Tag Archives: theology

Martin Luther, by Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther MetaxasMany decades ago, in my twenties, this quiet Catholic school girl found a hero in the brash and courageous monk named Martin Luther. When I could not find myself in the world in which I lived, he showed me a way out to a place where honest inquiry and Biblical truth combined to proclaim freedom to the captives, like me.

When I heard a few years ago that Eric Metaxas, of Bonhoeffer fame, was going to write a biography of Martin Luther in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I mentally set aside the fall of 2017 to read it. Metaxas has that felicitous combination of intellectual rigor and irrepressible humor that is unfortunately rare in serious Christians. Bringing those qualities to bear on a study of a figure like Luther, who was brilliant and articulate, but also shockingly vulgar and outspoken, has produced a work of profound insight that is sometimes pure fun.

Metaxas begins by debunking the many myths surrounding Luther, such as that he was from a poor family, or that he nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle door, thunderously announcing a new church. Rather, he quietly attached them to the door, which was like the neighborhood bulletin board, asking for a debate. As Metaxas has said on talk shows, picture him putting them up next to a poster of a lost cat. We imagine the hefty, confident man of his later years, but at that point, Luther was a skinny, sickly, and terrified monk who was just beginning to understand that all his fasting and confessing could not save him from hell. Rather, his faith in a loving God would. He had to let everyone else know about the grace that he had found.

The subtitle of this book is The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, which seems at first presumptuous. How could God be rediscovered? Had He been lost in the back of a closet? By painting a picture of the state of the church in Luther’s time, and of the entanglements between the ecclesiastical powers and the civil authorities, Metaxas proposes that yes, to a large extent, the knowledge of God had been hidden away from the vast majority of the common people, who had never seen a Bible in their lives and were completely dependent for their understanding of God on whatever they were told by the priests. As a matter of fact, Luther, a student of theology, had never owned a Bible until he was given one in order to teach scripture at the university. It is no wonder that so many reformers in past years had tried to translate the Bible into the language of the common people, only to die for their efforts. Luther’s success is due in no small part to the invention of the printing press not long before his birth, since it seems that everything he said and did was printed and distributed broadly, creating a groundswell of support for him that was already uncontrollable before the authorities knew of its existence.

Because of his own faith, Metaxas is able to understand and dissect the important details of doctrine that seem so obvious to us today, but were seen as heresy and therefore punishable by death in the 16th century. His story of the moment when Luther truly understood the message of faith in the book of Romans is the most riotous and R-rated presentation of the Gospel that I have ever seen or heard. It is certainly memorable. As the man of faith was freed from his fear of God, his troubles with earthly authorities began, and he endured years of challenges, maturing in his understanding of faith and slowly becoming the larger-than-life figure who has marched his way through our history books. In his early forties, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and became an unexpectedly tender and loving husband and father. Surprisingly, he extended far more rights and respect to women than was usual in his very male-dominated world.

Metaxas does not spare his criticism for Luther’s failures, and he did have very public failures, indeed. Luther did not foresee some of the consequences of allowing freedom of thought, and when other reformers went too far, or when the people began to rise up against their rulers, he always referred to Romans 13, which admonishes believers to submit to the governing authorities. Luther even went so far as to write to the rulers, advising them to quell the uprising with violence. His harsh statements against the Jews that he made late in his life are similarly shocking, especially since they contradict his positive writings about the Jewish people that he had made when he was younger. In a humorous passage that shows how powerful men who are quite sure of their opinions can often drive even their supporters to wish that they would just stop talking, Metaxas writes of Luther’s friend:

Melanchthon was upset at what he perceived as the harshness of Luther’s tone toward Karlstadt, but, alas, very much of what Luther would write in the years hence would read like a modern-day late-night tweet storm. (p. 325)

No one in Europe had succeeded in speaking truth to power before Martin Luther. His teaching and his writings had spread to Switzerland, England, and other parts of the continent before his death, and would continue to spread across the Atlantic to the New World in the years to come. We enjoy freedom of religion in this country because of his influence, and yet the church itself is splintered into innumerable squabbling groups for the same reason. Metaxas has written an account of this remarkable man that is scholarly yet readable, absorbing, and even, at times, rollicking. For good and for ill, Martin Luther changed the world forever, and whether you are a Christian or not, you may be surprised at the impact he has had on your life.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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I Thought Wintry Mix Was a Snack Food

ImageEven for a snow lover like me, this has been enough winter. Temperatures cold enough to send my paycheck directly to Duke Power, several skids on slippery roads, and now, instead of toasted pecans and dried cranberries falling from the sky, we get ice. It’s February in North Carolina! Where are the daffodils?

Thanks to Facebook, I know that I am not alone. I read of my co-workers who ended up abandoning their vehicles by the side of the road in yesterday’s storm, being picked up by intrepid husbands or bunking down with friends within walking distance. For myself, I was pacing and praying a good bit until Michael drove in the driveway, his black car heaped with snow. After that, I was happy to watch the snow falling—until it turned into something else. We had to open the door and listen to the hissing sound to figure out that it was sleet. So far, though, we still have power!

Hard to believe that just last Saturday, I was pulling weeds in my garden boxes and dreaming of spring.

And Puppies Don’t Turn Into Kittens, Either

Lately, we have had the misfortune to be able to observe America’s mourning practices up close several times. So many of these rituals have developed over the years as a way to show respect and love to people—even strangers—who are going through the worst of human experiences. In the South, at least in small towns and rural areas, people still pull their cars over to the side and wait for a funeral procession to go by. This practice, along with the provision of endless casseroles, is a simple and beautiful way of acknowledging that we are all part of one community, and that we will all be in the chief mourner’s spot at some time.

ImageOn the other hand, pop culture can turn the gravest matters into misplaced kitsch with the best of intentions. The one thing that really makes me twitch—even more than teddy bears at a crash site—is the idea that people who die turn into angels in heaven. What a stroke of metaphysical macroevolution! In the Bible, people who are believers are called saints, and when they get to heaven, they are still called saints. Despite all the Raphael paintings of fat babies with wings, angels in the Bible are pretty terrifying. That’s why they’re always saying, “Fear not!”

Beyond the baby cherubs, though, I blame Hollywood for this misunderstanding. Oh, come on, let’s blame Hollywood for all misunderstandings! Think of the movies that have been made about angels earning their wings, starting with the beloved It’s a Wonderful Life. Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings? Does that extend to all of my cell phone notification rings? Perhaps cell phone dings earn the angel virtual wings. Pretty soon, this place is going to be full of fluffy feathers, though, so we must stop this nonsense. Forsake pop theology immediately, or I will smash all of your Precious Moments figurines.

So Why Did I Have a Flu Shot?

ImageIn our house, we had the flu.

Two of us had a flu shot, too.

What is the flu shot meant to do?

 

My poor husband was really sick with a bad cold for two weeks. After a bit, he complained of being achy, and I swore that he was feverish. Being the manly man that he is, he exclaimed, “Pshaw!” (or something equally dismissive) and declared that he was fine. When he went to his doctor for a regular check-up, his doctor said, “This is not a cold! This is the flu!” And being the wifely wife that I am, I said, “I told you so.”

After more than a week, though, Michael started sniffling, and a few days after that, I fell to the virus, too. The thing is that, unlike David, we had both had a flu shot! So we got Zippity Flu. Instead of having a fever for days, you have a fever for twelve hours. Aches are held down to a few hours, and instead of hacking up a lung, the cough is just incredibly annoying. I was only sick for a week, while David wasn’t completely back to himself for three weeks.

What is the deal here? Is the wrong strain of flu in the vaccine, or is the virus much stronger than usual this year? I am very grateful to have had a light case, since, as a reader and Downton Abbey fan, I know that people used to die of influenza regularly. Without the vaccine, our chances of survival are really no different today, since hardly anyone goes to the doctor to be treated with Tamiflu, the effectiveness of which is still considered iffy. So, I will queue up for the shot again next year, like the good government worker that I am, but I think I’ll encourage David to visit his doctor early in the season, too. I’m sure it will still be free. Maybe.

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