Who’s Martin Luther?

Let’s say there’s this person. He or she and family regularly go to church on Sunday, and their church is Lutheran. For them, church is a supportive community first, a theological and philosophical experience second (or third or fourth). He or she thinks about spirituality when there on Sunday and sometimes in the week in between and tries to act on spiritual thoughts and beliefs with some consistency in life.

So, should he or she know who Martin Luther is? Fewer than half of Americans do, apparently, as well as half of Protestants in specific. As always with these things, “experts” have come swarming out of their crevices to let our punditry know that this is a serious concern, a public menace, a danger, and of course, a reason to hire more experts to do more as-yet-unspecified things to repair this situation.

Read that Pew survey again. It’s not about knowledge and ignorance, it’s a map of use and disuse. Does Martin Luther matter to my hypothetical Lutheran? In the practical everyday of his or her spirituality, no, not really. Are most Lutheran congregations strongly and consistently driven by doctrinal debates which have a binding effect on the spiritual experience of congregants? No. Do contemporary Lutheran congregations in the United States strongly resemble or call back to the life and times of Martin Luther, or religious experience in Europe during and just after the Reformation? Hell no: the crucible of the Reformation may have made American Protestantism possible, but it’s also about as emotionally and intellectually removed from contemporary American Protestantism as early modern science is from what won the Nobel Prize last year.

I’m not saying the history doesn’t count, or that I don’t want people to know it. The DNA of older eras of religious experience is still there inside of contemporary churches. Tim Harford’s argument about historical institutionalism is pertinent in this case as well. The point is, however, when do people need to, want to, or have to think about those deeper histories?

My hypothetical Lutheran might want to think about Martin Luther if there’s something in his or her contemporary church experience that’s unhappy, something he or she wants to change. How far back does that something go? Equally, if there’s something he or she really values, something that might be lost. Maybe there’s reason to be reflective, to wonder about the limitations of a current religious life. Is there something in Martin Luther’s experience that might broaden, complicate, or reassure a contemporary churchgoer who is reflecting about their own spirituality? Sure! Seems like a good starting place for a Lutheran or any Protestant.

Those are uses. Notice that they only make arise out of specific needs or issues. Is there any other reason for a Lutheran to know about Martin Luther? Simple curiosity, I suppose: you’d kind of want to know where your denomination’s name comes from. That slender impulse might get overwhelmed by the tidal flow of information you’d get from the very first second of inquiring about the name, though. Does a Lutheran have a sacred obligation to know about Martin Luther as a Muslim would have to know about Muhammed? Not in any way that I can see: one of the baseline impulses of Protestantism is to shuck off that particular doctrinal responsibility, and Martin Luther himself was quite specific about the low value of most of his writing for later generations.

What the public reading of these kinds of quizzes imply, however, is that this kind of knowledge is a sort of steady-state obligation that stands apart from any reason for it to commonly exist. You want to tell me that knowledge of Martin Luther is obligatory, especially for contemporary Christians, just because it is? Ok, fine. Why? And if so, believe you me, you had better not stop with the simple, heroic image of him nailing his theses to the door or represent him as a figure with a single revealed and finalized theology. You’d better not forget the messiness of his role in the violence of the Reformation or his anti-Semitism. If you’re obliged to know, you’re obliged to know the whole magilla.

Or maybe, just maybe, worry about him when he becomes relevant, when there’s some reason to know. And so too should we worry less and be interested more in what we find out about what people use and don’t use of the knowledge potentially available to them.

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5 Responses to Who’s Martin Luther?

  1. Ray says:

    Couldn’t you equally ask, is it important for Americans to know who George Washington was? How is that information useful?

  2. DannyScL says:

    A thousand times yes. You’d think that with all the ink that has been spilled on religion in recent decades there would be a greater recognition of the complexity and multiplicity of religious experience. Yet we still end up with reductive analyses of popular religion that treat it solely as a matter of which boxes are ticked on surveys and quizzes. One example: according to most recent surveys, somewhere between 50% and 60% of Britons claim to believe in God. But when the 2001 census results came out, just over 70% of respondents identified themselves as Christian. As you can imagine, this prompted much bewilderment and consternation – bewilderment about how this discrepancy was possible and consternation that so many people were “bad Christians” who didn’t even believe in God.

    Even leaving aside the vagaries of survey responses, this represents an awfully narrow-minded view of people actually think about, experience, and, yes, use religion. Sadly, that sort of complexity doesn’t fit neatly into executive summaries or newspaper articles. Part of that, I think, is due to the difficulties of “scaling up” from individual experiences to broad sociological claims. But another big problem (related, of course, to the question of scale) is that the media like numbers, as you’ve noted, and the really interesting questions often don’t have numerical answers.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure you should ask if it’s useful to know about George Washington. Though knowledge that’s *in use* and knowledge that’s *useful* is not quite the same thing, either. There are things I know because they’re all around me (George Washington is one of those things, arguably) and things I want or need to know because I have some instrumental purpose in mind.

    When many Protestants tell you that they don’t know who Martin Luther is, what I think they’re telling you is that he’s not all around them in their religious practices. Which I think is a quite accurate perception on their part. If you want to change that, you’d need to argue about why Martin Luther ought to be all around them in their religious practices. Which might be a more difficult argument than you’d think, not the least of which because Martin Luther himself provides some evidence that he’d rather NOT have become a figure of recurrent importance or authority in the practice of later Protestants.

  4. Western Dave says:

    My wife, who grew up Lutheran, can tell you who Martin Luther is. He’s the guy who brought the Christmas Tree into the church. But then again, when she was in HS, she and some friends protested the crappy English department by nailing 95 theses (of their own devising) onto the English department office door. Okay maybe they thumbtacked it. Either way, I’m thinking she is unusually well educated for a Lutheran at this point. Whereas before I thought she was pretty ignorant based on that time I ruined Christmas when I naively asked a question about consubstantiation at dinner and people started yelling at each other about what they were supposed to believe. (At that time, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as consubstantiation, hence my confusion when I read about the requirements for taking communion.)

  5. Britta says:

    As someone raised a Lutheran though now non practicing, I have to say it would be hard to be in anyway a regular practitioner of Lutheranism and not know who Martin Luther is. Many of the hymns and music performed in the church is written by him, his life and writings are regularly referenced in sermons, in confirmation one is required to memorize Luther’s Small Catechism, and there is even a church holiday, Reformation Sunday, dedicated to memorializing the actions of Martin Luther. Also, since Lutherans are a small fraction of all Christians or even mainline Protestants (about 5 million practitioners out of 21 million mainline protestants in the US, I’d imagine they would fall in the half of protestants who do know who Martin Luther is.)

    I do think your point holds in general, though, in that academic knowledge about religion is not necessary for religious belief.

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