The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Series (And Not So Serious) Look At The Man Behind The Myths, by Andreas Malessa
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Kregel Book Tours. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
For a little book of barely more than 150 pages, this book is a complicated one. The author is a debunker of myths, but recognizes the power of myth-making and the complexity of the man she is dealing with. There is a great deal to laugh about, but also some deeply reflective and troubling elements to the book as well. At some points the author shows herself to be deeply familiar with the life and writings of Martin Luther and interested in a scholarly portrayal, and at other times she deals with a great deal of the scatological elements of his writings as they are remembered and appropriated today. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the accidental beginning of the Protestant Reformation, this book seeks to capitalize on a greater interest in Martin Luther, and it manages to be a good book, even for those whose knowledge of his life may be a bit slight .
This short book is divided into 25 short chapters, each of which deals with a single myth about Martin Luther. Some of these myths are of large historical importance–including what Luther was upset about, his intentions, his personal background, his supposed alcoholism, what he was supposed to have said or written, and his supposed anti-Semitism. On this last charge the author gives a sad confession, and in general the tone is an honest one, warts and all. Other myths were completely unfamiliar to me and may seem a bit trivial, like his supposedly secret marriage, the fact that he had witnesses present during his relations with his wife on at least one occasion, his last words, his bathroom habits, and his planting of an apple tree. The author keeps the work varied in tone and also manages to strike a powerful blow for historical accuracy and the need for us to recognize the difficulties we have of knowing what someone said or did exactly, even for someone under the sort of scrutiny that Luther was, where his words and behavior were continually subject to people seeking to print his words and discuss his supposed behavior for their own profit and their own agendas.
It is fairly easy to see what target audience this book is aiming at. The author’s writing is aimed at Lutherans who want to take a critical but respectful look at Luther the man and his influence in world history. I happen not to be a Lutheran myself, although I have a great deal of respect for him for his principled stance against abuses and his desire to preserve order while also encouraging reform, despite the fact that I have rather critical views about his failure to properly align his beliefs with scripture and his acceptance of Augustine as a model for a great deal of his belief and practice. Even so, the book itself has both a critical and respectful perspective that gives the reader insights while avoiding both an attitude of hagiography as well as the sort of corrosive criticism that tends to encourage chronological snobbery among those who falsely feel themselves free of the residual prejudices of the past. There is a lot to learn from in this book, a lot to appreciate, and a lot to ponder over as we face our own corrupt culture and the desire to stand for God and to overcome the evils of our own times as well as the bent natures of our own dark hearts, to be as courageous as Luther was, if perhaps closer to God’s ways than he was.
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