This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Historians mark the beginning of the Reformation from Luther’s publication of them. Many organizations have planned commemorations of Luther and the Reformation.
Maybe these commemorations will have an impact. Maybe they won’t. Maybe their impact will be in one direction, or maybe in another. Whatever impact they could have will depend on a number of factors. One of the factors is: which image of Luther receives emphasis?
Over the years, there have been many images of Luther: reformer against corruption, hero, promoter of education, translator of the Bible, resistor to tyranny, purifier of the mass, polemicist, forerunner of toleration and liberty, prophet, gifted professor, and liberator, to name a few.
Images like those always have been important. They were important during the 450th commemorations in 1967. Perhaps they are especially important now because we live in an age of image, branding, and narratives. Once those were distinct things, but now they converge. The rage today is narrative branding and brand imaging and image storytelling. It’s a persuasion trinity.
The prominence of image making, branding, and storytelling applies not only to corporations, political parties, non-profits, and movements. It applies to individuals. Business consulting guru Tom Peters wrote:
Big companies understand the importance of brands. Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your own brand. Here’s what it takes to be the CEO of Me Inc. [Tom Peters, “The Brand Called You,” Fast Company, August 31, 1997.]
We are overly wrapped up in branding. We see everything as a matter of branding. This has created a new image for Luther: Luther as self-brander. Consider views such as Andrew Pettegree’s in his current book Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe–and Started the Protestant Reformation. Is that essentially who Luther is, a brand?
That image of Luther is usable if you want to sell a book or create a brand for yourself. That’s the thing about images. They make Luther usable. Through them, Luther can be recruited to support a variety of contemporary causes. It could be a cause like building a brand for an author. It could be a cause in society. It could be a cause in the church. Controlling the image of Luther lets us apply his brand-force to our agenda.
The trouble is, serving our agenda might not serve our needs. Maybe our agenda is simply our own way of selling indulgences. We are in as much need of Luther today as ever.
Why did Luther decry indulgences? Why did he publish the 95 Theses? During his ensuing career, what prioritized his selection of projects? What gave each project its content and direction? Are Luther’s works just a succession of pearls with no string, forming no necklace? Is Luther just a kaleidoscope, or is there a center, a sun for the orbs revolving in him?
The heart-and-soul center of Luther is his pastor’s heart. He published the 95 Theses out of love for the people. The many images of Luther all are spokes on a hub, and the hub is pastoral care of the people. He is a polemicist to protect the people from cruel and lethal heresy. He is a purifier of the mass to give Christ’s sacrament back to the people. He is a promoter of education to lift the people. He is a Bible translator to give the Bible to the people. He is a hero who risks his life because that is what shepherds do for the sheep. The hirelings run away, but the shepherds stand and fight.
Where is this fight today? Which part of Luther’s pastoral care is sorely needed just now? Which image of Luther would be the most beneficial for the suffering misery of the people of our day, place, and time?
There is something about our people that is just like the people in Luther’s day: a shocking ignorance of the faith. This is true of those outside the church and those within. Many non-Christians have distorted notions of what Christianity teaches that they pick up in society. They have not rejected Christianity so much as they have been ignorant of it. Within the church, many Christians are surprised when they hear basic catechetical truths. Often their surprise is so profound as to cause them to be skeptical that a basic catechetical truth is even part of what Christianity teaches.
When Luther visited the churches, he discovered their shocking ignorance. Yes, he kept on doing all his other works because all those works helped to address the problem. But what he did especially about this problem was to create and publish the Small Catechism. This is the image of Luther for today, Luther as catechist.
As we commemorate Luther in 2017, let us actually commemorate him. Let us visit our churches. Let us talk with the people. Let us see how it goes with them. Let us discover what they know of the faith. Let us see if we have frittered away the Reformation by sloth in homes and parishes where neither the house bishops nor the priests teach the catechism. Would we not find ourselves in Luther’s Preface to the Small Catechism?
The deplorable, miserable condition that I discovered recently when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form.
Mercy! Dear God, what great misery I beheld! The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach. This is so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it. Yet, everyone says that they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.
Say what you want about his choices in rhetoric, Luther’s burden is pastoral care for the people.
I doubt we really agree with Luther about the importance of this. In his Preface, he asks bishops, “What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office?” Do we believe that, having been busy with the many other tasks of bishops, and having neglected only this one thing, catechization, Christ will demand an answer? Luther is not branding himself here. He is looking out for the people.
O bishops! What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office? [You have ever done anything rather than what your office required you to do.] May all misfortune run from you! I do not wish at this place to call down evil on your heads. You command the Sacrament in one form and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care at all whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of God’s Word. Woe, woe to you forever!
Luther instructs that “those who are unwilling to learn the catechism should be told that they deny Christ and are not Christians.” Luther is not branding himself here either. He is teaching pastors what true, pastoral love is. “Open rebuke is better than secret love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Proverbs 27:5-6) He says anyone who refuses to learn the catechism,
should not be admitted to the Sacrament, accepted as sponsors at Baptism, or practice any part of Christian freedom. They should simply be turned back to the pope and his officials, indeed, to the devil himself. Furthermore, their parents and employers should refuse them food and drink, and notify them that the prince will drive such rude people from the country.
Luther says over and again that each part of the catechism is “in the plain form in which the head of the family shall teach it to his household.” It is pitiful to see how many children are spiritually fatherless because their fathers are derelict in catechizing in the home. Picture a world where parents catechize in the home. That would be a commemoration of Luther.
To commemorate Luther in 2017 is to join a renaissance of truly teaching Luther’s Small Catechism. Compare our options. Which other image of Luther and commemoration based on that image would do us more good?