Well, since it looks like I won’t be shutting down my blog in order to write smutty romance novels it’s probably best to post a review. One of the many “Library Loot” books mentioned on this blog of late is Martin E. Marty’s 2004 biography of Martin Luther from the Penguin Lives series. I think I was originally drawn to this book because years ago a buddy of mine loaned me his battered paperback copy of Marty’s classic A Short History of Christianity. Although I had taken a history of Christianity class in college only a few years prior, reading Marty’s book enabled me for first time to fully comprehend Christianity in its larger historical context. So I guess it goes without saying that I had I had pretty high, perhaps too high of expectations for Marty’s biography of Martin Luther. After finishing it a bit ago I’ve decided that Marty’s biography of the great Reformation figure is good, but not great.
Marty’s relatively short biography starts with Luther’s birth in Eiselben, Germany and his family’s subsequent relocation a year later to Mansfeld, where his father would go on the become a successful entrepreneur and elected official. After showing scholarly promise at a young age Luther entered the university in hopes of eventually becoming a lawyer. Dissatisfied with the curriculum, Luther struggled with his own personal spiritual longings which eventually drove him to abandon his pre-law studies to become a monk, much to the consternation of his bourgeoisie father. But even after his extensive religious education, Luther would still be plagued by serious doubts, especially those related to humankind’s sinfulness, the sureness of salvation and God’s mercy. These passionate doubts would fuel his questioning of the Church’s current practices and interpretation of scripture, which of course would lead his to rejection of the Catholic Church altogether resulting in the birth of the Protestant Reformation.
Over the years I’ve read that Luther was a conflicted, almost contradictory figure and Marty, to his credit details this in his biography. While moved to do great things by the love of God, Luther would lash our mercilessly against his enemies perceived or otherwise. Catholics, Jews, fellow Protestants and even oppressed peasants would feel the wrath of his harsh words, (during an unfortunate peasant uprising in his native Germany he encouraged the ruling nobility to smite the rebellious peasants, likening them to “mad dogs”). While he would rail against the corruption and dictatorial nature of the Roman Church, he would at the same time bow to political pressure and allow his Protestant church to be placed under the authority of the kings and princes-a fateful decision which according to some historians probably led to the Lutheran Church’s eventual inability to curtail the Nazi’s reign of terror.
While Marty’s biography seemed a bit tedious at times and lacked that certain spark which propels a merely good book into the realm of great, it nevertheless portrayed Luther as one of those pivotal figures who comes around every once in a while and as a result almost singlehandedly changes the course of history. Much like the life of the man he writes about, Marty’s biography is flawed but not without considerable merit.