There’s a new documentary about the progenitor of Protestantism — “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World.” It is quite a revelation.
With few exceptions, everyone who is Christian owes something, good or ill, to this hard-headed lawyer turned monk. Luther was so afraid he couldn’t save himself that he left this world (for a monastery) to find the next (a road to Heaven’s Gate), only to return a wiser man and a revolutionary.
His revelation was simple: God made us; He loves us; He sent His Son to save us, and we are saved. He couldn’t save himself and didn’t have to. God is driving that bus.
So, we should spend our time doing good things for others, as Christ did, he said, and not worry about Heaven. And, by the way, nothing you can do, not good works on any scale, will help you. On the other hand, if your neighbor fails or goes hungry, it’s on your head. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
In a world where very few people were able to read, the line of authority from the pope to the farmer was the last word. The pope then wanted to do good things for Rome like build the magnificent buildings and palaces we know today through the sale of “indulgences.” Buy an indulgence from clerics like Johann Tetzel and you can take years off your time or your loved ones’ time in purgatory. Technically, you could buy your way into heaven.
Luther was unhappy that his church would imagine that his God would care about gold. Confession and repentance were the way forward in his view. While he was at it, he had 94 other doctrinal matters he wanted to bring up for discussion, the kind of discussion that could end in a bonfire with the petitioner tied to a stake.
The printing press changed things. When Luther nailed his 95 theses on matters he considered at odds with a reading of the Bible (in Latin), copies of his work were in Spain in 10 days, all the way from East Nowhere, Germany. The speed of paper printed in Germany getting to Spain that quickly was perhaps the first phase of Luther’s inadvertent revolution, the beginning of the renaissance for mass communications.
Protestantism wasn’t just about religion, of course. Nation-states in Europe realized the Catholic Church owned 15 percent of the land and had great wealth besides. Luther paved the way for Henry VIII to seize England’s Church holdings on the merest of formalities, religion aside — something to do with wives.
Luther decided he was no longer willing to accept the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome. His friends figured he was walking the green mile. But politics and stardom spared him, and he was the first major best-seller in history.
Brilliant history, brilliantly told. The talking heads are authentic with the kind of expertise that leaves no doubt they were speaking with the man a short time ago. “Brought to life” is not quite right, but aside from a few simple distractions, the production values and the actors are first rate. I watched it on South Dakota Public Television. I watched it twice — once in amazement and once to take notes.
It’s a surprising story about one man’s search for truth and happiness. Luther’s work is the foundation for most of our protestant religious views, with minor variations in doctrinal matters. The notion of being saved by grace alone was brand new. War, plagues, peril of all sorts followed. So did freedom of religion. Watch it and marvel.