A Rebel in the Ranks

by Brad Gregory, Harperone, £18.99

A few years ago, a Lutheran friend sent me a link to her favourite website: Lutheran Satire. The brainchild of a US Lutheran pastor, it focuses on Church humour from a Lutheran angle. The goal is catechesis through comedy, and no issue or religious leader is too sacred to poke. One of the site’s most popular videos is a cartoon called “The Reformation Piggybackers”. The plot is simple: Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. Then he heads for breakfast. But he’s promptly stopped by Huldrych Zwingli, then joined by John Calvin, and then by Henry VIII – who, after a few collegial pleasantries, start denouncing each other and bickering over who really owns the Reformation they all claim. Meanwhile, Luther argues that he never “left” the Catholic Church. He got kicked out.

Funny and shrewd, the video is also uncomfortably close to the truth. As Brad Gregory notes in his absorbing, wonderfully readable new portrait of Luther, the brilliant German monk never intended to start his own Church. Quite the opposite. He wanted to reform from the inside the Christian Church commonly shared by all Europeans of his day, a faith that shaped nearly every aspect of daily life. And looking back on the first decades of the 16th century, at least some of Luther’s early complaints against the conduct of Church leaders were clearly warranted.

The Christian Church had seen periods of decline, rot and renewal before. Reformers and heretics were not a new phenomenon. This is one of the reasons Catholic leaders failed to grasp the unique pre-Reformation dynamic emerging in Germany. In Luther and his times, they faced something without precedent. Increased lay piety and literacy in the 1500s contrasted with the corruption and institutional sclerosis of many Church leaders. Changes in commerce and technology, like the printing press, combined with the spread of Renaissance humanism and emerging nationalist sentiment to erode the habit of automatic deference to Rome.

In Luther himself they had an opponent of striking intellect and ego, tireless work ethic, moral perfectionism and ferocious skill at polemics. What Luther set in motion, though, quickly exploded in a way he did not foresee and could not control.

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