Pauline Finch of the bookreporter reviews Eric’s book, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.
This article was originally published in the bookreporter; to read the article on their website, click here.
A few months ago, I bought a small oval bumper sticker imprinted with the words “Reformation 1517–2017” and the number 500, showing a man’s face peering boldly out of the middle zero.
My husband wisely advised not putting it on our car, because anyone getting close enough to read it would end up knowing the name of our insurance agent before recognizing the image as Martin Luther. If people know anything at all about the medieval German monk, it’s that he nailed 95 theses — theological talking points in today’s parlance — to a church door in Wittenberg. (Actually, he probably stuck them on with the medieval equivalent of wallpaper paste.)
But that little sticker (now on my computer stand) is a reminder that the truly interesting, fascinating, challenging and even frustrating details about Luther’s life (1483-1546) have been mainly stowed away in numerous academic and theological studies, well off the beaten path of most readers.
Fortunately, and not a moment too soon, the publication of Eric Metaxas’ scintillating biography, MARTIN LUTHER: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, takes a gigantic step in the right direction of bringing Luther’s story back to the people. Far from “dumbing down” such a magnificent and daunting subject, his language amplifies meticulous research with a lively, daring wit and edgy turn of phrase that sets Metaxas leagues apart from previous biographers.
It’s all well and good for specialized academics, theologians and their students to analyze the man and his considerable volume of writing as they’ve been doing for five centuries. After all, Luther was fully the equal (and often superior) of his intellectual peers, then and now.
But as Metaxas unfailingly points out at every twist and turn of the reformer’s long and arduous battle to bring the corrupt and materialistic Church of Rome back to its scriptural foundations, it was all about renewing the church as a community of believing people, who in themselves should be the body of Christ on earth.
Yet in his day, the great majority of these believing people were desperately poor, vulnerable, ever fearful of damnation by a supposedly punitive God, and egregiously exploited by those ordained to be their spiritual guides and pastors. A case in point that Metaxas unfolds expertly in MARTIN LUTHER was the explosive controversy over selling “indulgences,” a scheme devised to supposedly accelerate the souls of the deceased on their way to heaven by purchasing forgiveness for their sins. In this demeaning practice, as in so many others, Luther saw no evidence of the teachings of Christ and so fought for change through continually preaching, teaching, writing and debating.
With a keen eye for historical and social context, Metaxas shows throughout how Luther emerged from the turbulent society of medieval Europe as a reluctant but doggedly faithful leader who combined far-reaching impact among the rich and powerful with a genuine engagement among the many classes of “ordinary” people.
Growing up as the son of a lower-middle-class industrialist, Luther spent his formative years among folks conditioned to worship in Latin, a language they didn’t understand, and to passively accept whatever interpretations of Christianity their church leaders imposed on them. Metaxas insightfully carries the current of accessible language strongly through Luther’s many tumultuous debates with ecclesiastical authorities, where he maintained the conviction that if theologians could insist on Latin, German laypeople were equally worthy of learning and worshipping in their own tongue — even to read the Bible for themselves!
MARTIN LUTHER hits all the high points of the reformer’s colorful life but does so with refreshing and unconventional clarity, cutting through legend and casual assumptions to tell a real-life story with the page-turning energy of the best historical fiction. There is so much to learn and appreciate in Metaxas’ well-woven fabric of a powerful and engagingly imperfect human being that makes this biography, if not definitive for our century, then eminently worthy of multiple readings. This one will be on my bookshelf for a good long time.