Saturday, January 03, 2009

Post-modern Luther

On this day in 1521, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, excommunicating Martin Luther. On May 26 of that same year, the Edict of Worms declared Luther an outlaw, putting his very life in danger. Neither the excommunication, nor the edict, however, would prevent Luther from writing, preaching, teaching, marrying, and fathering children, until he died in ripe old age on 18 February 1546.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Modern Age began with this man on this date with this papal act of excommunication. This is not to say that Martin Luther was a great man. He was, but the beginning of a new epoch takes more than a great man. It also requires a confluence of economic, political, and cultural circumstances. The story of the Sixteenth-Century Reformation includes everything from improvements in mass communications to shady banking practices.

At the center of it all is Martin Luther, a brilliant, irascible, complex man, who, because of circumstances, did not suffer burning at the stake as his Czech predecessor Jan Hus did in 1415.

It is a sign of the poverty of our post-modern era that the popular understanding of Luther – where there is any recognition at all – goes no further than the 2003 movie Luther staring Joseph Fiennes. This movie attempts to capture the drama of Luther's life without being encumbered with the facts of history. Scenes depict not only events that never happened – which might be defended on the grounds of "dramatic license"—but events that are out of character for Luther.

In one of the most impressive scenes, Luther himself buries a suicide on consecrated grounds. This never happened. It bears little relevance for what Luther taught and wrote. It does give Fiennes a fine opportunity to overact, something he does throughout this movie.

In another scene, Luther preaches to a congregation, not from the pulpit, but walking in the midst of the congregation like a modern American Evangelical, dressed in a fine chasuble. For centuries before this movie, Luther was always depicted preaching in the traditional way, from a pulpit, and in modest dress.

This movie is fiction, not fact, promoting an idea of Luther, and bears no resemblance to what he was. Fiennes, coming off a film where he fictionalized Shakespeare (Shakespeare in Love), hardly even musses his hair to take on Luther. He rants, he raves, he throws himself around the room, but for all the energy he expends he does not have the gravitas of a Luther.

This is the popular presentation of Luther in our day. Because it was a mainstream picture, with legitimate actors, even some of the most conservative
Lutheran churches embraced Luther. It was obvious that the stars got in their eyes.

On this day in 1521, the Modern Age began. It would be nice if we understood something of it.

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