Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography, Andrea Grosso Ciponte (illustrator), Dacia Palmerino (text), Michael G. Parker (translator). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017.
Summary: A richly illustrated graphic biography of the life of Martin Luther, covering the major events of his life from boyhood to death, and the setting in which that life took place.
I’m not a graphic novel person. I’ve only reviewed one graphic novel on this blog and I was ambivalent about it. So I had my doubts when this new “graphic biography” of Martin Luther arrived for review. Add to that the spate of books on Luther on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and you had the recipe for skepticism. Instead, I have to admit that my encounter with this work was powerful, leaving me thinking about Luther’s life in a fresh way.
The artist’s palette is dominated by reds, earth tones, dark blues, grays, and black. Somehow, this worked in capturing the setting of Luther’s life–urban streets filled with rats, plague, poverty, and violent justice; castles and churches for isolated study and refuge, public disputation and conflict; sumptuously clothed churchmen and demonic figures; night-time journeys of lightning filled terror, kidnapping, scenes of slaughter from the Peasants War, and a final journey to death. This preview serves as a good sample of the graphic character and quality of the work.
The artwork and selection of episodes from Luther’s life brought a familiar story from church history to fresh life. We glimpse Luther’s strict upbringing amid the horrors of plagues and burnings at the stake, a severity of discipline and the justice of God. We trace the turmoil of a young man struggling under a sense of his own inadequacy before a righteous God, vowing to become a monk to the disappointment of his father, finding no relief in confessions, penances, journeys to Rome or counsel with Father Staupitz. We accompany him in his study of Romans at Wittenberg, until his stunning realization that the righteous lives by faith, that by faith we are made righteous.
We trace the beginnings of the Reformation to the posting of the 95 Theses in response to Father Johann Tetzel’s marketing of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica. We glimpse the power of the newly invented printing press in circulating his ideas, and fomenting discontent, which must be quashed by Rome. We see the dawning realization of this monk that he is not defending Rome from excesses and errors but facing Rome’s power to excommunicate and condemn him, and his courageous statement before the Diet of Worms:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or clear reason, I am bound by the biblical texts I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Therefore I cannot and I will not recant anything. I cannot act contrary to my conscience. So help me God! Amen.”
The artist imaginatively captures Elector Frederick’s daring ploy to secret Luther away to Wartburg Castle, the temptations he faces as he hides out in idleness, and the determination to translate the scriptures into the vernacular. Subsequently he goes free, returns to Wittenberg, and provides shelter for nuns who, influenced by Luther’s ideas, have left the convent. He marries one of these, Katharina von Bora, who basically tells him she should marry her!
What we encounter less in the histories of Luther are the Peasant’s War touched off in part by his ideas, particularly as they are extended by the radical theologian, Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer’s rallying cry, “Omnia sunt communia” (“all things in common”) fuels a violent peasant revolt leading to seizure of property, the execution of a count, and a bloody forceful suppression of the rebellion ending in the execution of Muntzer, supported by Luther who writes against their rebellion and disobedience, even while realizing how his own ideas have fueled their acts.
We also see, in the final narrative of his life, and his fatal trip to Eisleben and Mansfeld in February 1546, his increasing hostility toward the Jews, against whom he speaks in his last sermon in the town of his birth, the conclusion of negotiations with Count Albrecht to protect his family’s mining interests, and his deathbed affirmation of faith, with his final written words, “We are all beggars, that is true.”
There are gaps, to be sure, particularly between 1530 and 1546 which are the period of consolidating this new movement of Reformation churches. It would have been delightful to have a chapter on “table talk” and Luther’s domestic life. But what this biography helpfully does is help us understand the arc of Luther’s life and the backdrop of disparities of wealth and poverty that made his ideas so volatile, beyond even his ability to control them. It highlight’s Luther’s breakthrough insight on justification by faith, and his climactic encounter at Worms.
As the book trailer for this work emphasizes, this is no “door stop” biography. But it could serve well as a means to educate a new generation on the anniversary of the Reformation about this pivotal figure and his times.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.