In the preface to Martin Luther, the latest of his more than 50 books, theologian Martin Marty defines his role as biographer as neither “a hanging judge or a flack.” But he admits that his portrait of the 16th-century German priest may not find favor with all of the flock.
“There are a lot of Lutherans who would like a portrait of Luther in which he is not so agonized, so doubting,” says Marty, an ordained Lutheran minister and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. “When he doubts, he really, really doubts. Doubt for him is just not a little intellectual weakness. Doubt is not something the devil does to you. No, this kind of doubt is way bone deep and it must belong to the will of God. To me–my Luther always wrestles, always struggles: ‘God, you’re bigger than I am. You’re more mysterious. I’ll never get anywhere.’ And yet, God descends enough into our world that in this wrestling match we get to win. Win against meaninglessness, doubt, despair, depression. I think part of his genius is he just went deeper on what all of us do all the time.”
In Martin Luther, recently published as part of the “Penguin Lives” series, Marty mostly writes about Luther’s theology–his critique of a church hierarchy that corrupted the intimate rapport between believers and their God–but touches on his earthly foibles as well. The man credited with kicking off the Protestant Reformation routinely exasperated his confessor by counting his farts as sins. He walked out on a congregation during a service when worshippers refused to improve their bad singing and he castigated Pope Leo X as “a brothel-keeper above all brothel-keepers.”
Now 76, Marty is widely acknowledged as the preeminent authority on the history of American religion: he’s won a National Book Award and a National Humanities Medal and is the recipient of 72 honorary doctorates. His own career may lack the life-altering thesis-nailings and book burnings that mark that of his most recent subject, but he appreciates his namesake’s “passion for transgressing linguistic and social boundaries.”
Marty first made a name for himself as a young Concordia Seminary student in Saint Louis when he and a classmate invented a fictional thinker, Franz Bibfeldt, who soon took on a life of his own. Marty and his friends cited Bibfeldt in their papers and in his senior year Marty published a review of Bibfeldt’s treatise “The Relieved Paradox” in an issue of the Concordia Seminarian. School authorities were not amused. “Is this a satire on one of us, or all of us?” asked the president. A covert fan of the stunt, he was consoled to hear it was nothing personal, but Marty’s postgraduate assignment in London was canceled. “They said, ‘You’re too immature and irresponsible to represent the church in England and you need seasoning,'” remembers Marty with a laugh. “So they sent me to assist in River Forest.”
He earned his PhD at the U. of C. in 1956 and, after serving as a parish pastor for several years, returned to the university in 1963, with joint appointments in the Divinity School, the history department, and the Committee on the History of Culture. In 1965 he marched in Selma with a delegation of U. of C. teachers and students, and two years later signed on to an antiwar statement by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. In the 80s he consulted with Moral Alternatives in Politics and People for the American Way, two groups organized in response to the rise of the Christian right.
A respected, meticulous scholar, Marty occasionally displays a flash of Lutherian provocation. When an editor recently asked him for an introductory reading list for students, Marty recommended The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr who led the Protestant struggle against the Nazis and preached that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
“When students read that they will say, ‘Hey, isn’t that what bin Laden says?'” Marty says. “And that should spark a wonderful conversation about the difference.”
At 6 PM on Thursday, February 26, Marty will discuss Martin Luther at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton. It’s free; call 312-255-3700.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.