Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Bad (UnChristian) Idea that was "The Crusades" both Then and Now

Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades.
But they don’t understand them at all.

[It wasn't] a clash of civilizations, or a war of Christianity against Islam.

by Matthew Gabriele
June 6, 2017

*Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies in the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech and has published widely on religion and violence in the Middle Ages.

**Author's Perspective was published in the Washington Post, June 6, 2017

The Crusades as we imagine them are different from the actual
conflicts medievals experienced. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Recent terrorist attacks in London have sparked a new wave of “clash of civilizations” rhetoric — that brand of political language that characterizes events like those in London as the West vs. the East, Christianity vs. Islam. To defeat the terrorists, this logic holds, we must “obliterate these savages from the face of the earth.” In the wake of the attacks in London, some openly wished for an end to Islam altogether, posting under the #NoMoreRamadans hashtag.

Frequently these kinds of statements refer back — longingly — to the Crusades. Shortly after news of the attack in London spread, a writer at the white nationalist website Breitbart tweeted that “the crusades need to come back.” He quickly deleted the tweet, but a TownHall columnist shared that he, too, thought that “Christians were the unequivocal good guys in the Crusades” and that he “supported” the Crusades. Then, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) wrote on Facebook that “all of Christendom … is at war with Islamic horror” and that the only solution is to “kill them all.” This wasn’t the first time. Last year, during his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama mentioned the fact that all religious groups have perpetrated violent acts throughout history, citing the Crusades as evidence. That remark sparked a vigorous response from the right, focusing primarily around a defense of the medieval Crusades. Before that, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum told a group of schoolchildren that “the left” only criticizes the Crusades because “they hate Christendom.” Santorum, too, held that the Crusades were purely a defensive war against Islamic aggression. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Exploiting a simplified, misleading story of the Crusades (namely, that they were primarily a Western, Christian, defensive response to Middle Eastern incursion on Christian lands) isn’t a strictly contemporary phenomenon. In fact, it came into fashion during the age of colonialism and was reborn again in the early 20th century. In both of those cases — and in our own current climate — the imaginary parallel between the Crusades and our own conflicts does much more to advance our own political causes than to accurately represent the Crusades.

As scholars of the Crusades have shown for several generations now, there was no necessary evolutionary movement toward the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The Arab conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century was long forgotten by that time, and Latin Europe felt very little (if any) pressure from the highly divided Seljuk Turks, who were quite busy fighting one another as well as the Fatimids in Egypt. Even during their march toward Jerusalem, the crusaders themselves showed absolute willingness to ally with some Muslim leaders against other Muslims (or even fellow Christians). Things only got more complicated once the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established in the 12th century, when the Emperor Frederick II was criticized by contemporaries for his supposed friendliness with Muslims, even after he recovered Jerusalem for the Christians in 1229. In other words, the story is not nearly so simple as Christians vs. Muslims locked in a black-and-white battle for contested lands.

The popular conception of the Crusades comes not from their historical reality, but from two related places: First, from 19th and early 20th century scholars of the Crusades, such as French historian Joseph-Francois Michaud or the German Heinrich von Sybel or the American George Lincoln Burr, who saw their research linked to contemporary nationalistic colonial projects in Africa and the Middle East; and second, from the resurrection of those ideas by 21st century conservatives, such as cold warrior Robert Spencer, Santorum and many surrounding the presidency of George W. Bush.

Indeed, the term “crusade” as it’s used these days is anachronistic, more an artifact of our own politics than those of the medievals. The word “crusade” in Latin (crucesignatus — “one marked by the cross”) didn’t make its first appearance until about 1200, more than 100 years after the phenomenon supposedly began. In English, the gap is even longer, since the words “crusade” and “crusader” don’t really appear until around 1700. Even then, the word’s introduction was meant to resolve a contemporary — not historical — problem: To simultaneously describe wars fought during the Middle Ages and to characterize any struggle against “evil” or “error.” In other words, to link past and present in the era of discovery and colonial expansion. Modern historians have since put the term to political use over and over again: For example, Allenby’s conquest of Jerusalem from the Ottomans in 1917 was linked to Richard the Lionheart’s failure in 1189, while René Grousset concluded his history of the crusades by writing: “The Templars only held until 1303 the islet of Ruad, south of Tortosa, from where one day — in 1914 — the ‘Franks’ would again set foot in Syria.”

Although scholarship on the Crusades may have moved on, these colonialist ideas persist. Together with colleagues Susanna Throop and David Perry, we’ve begun to trace the resurgence of these ideas with the rise (and normalization) of the alt-right. There’s a long history of white nationalists and white supremacists using the Middle Ages (badly) to justify their ideas, and the Crusades are no exception. Most recently, the so-called crying templar meme gained popularity in summer 2016 as a xenophobic response to Syrian refugees entering Europe, while at the same time some protesters showed up in full medieval Templar costume to anti-immigrant rallies, and “Deus Vult” (the supposed war cry of the First Crusaders) became a rallying cry for white nationalists in both Europe and the United States.

But all blame can’t be laid at the feet of the alt-right. At least since Bush used “crusade” to describe the American response to al-Qaeda, many conservatives have been comfortable with positioning the U.S. as the new Latin medieval Europe imposing order on an unruly Middle East as a “defensive” response to aggression. We saw this in Donald H. Rumsfeld’s PowerPoints on Iraq, Erik Prince’s Blackwater, and in the response to Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Even if mistaken nostalgia for the Middle Ages is most prominent among the fringes of the right, it’s a feature of the mainstream right as well, and the response to the London attacks suggests it isn’t going anywhere soon.

Debating the meaning of the Crusades is debating what it means to be modern: If the conservatives are correct, the world has always been quasi-apocalyptic and won’t ever change; if the historians are correct, different epochs have markedly different characters, and we’re not doomed to repeat our historical mistakes forever. “Crusade” has always said, will always say, more about how we see the world than about the Middle Ages. It’s a modern word imposed on a medieval world, an attempt at a rainbow connection. And a rainbow, after all, dissipates into air when you change your perspective.

* * * * * * * * *

For further reference:

Readings on the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther

Martin Luther before the Courts

* * * * * * * * *

Martin Luther’s Burning Questions

by Ingrid D. Rowland
June 8, 2017

Reading Suggestions

Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation
an exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, October 30, 2016–January 15, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Anne-Simone Rous, Katrin Herbst, Ralf Kluttig-Altmann, and others
Dresden: Sandstein, two volumes, 998 pp., $69.96

Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation
an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, October 7, 2016–January 22, 2017

Law and Grace: Martin Luther, Lucas Cranach, and the Promise of Salvation
an exhibition at the Pitts Theology Library, Atlanta, October 11, 2016–January 16, 2017

an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 20, 2016–March 26, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Jeffrey Chipps Smith and others
Prestel, 239 pp., $49.95

by Lyndal Roper
Random House, 540 pp., $40.00

by Andrew Pettegree
Penguin, 383 pp., $29.95; $18.00 (paper)


Klassik Stiftung Weimar
'Martin Luther as Junker Jörg,' the name under which
Luther  went into hiding in 1521 | woodcut by
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1521–1522

On All Hallow’s Eve of 1517, Martin Luther, Augustinian friar and professor of theology, posted a broadsheet on the faculty bulletin board of tiny, provincial Wittenberg University in the German state of Saxony (which happened to be the door of the church attached to the local lord’s castle). The poster was no Halloween prank; it proclaimed, according to academic custom, his willingness to debate a series of propositions in public. Although he also sent copies of the same broadsheet to important statesmen, churchmen, and academics outside Wittenberg, no one seems to have taken up his challenge to a formal discussion. His propositions were too explosive for that; in blunt, forceful language, they questioned the basic beliefs of the church to which, as a Hermit of Saint Augustine, he had vowed his obedience.

Luther would say that his life’s turning point came two years later, when he had a sudden revelation about the nature of Christian salvation. For his contemporaries, however, the posting of his ninety-five theses in 1517 set off the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation, and the Reformation in turn marked a fundamental stage in the forging of a collective German identity. To mark the event’s five hundredth anniversary, the Federal Republic of Germany has sponsored a series of Luther celebrations at home and abroad, which began in the fall of 2016 and continue throughout 2017. They include an ambitious series of Luther-themed exhibitions in the United States: major shows in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, with smaller versions of the Minneapolis extravaganza in New York and Atlanta, all providing a fresh, insightful view into Luther’s life and times and the vast, unpredictable forces his rebellion unleashed.

The exhibition catalogs—two impressive five-hundred-page volumes shared by Minneapolis, New York, and Atlanta, and a separate work for Los Angeles—cover a vast range of topics: Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Martin Luther’s latrine, Lutherans in North America, Luther in Communist East Germany, the unintended consequences of the Reformation. The intensity of their focus is relieved by clever, colorful charts and a bountiful complement of illustrations. It is impossible, given our own recent past, to ponder the Reformation without also pondering its darker legacy of religious warfare, anti-Semitism, and lingering mistrust between Catholics and Protestants, German East and German West; and these are issues the catalogs face head-on.

Yet what drove the friar and his contemporaries to their drastic actions were ideas of transcendent beauty, including the profound inner music behind the cadences of Luther’s oratory and the stirring hymns that set his spiritual armies on the march. To understand this complicated, superbly talented man, and to make the most of the Luther exhibitions, it helps to have a good biography on hand, and Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet provides expert and spirited guidance. So, in a more specialized way, does Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther, a fascinating study of Luther’s pioneering relationship with the printing press that is especially helpful for understanding these exhibitions dedicated in large measure to books and other mass-produced printed works.

The Protestant Reformation took hold where it did and when it did for a variety of reasons, beginning with the blazing personality of Martin Luther himself. Strictly speaking, he was not a monk, though he is often described as one: he was a preaching friar who belonged to the largest Catholic religious order of his day, the Hermits of Saint Augustine. Rather than spending their time, as monks did, in secluded prayer in a monastery, the Augustinians lived in cities and moved from place to place. They trained to communicate the Christian message in what for the time was a revolutionary new style: borrowing techniques from the orators of classical antiquity and from contemporary preachers who gave sermons in colloquial languages rather than Latin, they appealed openly to the emotions of their hearers.

Friar Martin focused his ire (and most of the ninety-five theses) on one particular practice of the institutional church: the sale of indulgences. These papal dispensations, confirmed by paper certificates, grew out of a traditional medieval conviction that prayer, repentance, good works, and pilgrimage could atone in some measure for sin. It was even possible to do penance for someone else, as Luther did during his stay in Rome, kneeling on the steps of the Holy Stairs at Saint John Lateran to earn an indulgence for his grandfather. Giving alms or endowing a church could also earn remission from sins, reducing the amount of time a person would need to spend after death in the uncomfortable realm of Purgatory, where, in late medieval Christian belief, human souls were gradually cleansed of their iniquities until they were pure enough to enter the Earthly Paradise, there to await final admission to Heaven on Judgment Day. By the late fifteenth century, however, remission from sins could simply be purchased from a papal agent, for oneself or for another person, whether alive or deceased.

The sale of indulgences became an industry only in Luther’s own lifetime and in his own lands, put into place by the “warrior Pope” Julius II and the Augsburg banker Jakob Fugger. After 1506, pope and banker directed the revenue from German indulgences toward the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome. “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation,” a monumental exhibition that took inspired advantage of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s spacious galleries, and “Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation,” a scaled-down version of the Minneapolis show tailored to the intimate spaces of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, displayed specially-made “indulgence chests,” iron-bound coffers with handy coin slots, the equivalent of immense, armor-plated piggy banks.

These heavy wooden boxes with their multiple locks demonstrate the extent to which the German states were exporting huge quantities of metal to Rome and receiving printed slips of paper in return, exchanging material wealth for the equivalent of checks that drew on the currency of heaven rather than earth. Jakob Fugger took a 3 percent cut—in coins, not release from Purgatory—on every shipment south. Is it any wonder that the man who finally pulled the plug on this improbable trade knew a thing or two himself about the value of metal?

In later life, in one of his famous dinner-table conversations, Martin Luther claimed to come from modest origins, and indeed his father, Hans Luder, ended his life in financial trouble. But in 1483, when Martin came into the world, the Luders were a prosperous family of copper smelters living in the foothills of the ore-rich Harz Mountains. Archaeological remains excavated from the family compound in Mansfeld, where Martin spent his childhood, tell a tale of affluence.

The exhibitions in Minneapolis and New York included fine glassware among the beer steins, as well as gold sequins and other ornaments from the Luder girls’ dresses, buried, perhaps, when plague struck the city in 1505 and killed two of the Luder boys. Dorothea Luder, Martin’s sister, had to sacrifice a monogrammed gold buckle along with her belt for fear of contagion. The family’s rubbish pit also yielded copper slag and an abundance of pig and goose bones, further signs of the household’s prosperity. Hand-rolled clay marbles may have been Martin’s own, along with bowling pins made of knucklebones with a metal weight sunk into one end.

To a remarkable extent, as these exhibitions reveal, Luther’s world, and Luther’s Reformation, revolved around metal. The silver, copper, lead, and iron mined from the Harz Mountains and smelted in small-scale factories like Hans Luder’s copper works took up only a corner of an international market in which Jakob Fugger was one of the most aggressive participants. Fugger may have been shipping coins by the cofferful to the pope in Rome, but metal was also flowing into his own treasury from his silver and copper mines in Tyrol and Bohemia.

Almost every aspect of these impressive exhibitions intersected with metal somewhere. Friar Martin, for instance, probably stuck his theses to the Castle Church door using glue or wax rather than expending precious metal to nail them. German expertise with metallurgy was so renowned in Renaissance Europe that Italian jewelers sought technical advice from their German colleagues.

At the same time, German artists absorbed lessons in style from Italians, so that Hans Reinhardt and Wenzel Jamnitzer became as internationally renowned for their gold- and silversmithing in the early sixteenth century as Albrecht Dürer was for his copperplate engraving, all three of them joining incomparable German craftsmanship to Italian-inspired flair. The metal typefaces that broadcast the arguments of Reformers and Roman traditionalists back and forth across Europe originated among German metalworkers, and so did the glittering weapons and guns that would soon be carrying out the butchery of new and vicious religious wars. The first treatise on metallurgy was written by an Italian, Vannoccio Biringuccio, but he gained his experience with lead and silver at the Fugger mines in Tyrol.

And metals, of course, meant money. Between 1508 and 1524, Fugger’s firm not only managed the business of indulgences for the German states, but also struck the coins produced by the papal mint in Rome, as Luther may well have learned (or known already) when he visited that city in the winter of 1510–1511. He certainly focused on money in his forty-fifth thesis:

Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.

And his forty-eighth:

Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.

And his fiftieth:

Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of Saint Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.

On an epic scale in Minneapolis, an expansive scale in Los Angeles, and an intimate scale in New York (I was unable to see the exhibition in Atlanta), the aesthetic refinement and technical mastery of German metalwork stood out in all its dazzling virtuosity. Hans Reinhardt’s intricately layered, delicately textured medal depicting the Holy Trinity is probably the most complex example ever created of this popular Renaissance art form. Albrecht Dürer’s triumphant series of engravings from the first decade of the sixteenth century—The Knight, Death and the Devil, Melencolia I, and Saint Jerome in His Study—use black lines on white paper to suggest every possible nuance of light and shadow, along with the dense fur of Saint Jerome’s contented lion, the loose, mangy skin on the ribs of Death’s skinny horse, sunbeams streaming through the glass panes of Saint Jerome’s window, and the ambiguous sunrise in the distance beyond a dark-complexioned Melancholy (Greek for “black bile”). Los Angeles displayed an opulent casket by the Jamnitzer workshop, an enormous piece of jewelry in itself: enameled, engraved, studded with saucy sphinxes and tiny lions, gleaming in silver, gold, and royal blue, with pull-out drawers.

German artists excelled in other media as well. Los Angeles displayed two wooden sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider of Würzburg: a tender Virgin Mary and a Saint Matthew whose sensitive hands make one wonder what the sculptor’s own must have looked like. (The story that Riemenschneider’s hands were broken by Lutheran iconoclasts is a nineteenth-century myth, one of many vicious rumors spun by both sides of the Reformation.) Priestly vestments of wool and damask (a mixture of wool and silk) hung in elegant folds in New York and especially Minneapolis, embroidered in wool, silk, and metallic wire of silver and gold. Minneapolis and Los Angeles displayed whole suits of armor, the wasp-waisted corrugated panoply of Prince Wolfgang of Anhalt-Köthen standing out among breastplates forged to accommodate multiple chins and beer bellies.

What drove Friar Martin to post his theses, however, was a spiritual insight, a realization so overwhelming that it prompted him to alter his name from Martin Luder to Martinus Eleutherius—“Martin the Free.”*

*Because “Luder,” the family name, could mean “loose woman,” the ninety-five theses already spell Friar Martin’s name as “Lutther.” When, after a few months, Martinus Eleutherius reverted to a more normal name, it was to our familiar “Luther.”

The Christian hope for eternal life, he had come to believe, was a divine gift that no human being, no matter how virtuous, could ever deserve—there was no penance for sin that could truly merit divine indulgence. Salvation, therefore, was not a reward, but an outright gift from God, bestowed out of the sheer abundance of his love for his creation.

For years Friar Martin had chafed at the idea of a judgmental God who lay in wait to punish sinners. But now a phrase that had always irked him, “the righteousness of God,” struck, as he would later say, “like a thunderbolt”:

It is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” There I began to understand that the righteous [person] lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel…with which the merciful God justifies us by faith…. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.

His thirty-seventh thesis asserted:

Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

He posted his theses, as the broadsheet declared, “Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it.”

Luther’s message swiftly found followers, especially in the German states: on the spiritual level with his doctrine of justification by faith, and on the practical level with his attack on the alliance between religion and capitalism that had turned remission of sins into a commercial enterprise. He survived the religious and political firestorm he ignited not only because of his courage and eloquence, phenomenal though they were, but also because the local sovereign, Elector Frederick III of Saxony, decided to side with his renegade friar rather than his bishop. Nicknamed “the Wise,” Frederick was as shrewd as he was pious. Over the years he had amassed a staggering number of saints’ relics, some 18,970 by 1520, which he displayed once a year in Wittenberg Castle, each one lovingly installed in an opulent, beautifully wrought metal reliquary (several of which were on view in Minneapolis).

Pilgrims flocked to see the collection and left their offerings of coins and valuables, ensuring that metal continued to flow into Wittenberg rather than Rome, and keeping Frederick free, unlike his bishop (and his nominal liege lord, the Holy Roman Emperor), of colossal debts to Fugger. Frederick the Wise never entirely sided with Luther’s revolution (he remained Catholic), but neither did he oppose it. And at one crucial juncture in 1521, he saved Luther’s life by hiding him away in Wartburg Castle disguised as a bourgeois layman named “Junker Jörg.”

Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
Lucas Cranach the Younger: Double Portrait of Martin Luther
and Philip Melanchthon, sixteenth century

Luther’s bishop, Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, was one of his first and most powerful detractors. Albert received one of the first copies of the ninety-five theses and reported on them to Pope Leo X. The archbishop had good reason to worry: he was responsible for the sale of indulgences in his metal-rich diocese, and he was hopelessly in debt to Jakob Fugger, who had financed his campaign for office. The pope, duly informed, summoned Friar Martin to Rome to answer for his actions, but it was soon clear that the renegade had no intention of playing into the pontiff’s hands.

Eventually an interview was arranged in Augsburg in 1518, in conjunction with the meeting of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire, the very German statesmen who faced the spreading religious rebellion among their citizens. From the papal point of view, Cardinal Tommaso de Vio da Gaeta (usually known as Cajetan, “the Gaetan”) must have seemed like the ideal man for the job: the former head of the Dominican order and one of the most influential prelates of his era, he was also a trained inquisitor under instructions to make Luther recant or to arrest him and drag him back to Rome.

The meeting between the friar and the cardinal took place in Fugger’s Augsburg house. Cajetan was a master of Scholastic reasoning, the elaborate medieval system of theology, thought, and rhetoric that had developed with the first universities—the very system that new universities like Wittenberg and orders like Luther’s Augustinians were dedicated to overthrowing for new kinds of inquiry and expression. Luther hated Scholasticism and its pedantry at least as passionately as he hated the mixing of religion and business, and few people have ever hated with Luther’s white-hot intensity. Gaunt, ailing, and urgently aware that he might be risking a death sentence, he stood his ground against the cardinal, who lectured him about a few of the theses and let him leave Fugger’s house untouched. The cardinal realized that it was too late for an arrest to solve the problem. Luther already represented a movement. He was not an isolated heretic who could be whisked away in secret.

If he had written little before, now Luther went into overdrive, proclaiming his theology in torrents of prose and poetry in both Latin and German, and spreading his ideas as widely as the printing press could reach. He forged two indispensable partnerships, one with his colleague Philipp Melanchthon, the professor of Greek at Wittenberg, and one with Elector Frederick’s court painter, Lucas Cranach. Melanchthon gave the burgeoning movement its intellectual rigor, and Cranach, together with Luther, turned tiny, remote Wittenberg into a center for publishing; his own workshop became the crucible of Lutheran art.

Cranach already managed a sizable enterprise from his house in the center of Wittenberg, producing portraits, altarpieces, allegories, and history paintings for private patrons as well as for Elector Frederick and his family. His state portraits show that Luther was supported throughout his life by a series of imposingly large men: Frederick the Wise, his brother and successor John, and John’s son John Frederick, whose wife, the slender, cat-eyed Sibylle of Cleves, captivated Cranach. One portrait displayed at the Morgan Library shows the veins beneath her porcelain skin; in another painting, of a hunting expedition that never happened, Sibylle, in her pearl-studded dress, shoots off a massive arquebus with the aplomb of a Renaissance Annie Oakley.

As the Reformation took hold, Cranach continued to work for Catholic patrons as well as Lutherans, but his efforts for Luther were inspired and revolutionary. Quickly the painter and the friar devised a standard format for their publications: quarto books (the size of a large modern paperback) with titles in crisp Gothic letters above a large woodcut image from the Cranach studio, tailored to the new Lutheran vision of heaven and earth. (One popular theme was the contrast between life under the old law and life under the rule of grace, where the old law is both Jewish and Catholic.) Even before Luther’s impassioned words could sink in for readers of his tracts, the black-on-white clarity of their visual presentation already cut as sharply as a sword.

At the same time, Cranach worked on the image of Luther himself. His first portraits of the Reformer show a thin, clean-shaven friar with hollow cheeks, an Augustinian tonsure, a sunburst behind his head, and a look of blazing concentration. As the years go on, he grows in bulk and authority, culminating in the deathbed portrait of a man finally at peace.

Satires, cartoons, and broadsheets followed closely on the stream of tracts and Luther’s translation of the Bible for the first time into German (illustrated by Cranach), with the Protestants almost always striking a clever blow one step ahead of their adversaries. There was nothing refined about Martin Luther’s sense of humor; if he called the world a sewer (cloaca) in Latin, in German he called it (and many of its phenomena) a pile of shit. Freed from his Augustinian vows (which had never included poverty), he continued to live in the same convent in a bachelor’s chaos until 1525, when he married the runaway nun Katharina von Bora.

Luther soon discovered the range of his wife’s talents: she cleaned up the sprawling house, brewed excellent beer, set up a pig farm and a hospital, entertained a host of students at dinner, bore him six children, and cared for four orphan children besides. Archaeological excavations of the Luther household reveal glassware from Venice, broken beer steins, and an abundance of pig bones. For his part, Cranach developed an image of Martin and Katharina as the ideal Christian couple through a new series of portraits, small enough for faithful Lutherans to keep at home, complemented by huge, less expensive, paper images of Luther and Melanchthon that could be posted on walls, presenting both the portly Reformer and the weedy professor as Titans.

Roper’s biography and the exhibition catalogs squarely confront the legacy of Luther’s searing hatred, of Jews especially, but also of papists, Calvinists, and anyone else who failed to see the truth as he did. But what these impressive exhibitions show most of all is an inspired man with an earnest mission in a complex world of money and alchemy, sublime art and music, and burning questions about how faith should fit into a society that had burst its immemorial boundaries.