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Religion Historian Martin Marty


My guest, Martin Marty, has written a new biography of Martin Luther. Marty is a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Chicago. His honors include a National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal. Marty described Luther as a man of contradictions. Marty says that as much as any individual, Luther broke the hold of a single-religion system and broke the boundaries set by religious elites. Yet he also stressed obedience to authority. I asked Martin Marty to describe how Martin Luther changed Christianity.

MARTIN MARTY: When Martin Luther came on the scene, there were people all over Europe who found abuses in the practices of the church headed at Rome by the pope and sometimes in the teachings. And they started trying to purify, to simplify, to reform so that what's called the channel of grace by which people are made right with God would be purer and clearer. And in the midst of all that, Martin Luther came along, a young monk wrestling with his own demons, you might say, sure that he was offending God, unsure of whether he was going to be saved. And then reading the Bible in a certain way, he had it dawn on him that it's all free, it's all grace, and all these efforts to make you earn your way or buy your way were not only futile but bad.

GROSS: One of the things Martin Luther is best known for is nailing his 95 theses to a church door in 1517. And this was a kind of common thing in college--and he was in college then--yes, that you would nail an argument to the door, and then people would come and debate with you. So what he was doing was part of a standard practice, but the things he was saying were very atypical. He was opposing the selling of indulgences. What was the selling of indulgences?

MARTY: And this, to Luther, violated the entire idea that God is a gracious God and that what God wants is not your pocketbook but your heart. So that's why he wrote that instead of buying indulgences, you should listen to the Word of Jesus, who wanted the whole life to be one of repenting. I should say repenting didn't mean grimness. In his New Testament, repenting was also a joyful act. And everything about the indulgence system ran against that notion.

GROSS: Luther wanted people, wanted individuals to have a more direct and personal relationship to God. What made him think that people shouldn't need an intermediary of a priest in order to communicate with God?

MARTY: Now he was not, as he's often portrayed, a lonely, kind of Robinson Crusoe of the faith. He wasn't an individualist who said you didn't have or need company. He was very churchly. And, in my own interpretation, he kept wanting to be Catholic of a sort. In fact, he once said, `The more you can celebrate Communion as if it's in the upper room, where Jesus and the disciples had the first one such meal, according to the Gospels, the better it will be.'

GROSS: In Luther's time, many priests and nuns were priests and nuns against their will. They took their vows, and they couldn't leave, and, you know, they were forced to stay in that position. Were many men and women almost forced to be priests and nuns against their will?

MARTY: So when someone comes along who, in Luther's case, a man with a deliverer of herring, of fish, goes to the Nimbschen monastary convent and puts nuns in the stinking fish barrels and runs them out at night--these are the set of people that Luther then had to find husbands for because they were abjectly poor.

GROSS: So you're saying that Luther helped to free nuns in convents...

MARTY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...with the help of this fish seller, who would hide the nuns in his barrels?

MARTY: So I wouldn't want to portray it that everybody wanted to get out of it. There are things in the monastic life that Luther admired. He liked the scholarship of some of the monks. He liked the works of charity. He only thought they shouldn't have to make a lifelong vow. If they did it voluntarily, that would not have bothered him. But if they went in with that vow and the notion that by becoming a nun or a monk, you helped earn your way into God's grace, that's where he did his attack.

GROSS: My guest is Martin Marty, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Chicago. He's written a new biography of Martin Luther. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: So here's Martin Luther challenging the selling of indulgences, challenging some of the roles of priests and nuns. He even went so far as to challenge the pope himself. What did Luther object to about papal power?

MARTY: He was opposed to the corruption of contemporary popes, but that wasn't the biggest thing. Sometimes you'll see Luther portrayed as if he's so offended by corrupt popes. He knew a lot about human nature, and he knew there was corruption all over the place. It was the corruption of their teaching and their religious practice that bothered him. And when he saw the pope making various alliances, one day with the king of France, one day with the Holy Roman emperor in Germany and Spain, these alliances were all to gain worldly power. And he thought it should be a spiritual power and a depth that would reach the heart as opposed to force one into prisons and into subjection.

GROSS: What did the pope want to do to punish Martin Luther for taking a stand against the selling of indulgences, for wanting to allow monks and nuns to leave the monastary and for wanting to diminish the powers of the pope?

MARTY: But the key point--earlier on you mentioned the thing everyone know about Luther, the 95 theses. The other thing that everybody knows is when church and state, as we call it today, when religion and regime, when pope and emperor are in combination, Luther's trapped there. And at Worms cathedral city, they piled up all of his writings, and the papal delegates asked him, `Are these yours?' And Luther looked at the monstrous pile. Yeah, they were his. `Well, will you recant? Will you reject them?' And Luther said, `Well, I can't. For one thing a lot of them are irrelevant. They're not about the topics we're debating. Others are just repeating what's in the Bible, and I can't recant the Bible. Give me overnight to think.' And the next day he stands in front of the emperor and says, `I can't take these back. Unless I'm convinced by scripture and sound reason, I can't take them back.' And then some people hear him say his most famous line, `Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.' Lutherans like to do kitsch objects. You know, they have Lutheran beer mugs and they have Lutheran bobbleheads, and somebody sent me some socks that say, `Here I stand. I can do no other.'


MARTY: But that was really defiance. That's as if you're taking on the highest civil authority in Europe, namely the emperor, who has all kinds of backing. And it took great courage. It's right after that that his friends spirited him away. He had been given safe conduct to that event. But when that ran out, he certainly would have been killed had he not been protected by Prince Frederick the Wise.

GROSS: Martin Luther had so many differences with the church. Why did he want to become a priest in the first place?

MARTY: When he wanted to become a priest, it came out of a deep conviction. Very first thing, he was a monk before he was a priest, and he was a very troubled soul. He once said that the trembling of a leaf, a crackling of a twig would throw his heart into his mouth. He really feared he was guilty. We have pictures of...

GROSS: Guilty?

MARTY: He became a very serious monk. He was picked out by a good talent scout, my favorite Catholic of the era, Johan Van Schtalpitz(ph), who sensed that Luther had scholarship in him. He thought Luther was way too scrupulous in finding faults. If I'm allowed to say it here, he said, `Luther, you keep me with six hours of confession as if calling every fart a sin.' That's the language that was very common in confessional language, if you look it up, at the time. And Schtalpitz said, `That's not what it's about. This is about God's good grace to you.' So Luther is torn in all that but, along the way, wants to be ordained because then he gets to hold the very body of Jesus and the very blood of Jesus, the bread and the wine, and give it to people and help impart eternal life. When he finally got to do it, he almost fainted, went into shock to think that he was holding the body of Christ. It was that vivid to people in that day. And so he enjoyed that, once he got used to it, very much. He liked being a preacher, a pastor, a priest.

GROSS: But he also had grave doubts.

MARTY: But that didn't mean he was cured of it. And one of the tutors of his children, George Weller(ph), had what today we would call manifest clinical depression. What should he do? Well, Luther says, `You've got unfactonin, and you have to fight it off.' `What are the weaponry?' `The Word of God. God's grace. But also, in the world, go dancing. Gamble a little bit. Drink some beer. Do anything except overt sin.' And Luther himself said, `When I had unfactonin, sometimes I'd reach over and hold my wife in the middle of the night.'

GROSS: Martin Luther's life is filled with contradictions, many of which you point out through your book. And one of those contradictions is that although he wanted Christians to have a more direct relationship with God, he wanted to eliminate a lot of the hierarchy and special privileges of the clergy, you couldn't exactly call him the most open-minded egalitarian either. He condemned the Jews toward the end of his life. What was his problem with the Jews?

MARTY: And then as life went on for him, they almost became the test. He was not anti-Semitic in the sense of racial anti-Semitism of the kind that ruins the modern world. He was a religious anti-Semite, which might have been worse in the language of that day. His attacks were always on the rabbis. They were the ones who could have taught the Jews the Gospel, and they didn't. So when he says, `Yeah, you have to burn the synagogues and burn the rabbis' houses,' he's not out for the massacre of all the Jews, but he does want to cut off the teaching.

GROSS: Do you think Martin Luther would be shocked if he could come back today to see how many denominations there are within Christianity?

MARTY: He probably would be shocked because anybody who knows there are 25,000 of them would be shocked themselves. I think he had to know that he was letting something loose that would mean a good deal more diversity. And if you have freedom, you're going to have choice, and you'll have a lot more. But I don't think he could have envisioned or could welcome the great diversity. He believed he would be, in the end, an agent of Christian unity. And I think he would have smiled in 1999 when the Lutherans of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed a joint document saying most of the things they fought over about grace five centuries ago they now agree on.

GROSS: Well, Martin Marty, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

MARTY: Thank you for the opportunity.

GROSS: Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new DVD of the movie "My Fair Lady." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.