Sin as Boldly as Anyone*

cover of Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas
A Christmas present for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

Reflections on: Eric Metaxas. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. (New York: Viking, 2017).

[An installment of the Read Me Project.]

Martin Luther was a Christmas gift, this Christmas. The person who gave it to me was delighted to be giving it to me, too, the way you feel when you’re sure you got someone exactly what they’re going to love. “Your hero!” she said, expectantly. I was perplexed enough that I didn’t do a good job of communicating equal delight. “Well, Calvin’s really our guy … but we study Martin Luther too, of course …” So I wanted to get to reading it right away, so I could redeem myself a little, at least.

I admit, though, that I was less than enthusiastic about the enterprise after I read the back cover. Does anyone really care about what the “cofounder of PayPal, entrepreneur, and author of Zero to One,” thinks about a book about Martin Luther? As if those are credentials for assessing the quality of a book about a medieval theologian? Another blurbist described the book as “massive,” and I thought, no doubt more than a little smugly … well, your operational definition of massive and mine are really different. (As in: Church Dogmatics is massive. The Hindus by Wendy Doniger is massive. For that matter, The Order of the Phoenix is massive. By that standard, Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas is not that massive.) If this was evidence for what the publishers thought about the audience for the book, I wondered what I was going to find between the covers.

But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the blurbs led me to believe.

Martin Luther is definitely a “popular” biography of the great Reformation theologian, not an original history, but it has the virtues of its genre. It reads easily and pretty quickly; it tells a good story; it adores its subject and goes a long way to making the reader share at least some of that adoration. And since I’m probably never really going to read any of those scholarly biographies of Martin Luther, it was good for me to read this one, so that I learned things about the Father of the Reformation and the story of his early life and how he became a monk and then a doctor of Bible and then a church administrator and then an agitator, and more of the necessary background of the period, than I would have known otherwise. Reading Metaxas’s story of Luther reminded me of things I didn’t even remember I’d forgotten from that class on the Reformation I took about 15 years ago, too, so now I have a little better sense of who Karlstadt and Melancthon were and how they relate to Bucer and Zwingli, and why that would have mattered enough for our professor to have given us a chance to learn it.

There is a fair bit of “myth-busting” in the book, too. For instance, Martin Luther’s parents were probably rather more bourgeois (or perhaps proto-bourgeois) than people have traditionally thought. Martin Luther himself was not trying to break up the church, just reform it, and maybe the whole schism could have been avoided at various points if his opponents hadn’t made the decisions they made. [OK, we did learn that in Reformation class, too.] Katharina von Bora and the other nuns did not actually escape from their convent in herring barrels. [Dang, ‘cause that was such a good story.]

So all in all, for an entertaining, accessible overview of the early Reformation in Germany from a Lutheran point of view, Martin Luther seems like an OK source.

I took exception to his analysis of Thomas Müntzer as a “utopianist,” though, with an “urge to utterly nullify all state authority, and therefore to usurp all that was political by assuming it into the church community.” (313) I don’t think “utopian” is a dirty word, and it’s certainly not automatically a synonym for “violent.” And he seemed pretty unsympathetic to the German Peasants, too, which was a little gratuitous, I thought, considering they lost horribly, and had real grievances that bespoke the pathetic hardships of their daily lives.

I confess, too, that I wasn’t in love with Metaxas’s prose, in particular his wearisome use of the construction “as X as any.” George Spalatin would become “as important a player in this story as anyone” (24) and Augustine “was as foundational and revered a church thinker as any who ever lived” (51) and Wittenberg “played as vital a role as any” in the tale of Luther’s life (70) and Frederick the Elector “learned the political ropes as quickly and as well as anyone could have hoped to do” (72) and it kept on like that for the whole 400 pages. But in spite of that, I was not prepared to read that Luther could not have known that his anti-Jewish screed On the Jews and Their Lies would get picked up by the National Socialists, who hadn’t been invented yet, and “that that diabolical cause would end with the murder of six million Jewish noncombatants in as cold-blooded and calculated a manner as anything in the history of the world.” (417) Seriously? How many readers have so many other archetypally cold-blooded and calculated world-historical events in mind that they need to be reminded that the Holocaust is at least as awful as those? Plus, doesn’t “noncombatant” sound a little … accidental? Collateral to the main purpose? In which case, is “noncombatant” really as good a synonym for “victims of intended genocidal annihilation” as any? [I’d say, “No.”]

So, if I had actually been looking for a book on Martin Luther, I might have held out for a different one. But on the whole, as a Christmas present, Metaxas’s Martin Luther was definitely at least as good as any.

*It occurred to me that this title won’t make much sense to someone who doesn’t know that Martin Luther once said “Sin boldly.” Which he said, as I understand it, not thinking anything like “Go ahead, kill people, no worries,” but rather thinking that since God is forgiving we don’t need to be all that worried about whether we will land in eternal trouble if we make a bad piety call, like eating sausage during Lent instead of fish. A number of people, however, do know that Martin Luther said this. You are one of them. [added 3.15.18]

More on the “Read Me” Project

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