Carlos Eire of the New York Times reviews Eric’s book Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. “Metaxas knows how to tell a story and how to develop characters, and this talent makes his narrative at once gripping and accessible.”
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Eric Metaxas is exceedingly bold, for writing a biography of Martin Luther has always been a great challenge. To begin with, becoming a Luther expert requires a lot of reading. Jaroslav Pelikan, the eminent church historian who served as an editor of the American edition of Luther’s Works, often warned his students that more books had been written on Luther than on any other figure in Christian history, save for Jesus Christ. Add to this colossal bibliography the scores of huge tomes filled with Luther’s own writings in German and Latin, and the effort required for summing up his life and work will seem even more daunting.
But writing a Luther biography in 2017 is a special challenge, perhaps among the greatest any author can face, at least with regard to the competition from other authors. This is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation, so whether one likes it or not, we are all living through the “Year of Luther,” or Lutherjahr, as it has been called in his native land; publishers in Europe and North America are marking the occasion by flooding the world with Luther biographies. In the first 10 months of this year, over a dozen English-language biographies have appeared, including one in comic book form and one aimed at children. And all of these follow on the heels of at least another half-dozen magisterial biographies published in the past two decades, including Martin Brecht’s exhaustive three-volume masterpiece, “Martin Luther,” which Metaxas praises as “unsurpassable.” Needless to say, such excess could easily stun any reader, cause an outbreak of fatigue — Lutherjahrmüdigkeit as Germans might say — or scare away all would-be Luther biographers for years to come.
Most new Luther biographies are by historians who are Reformation specialists and, as one might expect, they have been aimed at an academic audience, even when written for trade publishers rather than university presses. Whatever fresh insights these biographies can claim rest more on interpretation than on the discovery of new facts.
Metaxas, the author of popular books like “Amazing Grace,” “Miracles” and “Bonhoeffer,” is an exception in Luther studies, at least partially. His “Martin Luther” is not a scholarly biography, despite its footnotes, but an attempt to make Luther attractive to a general audience. The Luther portrayed here is a hero cast in a Whiggish mold, a titanic figure who single-handedly slays the dragon of the Dark Ages, rescues God from an interpretive dungeon, invents individual freedom and ushers in modernity.
This approach — reflected in the book’s subtitle — closely resembles that taken by Thomas Cahill in “How the Irish Saved Civilization” and Arthur Herman in “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.” Both of those books reached wide audiences by simplifying the complexities of history and attributing epochal shifts to single causes. Such reductionism has its charms, and bears some resemblance to the truth. But much like any caricature, it should not be mistaken for an accurate portrayal of its subject.
Because of his constant interweaving of narrative and analysis, Metaxas’ “Martin Luther” is difficult to assess as a single text, especially because the analysis seems more of an intrusion into the narrative than an elucidation or expansion of it. Metaxas’ relentless hyping of the world-shaking significance of Luther and of each and every aspect of his Reformation is often closer to sermonizing than to the dispassionate tone one would expect from a historian. As a result, the book’s two components should be evaluated individually.
As far as the narrative is concerned, Metaxas has done his research, and there is much here that is praiseworthy. The details of Luther’s life and of his struggles against the status quo are related with verve, and with a genuine talent for rendering the intricacies of late medieval theology approachable to those who may have never encountered it before. Metaxas knows how to tell a story and how to develop characters, and this talent makes his narrative at once gripping and accessible.
Metaxas pays closest attention to a relatively short span of time, roughly 1513 to 1525, when Luther morphed from a troubled monk into an audacious rebel, and then into a cranky authority figure with reactionary tendencies. These were the years when Luther not only transformed himself but also caused the greatest stir. At the same time, Metaxas gives his readers an excellent glimpse of the whole of Luther’s life, from the cradle to the grave, and particularly of the dangers he constantly faced until his dying day, after he dared to challenge Pope Leo X and the holy Roman emperor Charles V.
Assessing Metaxas’ intrusive analysis, however, is not easy. Since this is a book aimed at a general audience, its hyperbole and hagiographic bent are understandable, at least to some extent. Complexity, ambiguity and paradox may be sweet nectar for historians, but not necessarily for a broad public that tends to prefer grand generalizations, sound bites and contemporary categories into which to shoehorn historical figures. Portraying Luther as “the man who created the future” or a modern hero who made the Middle Ages buckle “under their own weight” and give way to the future or claiming that “the people … strode onto the world’s stage for the first time” under Luther’s leadership may be a great way to make him appealing to a large segment of the public. But hyperbolic reductionism of this sort will be offensive to the vast majority of historians.
The Martin Luther encountered in this biography is a hero, first and foremost, and also something of a saint — despite the fact that Luther rejected traditional concepts of sainthood. The political and military support that made his Reformation possible is given short shrift, as are the equally revolutionary ideas and actions of such pivotal figures as his predecessors John Wycliffe and John Hus, or contemporaries like Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and Sebastian Franck. Metaxas’ Luther is fearless, and “concerned more about the people than about the correctness of the theology.” He is a champion of personal freedom and of the rights of the common folk, despite his violent reaction to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-25. He is selfless and unerring, and nearly flawless, despite his bad temper (fully on display on the Luther insult generator at ergofabulous.org/luther). Those who oppose him are always ill-willed, unreasonable, “oddly stubborn” or burdened by “painfully cloudy theology.” Moreover, according to Metaxas, the dissolution of Christendom into different competing churches could have been “eminently avoidable” if everyone had been good-hearted and smart enough to agree with Luther. Little is said about Luther’s noxious tirades against Jews, save to dismiss them as “one of the most bizarre episodes of Luther’s life,” consisting of a “few passages” in his “most injudicious writings.” And nothing at all is said about the great embarrassment Luther caused his church by secretly condoning the bigamy of his most powerful protector, Landgrave Philip of Hesse.
In brief, of the two distinct but inseparable strands that constitute this book, one is instructive and engaging, the other highly subjective and distracting. The contrast between the two is perplexing but, ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter. Though full of overblown claims, Metaxas’ “Martin Luther” may attract readers with its engaging narrative and, in the process, introduce them to a remarkable and complex man, one who boasted of being imperfect while insisting that he was always right.
Carlos Eire is the T.L. Riggs professor of history and religious studies at Yale University and the author of “Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.”