Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Martin Luther!

Today is Martin Luther's birthday.  I've written before about the Reformation and what it means to me--and Western civilization.  Would we have had a Reformation without Martin Luther?  Yes, certainly.  But I could make the argument that we'd have ended up in a completely different landscape without him.

At the turn of the millennium, I remember reading many essays about which historic figure had done the most to launch us into modern life, and Martin Luther made the list.  Einstein eventually won Time magazine's Human of the Millennium designation, as I recall.  But we could posit that there would have been no Einstein without Luther.

Maybe that's a stretch, but still, how long would it have taken for mass literacy to have taken off without Luther?  Luther translated the Bible into the language of ordinary people--which infused ordinary people with a fierce desire to be able to read it.

Sure, argue that the printing press fostered literacy--you'd be right.  And you could make the argument that we'd have had no Luther without the printing press.  With no printing press, Luther's words would not have found the wide audience that they did as quickly as they did.

I know that Luther has some awful traits, like his beliefs about the Jews.  Of course, he was like many Catholics of his day.  Does that excuse him?  I'm torn about this, to be frank.  As an English major, I've had to deal with the fact that most of the writers who produced work that I loved also happened to have beliefs that I've found reprehensible.  But should I reject the work of  William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge because they allowed/expected Dorothy Wordsworth to transcribe their poems?  For years, I did.  But then I read more, and realized that Dorothy took great joy in their literary community.  It seemed unfair to castigate William and Samuel for their lack of modern feminist sensibilities.

Even as a Lutheran, I find some of Luther's writing to be a bit much.  His concept of grace very much hinges on his dim view of humanity and our sinfulness.  It can be hard for a 21st century sensibility to accept.

And yet, he's different from most pre-19th century theologians.  Think about Calvin, for example, with his view of pre-destination.  And think about the medieval theologians with their anti-woman, anti-flesh, anti-pleasure views.

Here's a quote from Luther, courtesy of The Writer's Almanac:  "Be strong and cheerful and cast out these monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you: 'Do not drink,' answer him: 'I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.' One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me."

I also value that Luther valued women, unlike so many thinkers of his day.  His marriage to an ex-nun, Katherina Von Bora was by all accounts happy, and he treated her well as they raised their 6 children and gardened and made music.  There are many denominations of Christianity where I could never feel at ease because of their negative beliefs about women; happily, I've rarely felt that negativity in the Lutheran tradition, the ELCA, which I must rush to remind readers is the liberal branch of the Lutheran tree.  In the more conservative branches, I might not feel that way.

The Catholic church will never canonize Luther.  In fact, I'm told that in Rome, there's a statue of Martin Luther in the arms of Satan.  But if I was in charge of the process, I'd nominate Luther.

I know that candidates for sainthood need to have performed a miracle, and the Catholic church would see miracles differently than I do.  For me, the fact that Martin Luther could take such a strong stand and not back down ("Here I stand; I can do no other") and still survive the full wrath of Rome--that's miracle enough for me.  With the smidge of translating that I've done in my life, I give miracle credit to Luther's task of translating the Bible from Latin into German.

What would be a good way to celebrate this feast day?  With good beer, of course!  And probably some hearty sausages.  And more beer.  I wish I liked beer.

And we should probably do some singing.  Maybe write some songs.  If we don't have musical training, we can do what Luther did:  take popular music (Luther used drinking songs) and craft theological lyrics.

Or maybe we should celebrate more simply, but more profoundly:  we can read the Bible in our own language and say a prayer of thanks for Martin Luther, who realized the importance of being able to do that.

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