Review: Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography

Renegade

Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic BiographyAndrea 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.

Renegade-screen capture

Screen capture from trailer

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.

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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.

 

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology

Remembering the Reformation

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic TheologyDeclan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, Gesa E. Thiessen (eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers exploring Martin Luther in historical context and his roots in the medieval tradition and what might be learned by Catholics and Lutherans from him and how that may contribute to rapprochement.

This year marks the 500th year since Martin Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses. It is an anniversary that may be celebrated with mixed feelings–the birth of the Reformation on one hand, and yet a sharp schism in the Church that has lasted to this day–a schism Lutherans and Catholics may especially feel poignant on this anniversary. In the last fifty years there has been an ecumenical movement, now quieter perhaps than in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yet 1999 marked a key development as Catholic and Lutheran theologians signed the  Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, articulating a common understanding of justification and that sixteenth century condemnations of each other no longer apply (with qualifications, and not without controversy on both sides). In 2015, Lutherans and Catholics took a further step in the release of “Declaration on the Way,” consisting of 32 statements of agreement on the church, ministry, and the Eucharist.

This collection of papers presented by Catholic and Protestant scholars is in a similar vein, exploring what may be learned from Luther, particularly for Catholic theology, but truly what Catholic and Lutheran may learn from each other. It might be noted that the engagement is with Luther rather than his successors, who, who like those of Calvin, often took his thought further than he would.

The papers are group into four sections. The first deals with historical foundations. Heinz Schilling sets Luther’s reformation in the broader context of church reform movements. Peter Marshall then looks at the treatment of Luther at the hands of Catholics over the last five centuries, noting that the invective often reflected particular national or local contexts that need to be understood.

The second section focuses on how Luther interacted with the medieval tradition. Philip Cary contributes what I thought a particularly fine essay exploring the influence of Augustine upon Luther in the question of law and gospel. Cary actually finds Luther more sacramental that Augustine, describing the difference between the two as a prayer for grace by Augustine, and the promise of grace realized in “the external word that gives what it signifies.” Theodore Dieter explores the relation of Luther’s thought to scholasticism. Then Charlotte Methuen concludes the section with how Scholasticism shaped Luther’s view of women and how his own married state and household experience modified those views.

The third section shifts to the interaction between Luther and Catholic theology. Peter de Mey considers some of the key documents of Vatican II, and the change in wording in the Decree on Ecumenism from the idea that Protestants “find God in the Scriptures” to “they seek God in the scriptures” — a more subjective notion that reinforces some divides. James Corkery, S.J. explores the role of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, often thought to slow ecumenical efforts, particularly in behind the scenes work that facilitated the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The section concludes with a paper on Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, and how both Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar interacted with the phrase. The essay, by Pieter de Witte, explores the differing grammars of faith of Lutherans and Catholics and the mutual learning that has taken place between parties.

This sets up the final section exploring more of what Catholics may learn from Luther. Gesa E. Thiessen explores Luther’s treatment of images in the church. He was hardly an iconoclast with his allowance for the freedom of the Christian in these matters. Risto Saarinen argues for the distinctive nature of Luther’s reading of scripture allowing for the subjective involvement of the believer, not unlike the Spiritual Exercises of Loyola. He describes him neither as a fundamentalist nor a humanist. Finally Christine Helmer explores the idea of the common priesthood, and how post-Luther, it morphed into the “priesthood of all believers” idea, due more to Spener than Luther, in her contention. She contends that the “common priesthood” of Luther was not set up as an alternative to the authority of the Catholic priesthood.

What this collection of papers does is help us understand both some of the contributing factors to schism and the landscape that needs to be negotiated in healing the rifts. Justification is huge, and here working through the different “grammars of faith” is critical. Likewise, the view of scripture is important, and thankfully Lutherans and Catholics are closer to each other on these matters. The papers point out that there are substantive theological concerns that must be addressed before shared communion, as well as an often tendentious history. Real unity is not at the expense of truth or the muting of differences and has always taken sustained effort. Let’s hope and pray that this continues!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Katharina & Martin Luther

Katharina and Martin Luther

Katharina & Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: An account of the “most unlikely to succeed” scandalous marriage of Katharina Von Bora and Martin Luther, a runaway nun and former monk who marry out of necessity and principle, and grow into love.

By today’s standards, as well as those of their time, this was a marriage that didn’t hold much promise. A 42 year old former monk and leader of the Reformation marries a 26 year old nun who fled the cloister inspired by Reformation ideals. Friends thought the wife would distract from the important work of church reform. Some predicted that any offspring would be monstrosities. The truth was, Katharina was beyond the usual age for marriage, often in one’s early teens. She had no dowry and no means of support, having fled the cloister where her father had placed her. Luther had actually tried to match her up with other men. At one point, she refused a candidate, saying she’d rather marry Luther (or another man). Meanwhile, Luther had actually had his eye on another nun, who someone else proposed to first. In the end, economic necessity on her part, and principle on his brought them together. Luther was better at writing about marriage and the follies of celibacy than acting on what he wrote. Her proposal probably did as much as anything to decide him. Not a promising beginning!

Michelle DeRusha gives us a narrative of how necessity and principle grew into respect, and eventually deep love. But first she gives us some background in the lives of both, and particular the economic necessities that resulted in the child of a poor but titled noble being consigned to the cloister. We also have the more familiar story of Luther the monk, who undergoes a radical transformation as he teaches the book of Romans and posts debating theses on the evil of indulgences that light the fires of Reformation. These ideas inspire Katharina and a group of others to flee Marienthron convent only to face an uncertain future necessitating for most the finding of a mate, however undesirable.

DeRusha sketches the strong character of Katharina, who quickly whips the Black Cloister into shape, from a somewhat decrepit bachelor pad to a family home where other tenants paid rent–an early source of resentment. Luther’s respect for her abilities (rivaling the woman of Proverbs 31 in her industry) leads to his quickly turning over the household and its finances to her.

But she was no mere domestic hausfrau. She could challenge Luther’s ideas and was a strong enough personality to stand her ground. Other accounts have suggested monumental clashes. This book only hints at these, but does suggest that her strength of character and stubbornness made for a match that Luther came not only to respect but in which he was changed.

DeRusha also shows how this marriage, and Luther’s ideas about marriage changed the institution and regularized it. Prior to their time, many marriages were the equivalent of common law affairs, and often contested when one party claimed vows had been made that were denied by others, or where there were conflicting claims on the same person. Of course, this couple set the precedent for marriage among the clergy. They may not have been the very first, but were clearly the most famous, and set a high standard.

The final chapters touch on both the joys and frailties of family life. Infant and child mortality was rampant and the Luthers lost two of six children including their teen age daughter Magdalena, a heartbreak that drew them closer yet from which they did not recover.  Luther’s death exposed the precarious state of widows, made more difficult by an irregular will, and invasions that brought ruin to lands she held. Katharina’s extant letters are from this time, and basically are “begging” letters.

Perhaps the most profound theme of this book is that despite the circumstances, despite the lack of “romantic” love, and despite the inequities between genders, these two strong individuals grew into a deep love filled with mutual respect. Both had grown up in systems where love often followed rather than preceded vows. No doubt some would find the patriarchy and oppression of women of this time deeply offensive. What is more remarkable is how these principled and strong-to-the-point-of-stubborn people challenged convention to the point where Martin addresses Katharina at one point as “my kind, dear Lord, Catherine Luther, a doctor and preacher in Wittenberg.”

This will be a year of many Luther books, given the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses. This book helps fills a gap in focusing on Katharina and the decisive role she played in Luther’s life, and maybe in at least a small way, pointing to the greater possibilities for women inside and outside of marriage, with effects rippling down to our present day. So much of it came because of a woman who decided that she would not submerge her ideas and personality to the strength of a man, even a great public figure, and in the end both were stronger for it.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.