments to ground the virtue and morality on which a constitutional republic, as "our side" sees it, must be based. Religious figures may threaten that this God will punish a wayward nation, but they then move on to other topics, usually offering more benefits than the losses they threaten.

To the degree that all this is the case, historians and biographers of such people as Luther have to work to make connections with the contemporary reader. His constant themes that offer variations on the cantus firmus, the foundation, namely justification by grace through faith, can sound like solutions that are useless because they address problems people of today are not expected to have. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though Lutheran to the core, lived in a culture wherein he thought preachers of the gospel had to be mindful of the fact that, if they relied on guilt, they would serve only the few. Writing from prison while [over-] advocating awareness of a "world come of age," the German theologian warned that "so-called 'ultimate questions'"-for example, death and guilt-had become divorced from Christian theology and survived in existentialist philosophy and psychotherapy. "That is secularized Methodism," he charged, something which touched only "a small number of intellectuals, of degenerates, of people who regard themselves as the most important thing in the world, and who therefore like to busy themselves with themselves." The "ordinary man, who spends his everyday life at work and with his family, and of course with all kinds of diversions, is not affected."

How to speak to this ordinary person in ordinary situations? Lutheran theologian Paul Holmer said that when traveling he heard many Lutheran preachers telling congregations and audiences not to try to please the angry God by their efforts. They should not try to get in good with God through merits. They should not rely on works, works, works. Holmer looked at dozing congregations of comfortable suburbanites and asked, "Who's trying; who's working?"

Here is Paul Tillich, speaking out of a Lutheran tradition:

Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith. This idea is strange to the man of today and even to Protestant people in the churches; indeed, as I have over and over again had the opportunity to learn, it is so strange to the modern man that there were scarcely any ways of making it intelligible to him.... And we should not imagine that it will be possible in some simple fashion to leap over this gulf and resume our connection with the Reformation again.... There is in the educated groups a complete alienation from Luther and in the proletariat a determined hostility to him. Hence, what we should do is to discover anew the reality which was apprehended in that earlier day and which is the same today, and then present it in new terms to the man of today.

How Tillich himself did this is not our point; he could take care of his own affairs. Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Holmer had other things to say on this subject, but the cited themes are limiting. They do not do justice to the many kinds of guilt that can and do become manifest in contemporary life. It is hard for a believer in God to go through life never having experienced a sense of having offended God, gone wayward, transgressed, sinned, become guilty. Many of them, many of us, at least during worship say so in confession, and mean it. It is also hard to go through life without profoundly offending those close to us or, of course, without sinning against the enemy. The alert Christian conscience at such times is moved to a sense of guilt that poises one to understand Luther's interpretation of the Gospel and its pastoral and personal implications. But these experiences of guilt are so moderated, suppressed, and pushed aside that they do not guarantee that the present-day reader can hear Luther.

Great articulators of the hermeneutical vision in modern times regularly address this very question, and often haul up the putatively inaccessible Luther as a prime exemplar of the problem. The grandfather of them all, Wilhelm Dilthey, posed the problem as well as anyone, and in many respects my Martin Luther reflects a passage which I must quote at some length.

The course of every person's life is a process of continuous determination in which the possibilities inherent in him are narrowed down. The crystallization of his nature always determines his future development.But understanding lays open for him a wide range of possibilities that are not present in the determination of his actual life. For me as for most people today, the possibility of experiencing (erleben) religious states of mind in my personal existence are sharply circumscribed. However, when I go through the letters and writings of Luther, the accounts of his contemporaries, the records of the religious conferences and councils, and the reports of his official contacts [as MEM was chartered to do again for the past three years] I encounter a religious phenomenon of such eruptive power, of such energy, in which the issue is one of life or death, that it lies beyond the experiential possibilities in a person of our time. But I can re-live (nacherleben) all of this.... And thereby this process opens up for us a religious world in Luther and in his contemporaries in the early Reformation that enlarges our horizon by including possibilities that are available to us only in this way. Thus man, who is determined from within, can experience many other existences in imagination. Although he is limited by his circumstances, foreign beauties of the world and regions of life that he could never reach himself are laid open to him. To put it in general terms, man bound and determined by the reality of life, is made free not only by art-which has often been pointed out-but also by the understanding of things historical. [Quoted by Theodore Plantinga, Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (Toronto, 1980), p. 23.]

You won't read that dense paragraph in my Martin Luther, because the biography is not a monograph that carries on debate with scholars of the past two centuries. No one who lived after 1555, when Katherine [von Bora] Luther died, is mentioned. But Dilthey, though not cited, provided both a description of the problem of empathy and a charter for dealing with it, fortuitously using Luther as his paradigm. He also rescued me from any impulse to make Luther sound modern or relevant in a contrived way and, from the reader's point of view, in a way that makes Luther the victim of condescension by a didactic author.

Tillich and Dilthey, among others, suggested that one approaches someone like Luther through analogies to other experiences (Erlebnissen) than the subject's own, without doing an injustice to the subject of the biography. In fact, through such an approach the subject is more free to speak than if he is cited as a figure who speaks immediately to all in our day. The first responsibility, in any case, is try to let Luther speak for himself, to ears somehow readied.

Only arrogance or folly could lead a biographer to claim that she or he is presenting, without distortion, a "new" Luther who is not faced by Bonhoeffer's ultimate questions of guilt and death in terms of the repertory of options provided him in the sixteenth century plus those Luther derived especially from the Bible and earlier Christian history. The theme and reality of life "by grace through faith" remained central to Luther. How mediate that today?

If the classic question used to summarize Luther's quest and impact is "How can I find a gracious God?," a further reading in the light of subsequently posed interests and insights leads one to what is in its own way a deeper question, or a question behind the question. That is: how can I know, how can I find assurance, that this gracious God is "for me?" In his world of insecurity and uncertainty, how could Luther realize that the word of God, the story, the commands, and, most of all, the promise, i.e., the Gospel, was accessible to him through Scripture, applied to him, and itself made sure in his experience?

Let me close with four samplings, glimpses of this search for assurance and certainty-Luther did not applaud securitas, security, because it means smugness and pride-in his life.

Sometimes Luther's quest took an intellectual side. I make much of the time when as a young monk in Rome he dutifully climbed the Santa Scala, on each step saying a stipulated prayer. He regretted that his parents were not dead because by his prayers he would have been shortening the time they would have spent in purgatory. Yet in that holy act on the holy steps in the holy city, at the top of the steps, Luther let a question nag him: "Who knows whether this is really true?" Could one rely on the promises? That kind of question came up again and again in his career, sometimes in intellectual argument and just as often as a churning element in his soul.

Try another. After his first mass, which his father Hans Luther attended, Martin was almost traumatized, even before his father turned to him and asked questions that pushed him again to the abyss of insecurity. "Have you not heard that you are to honor father and mother? Have you not disobeyed your own parents by your choice to go against their strong wishes and enter the monastery?" Might it have been the devil and not God who called him?

When facing the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, Luther heard the kind of question that pushed him to that same brink. "Are you alone wise? Shall all the rest have been in error, and for so long?" His inner voice kept asking, "Suppose you are in error, and have seduced so many others into error, to be damned in eternity?" Later he confessed that he had heard: "Shall you, an individual and insignificant man, dare such momentous undertakings? What if you are the sole sinner? If God permits so many great ones to err, might he not permit one individual to do so?"

A fourth scene: the papal delegate Vergerio sounded Luther out concerning a possible church council, something Luther rejected, being sure that "we have no need whatsoever for a council, for we already have the pure word of God. ..." Vergerio asked "Martine," "What are you saying, my dear fellow? Look to it that you be not too conceited, for you are mortal, and can err. Do you think you are cleverer, wiser, more learned and holier than so many church councils and holy fathers-than so many men of great learning throughout the whole world, who also honestly confess themselves to be Christians?"

While most reviews of the film, Luther, were favorable, some critics had difficulty seeing how such a tremulous, insecure, frightened figure could also be the leader of a movement that sundered Europe and left enormous traces on subsequent Western world life. They thought the film was overplaying Luther's experience of the horrors in his monastic years. Such thinking, however, is a signal of failed imaginations. That insecurity and how Luther took his experiences of insecurity and did become such a leader is a major element in the plot of my Martin Luther. And, I dare say, a not insignificant theme in the plots of most lives, even today.

 

 

Martin Luther by Martin Marty will be published by Viking Penguin Books in February. Marty is the Faifax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago and a Lutheran minister.

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