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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"The Unreformed Martin Luther" (Andreas Malessa)

TITLE: The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths
AUTHOR: Andreas Malessa
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishers, 2017, (168 pages).

One of the catch phrases this year is the use of the phrase "fake news." With the rise of social media and the free expression of all kinds of ideas on the Internet, it is increasingly challenging to distinguish the truth from falsehood. Scholars misattribute quotes. Casual users never bother to check sources before forwarding all kinds of stuff to their friends and colleagues. Rumours and untruths spread fast, especially news that seem sensational and attention grabbing. Famous people often get misquoted or had stories misattributed to them. The great German reformer, Martin Luther is definitely among the most famous people in the Christian world. Come October 31st this year, Christians would celebrate 500 years of that great Reformation statement that begun with Luther's famous nailing of the 95 theses on the doors of Wittenberg.  Sometimes, being famous means one can get quoted not only for the things he had said or written. One can also get quoted for things he did not say. Author Andreas Malessa says it well: "There are 2585 letters that Luther wrote and 926 letters that were written to him. There are so many texts that one could prove almost anything about Luther as well as furnish the respective counterargument with quotes from his contemporary friends and enemies." So Malessa tries to present an "unreformed Martin Luther" by giving a light-hearted look at this reformer and from the wit presents a humourous look at the man, the truths behind his directness, and the insights of the faith.

There are a total of 25 chapters in the book, each representing a rumour, a popular interpretation of Luther, a memorable quip, or some interesting snippet of this bold man. Most of these chapters show the double meanings (or more) in Luther's words and perspectives. For instance, for all the powerful factual and biblical arguments that Luther could provide in any debate, he was also a superstitious man at various points. One of his friends even said that Luther interprets a lot from astrology! On the way Luther was portrayed as being upset over the sale of indulgences, as a Roman Catholic priest then, he also subscribed to the use of indulgences, albeit of a lesser extent compared to some of his fellow priests like Johann Tetzel. Luther reacted negatively when he saw the blatant abuses. Instead of seeing Luther erupt on Tetzel's clever sales gimmicks, the truth is not Luther being upset about indulgences but how it threatens the true teaching of salvation. On how Luther was quoted as wanting to plant an apple tree even if the world is ending, Malessa dismisses it as a myth though it is possible that this was partly due to Luther wanting to help his wife plant some fruit trees. Malessa also clarified some of the rumours that Luther liked booze. Luther was a drinker but he was not a drunk. Interestingly, unlike modern practices, Luther was ordained as a priest prior to theological studies! One of Luther's most famous pastimes are his table talks where he combines food with teaching. That has led some to accuse him of eating while preaching. Vulgarity and crude talk could be heard during these sessions. His students often record them down as they heard, which also means the possibility of translation errors and misheard quips. Regardless of the back and forth accusations, Luther remains an immensely quotable preacher.

Other myths and rumours things include:

  • Did Luther intend to start an independent church?
  • Luther lied to get his way
  • He got married in secret
  • He even had spectators while having sex
  • His most interesting insight came when he was in the toilet!
  • Luther is anti-semitic
  • ....
This is indeed one of the most hilarious and insightful books about Martin Luther I have ever read. What I really appreciate is the way Malessa is able to hook readers in with an interesting quip, story, and rumour of Luther. The title alone is a highlight in itself. The weirdness of the stories do keep readers poring over the pages in search of how true they are. This is especially for those of us who lack understanding of the culture during the 15th and 16 Century. The author leads readers with some well-known phrases attributed to Luther and tries to present both background information as well as clarity of their origins. At the end of each chapter, readers often can heave a sigh of relief, knowing that the respected reformer well deserves continued reverence. One of the biggest surprises is the citing of Luther's famous: "Here I Stand. I Cannot Do Otherwise." Did Luther really say that? According to the author, there is possibility a paraphrased version of the original by various people who witnessed the event.

This book does not just challenge old presumptions but illuminates the background and the contexts of the words and works of Martin Luther. The way the author writes the chapters is very inviting. Without revealing whether he agrees of disagrees with the rumours, he helps shed light on the different perspectives before driving home what he thinks is the correct representation of Luther. My takeaway of this book is a renewed understanding of the person of Martin Luther, and also a reminder not to assume what is said about Luther as gospel truth. Things are indeed more than meets the eye. That is the main message in this book.

Andreas Malessa is a theologian, author, and lyricist, more recently for the musical Amazing Grace. He is also a German and radio journalist

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Kregel Publishers without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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