Lives of the Dead: Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546), widely regarded as the father of the Protestant Reformation and a number of unintended babies, was a German theologian and religious reformer who challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church. He also had a vast influence on European concepts of politics, economics, education, language and hair styling, with his now-familiar bowl cut making him one of the most crucial figures in modern European history.

He was born in Eisleben (later Hitlerville, and then back to Eisleben) in what today is Germany. His father, originally known as Hans Luder, had wanted to name his son “Lex” but was convinced by his wife to go with “Abraham Martin and John,” later shortened to simply Martin. The family was descended from peasantry, but Hans made a nice living for himself and his family as a copper miner and part-time fletcher/cooper (roughly equivalent to today’s writer/director). Martin received his early education at Magdeburg and Eisenach, before enrolling at the University of Erfurt at age 17. Red-shirted during his freshman season, he became an outstanding left tackle for the Fightin’ Furter football team by the time he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1502. He passed on an opportunity for a pro career — he was projected as high as the eighth round by some scouts — and chose to stay in school to pursue his master’s, which he received in 1505.

He began to study law, as his father wished, but didn’t have enough credits to graduate so he fell back on his undergraduate major – monking — and entered the Augustinian monastery. Within a year, he had so impressed his superiors that he was selected for the priesthood, ordained, and conducted his first celebration of mass. (“Celebration” might be overstating the case, as he kept stumbling over the unfamiliar phrasing, once mispronouncing “Madonna” as “My donut.”) He continued his studies in theology, including multiple re-takes of basic Latin, until he got his big chance to go to Rome and check out how Catholicism was done in the big city.

To put it mildly, he was not impressed. In fact, he was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy, especially the way they had substituted vodka shots for wine in the communions they conducted. This led him to question other basic tenets of church, and he gradually came to believe that Christians were saved not through their own efforts but instead by God’s grace. The church leadership was making a tidy fortune off the sale of indulgences, which were peddled to the peasants in the form of mugs, posters and t-shirts (“Rome Rules” was a common slogan for this merchandising). This crass effort disgusted Luther to the point where he suffered from nearly constant vomiting, though scholars recently discovered a sixteenth-century Domino’s menu that led them to believe that salmonella-tainted pizza may have been a contributing factor.

Luther finally emerged into worldwide prominence when in 1517 he was named Holy Roman Empire Today’s “Most Pious Man Alive” and became known for some graffiti he had scrawled on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. This posting of the so-called Ninety-five Theses has been greatly misunderstood by historians and only recently was clarified when the old door itself was located at a garage sale in East St. Louis, Missouri. It was long believed that Luther wrote the theses before-hand and then nailed them to the cathedral door as a sign of protest and to show his growing prowess as a construction worker. In reality, Luther wrote the seminal document on-site, meticulously painting it onto the oak with a fine single-haired brush. What bothered the church elders more than what the manuscript said was the fact that he was always in the way, blocking the main entrance almost constantly during the three weeks it took him to finish. Most of the demands were not that unreasonable – for example, he wrote of the need for sturdier pews to “accommodate the ample Germanic hind.” He also wanted Wednesday night services moved to Tuesday because most members couldn’t TiVo floggings in the public square like the wealthy clergy could, and he wanted the liturgy conducted in native languages because Latin “sounds too much like they’re just making it up as they go along.”

He made it all the way through the next-to-last thesis (“94. Enough with the incense already, it’s giving everybody a headache”) with church officials only mildly curious about the progress of the bowl-headed scribe. On the morning of his final day of work, he began writing the last entry as a crowd of onlookers grew around him. “The pope is not ni…” he began. The throng began buzzing with anticipation. The pope is not what? Nitrogen-based? Nihilistic? Luther slowly added a “c”. Nicene? Nickel-plated? Then he added an “e”. “Don’t get upset everybody – it could still be ‘Nicene,’” shouted one observer, trying to quell the growing distress of the crowd. Then Luther added the punctuation mark that would change European history forever, a period. “The pope is not nice.” The multitude gasped, but soon dispersed when they heard a beheading was being set up across the street.

The Roman Curia, which is kind of like a Senate subcommittee only crankier, began an investigation that eventually led to the condemnation of Luther’s teachings in 1520 and his excommunication a year later. He was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and asked to recant. His famous assertion of conscience in the face of certain punishment – “No Can Do!” – is most likely legendary, but still he was spirited away by Prince Frederick the Wise who kept him in virtual house arrest at his castle.

Luther was able to continue much of his other life work, though it paled in comparison to royally pissing off the entire Catholic Church. He made a little money doing some free-lance translations and sticking his nose into the Peasants’ War of 1524-1526, where he supported the peasants’ political demands while repudiating their theological arguments, a fine distinction that was lost on all the people who had swords. He married a former nun, a widely acknowledged hottie by the name of Katharina von Bora, and continued his writing as his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe.

By the late 1530’s, his health began to deteriorate and he took on an anti-Semitic bent by accusing the Jews of exploiting the confusion he had caused among Christians. This made him virtually unable to locate a decent doctor, and he died on Feb. 18, 1546. His obituary, printed several days later in the Eisleben Picayune-Examiner, included a long list of his works, an even longer list of his children, and the name of his new religion: Martinism, which was later changed to Luthermania, then Lutheranism.

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2 Responses to “Lives of the Dead: Martin Luther”

  1. wrjones Says:

    Jesus H. Christ, I took Latin, this could have been my story.

  2. A. Gene Childe Says:

    Davis, this is great stuff! And I speak as an ecumenical Catholic, hoping to join the white-collar or/and hood-wearin’ ranks myself.

    My father was a German-born Lutheran (my mother a Boston-born Catholic… whew, what a mix!), and would regularly quote a tongue-in-cheek (yet somehow precisely pronounced) line of Martin F. Luther’s, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!” He would have loved this bit.

    Keep up the good work… and would you mind if I link to you at my blog?


    Aging Child

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