Harline, “A World Ablaze” (reviewed by Douglas F. Christensen)


Title: A World Ablaze
Author: Craig Harline
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Devotional/Religious
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 275
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-19-027518-1
Price: $27.95

Reviewed by Douglas F. Christensen for the Association for Mormon Letters

As an academic historian, Craig Harline does something bold with A World Ablaze: he recounts Martin Luther’s story by simply telling his story, but there is nothing simple about this narrative genre choice. Perhaps it suggests that his target audience actually is precisely who he describes in the short intro: “readers who know the name Martin Luther, but aren’t exactly sure why” (1). However, once the reader is hooked, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is something substantial for all kinds of readers because this is a story deeply rooted in real facts, dates, names, and rhetorical expressions from the early 16th Century.

The narrative style allows the reader to glide over the minutia without being slowed down by it, knowing there is an index and illustration credits (as well as further reading suggestions) in the back, should one want to slow down. As a reader who falls somewhere between a Christian History specialist like Harline and that reader who knows Luther’s name but not much more, I was hooked from Luther’s conversation with two college students in the Black Bear Inn on page 3.

Upon reflection, I was equally taken by the intimate details of Luther’s overscrupulousness (a term for the zeal required from friars who wish to keep all the rules necessary for salvation) as well as the grand trajectory of his journeys to and from Wittenberg. Professor Harline helped me answer so many questions I have had about the life, passion, and intellect that filled in the historical space between three things that most people seem to know about Martin Luther: that he wrote 95 theses, that he started the reformation, and that he was anti-Semitic. A World Ablaze demonstrates that there is enough between those touchstones to flesh out a many-dimensional, affable, disciplined, courageous, prolific Catholic friar, not to mention a formidable intellect and a true believer. We learn that early on in his education Luther aligned himself with the Augustinians who balanced their theological interests with their scholarly ones in a way that suited Brother Martin’s equally charged passion for each (Harline 14-15).

Readers who know a little more than average about Luther understand that his primary concerns had to do with grace, works, and their attendant relationship to Catholic indulgences, or kindnesses (33-35). Harline shows how Brother Martin’s zeal for salvation, his very Catholic desire to be perfect, led directly to his personal frustration that, try as he might, he could never free himself from his own sins. “He tried to keep every single rule and once he broke a rule he more than made up for it with severely penitent deeds, but all the coarse clothing he wore and floors he scrubbed and latrines he cleaned and flesh he chastised and begging he did, not to mention all the blanketless sleeping in winter and three-day fasts and all night vigils and sometimes six-hour confessions, still weren’t enough to make him feel like he’d ever be rid of his sins, and thus be righteous, or justified, before a perfect and righteous and therefore surely demanding God. Even when he did something right on the outside, there was still something wrong with him inside, usually a lot of pride at having done the thing right” (15).

His life of austerity and asceticism still left him feeling unjustified before God, so when he was told to “just do what lies within you, and trust God to do the rest,” it made sense that something had to give. Questioning just how much was enough meant questioning the well-entrenched Catholic economy of buying and selling indulgences to compensate for ongoing sinning, and Brother Martin formulated precisely 95 questions about these practices, but as Harline demonstrates, these 95 theses were only the beginning of Luther’s work toward what he would come to call the Christian gospel, but that others would call Lutheranism and eventually Protestantism (both initially derogatory titles).

The first hundred pages carefully trace Brother Martin’s growing dissatisfaction with (and eventual contempt for) indulgences and his conversion toward a forceful philosophy and doctrine of salvation by grace, but this new weltanschauung doesn’t emerge out of thin air as much as from his dedicated personal study of scripture. In this book, we come to recognize how Luther’s epiphany was not the result of the insular scripture study of a cloistered Franciscan Monk, but one born of an integrated habit of lively religious teaching, Sabbath preaching, and passionate writing of disputations, books, tracts, and pamphlets.

In my own doctoral dissertation on writing pedagogy, I argue that criticism is a form of care, concern, and generosity for subjects and subject matter that a teacher loves. This is precisely how Harline characterizes Luther’s critique of his Catholic theology. He loves his Church—it is his world and his life. He wants to make it better. His combination of professional passions leads him to further question the legitimacy of the office of the Pope who was seen as the logical outcome of Peter’s encounter with Jesus in Matthew 19, where Jesus says, “upon this rock I will build my church.” Luther invited anyone to show him in scripture where he was wrong in doubting that Jesus had the Pope in mind (104).

Of course, his dissenters believed he could and inevitably would be proven wrong, because saying “that scripture was all that mattered, as Luther had, and that you could ignore the doctors of the church, would lead to chaos: then everybody could interpret scripture however they wanted. And finally, insisting that scripture was all that mattered was what heretics like Hus and Wycliffe had said too, but maybe Luther liked that company” (74). But scripture was all that mattered, at least for evidence of God’s will (see 136).

Not only did Luther demand scriptural proof from his interlocutors, he also wanted the average German citizen to receive God’s word in his or her own language. Ever since Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type, invented around 1450, German presses put out around 40 German-language works a year in 1500 and by 1520 the number was close to 570, most of which were written by Martin Luther, who, unlike his rivals “wasn’t ‘ashamed in the slightest’ to write to the uneducated” (187). Moreover, he had a gift for putting “controversial and complicated bits of theology into simple terms, even in German, and thus avoiding much of the technical language of the scholastics and the fancy ornaments of the men of letters. He also dug right down into his reader’s (and listeners) emotions and fears and hopes, which he knew too well because they were often his own emotions and fears and hopes, and it made his theology more personal than most theologians made theirs” (193).

Still, one wonders how Luther became so influential. Harline emphasizes that it wasn’t because every citizen was reading Luther’s always increasing body of religious literature, since only something like 5 percent of the population could read (194). His tracts weren’t enough to make him famous. “No, what did that was the reading aloud, and the passing and telling along. Some of the biggest sharers of Brother Martin’s books were his hundreds of fellow Augustinians, who mostly did their sharing from the hundreds of pulpits they had access to around the empire, and the pulpit and the right sort of preacher were still a lot more important to the vast majority of people than the newfangled press was” (194). When something is known somewhere, it is known everywhere.

Naturally, one might wonder how Luther avoided the fate of other heretics. After all, he challenged the Pope’s authority directly, among other grievous heresies equal to (and possibly inspired by) those of Jan Hus. And like John Wycliffe (exhumed and burned posthumously) and his English contemporary, the martyr William Tyndale, Luther also translated the Bible into his native tongue. According to Harline, Luther was not only willing to go the stake, he expected to, maybe even desired the lot of a martyr. In his case, however, political connections, especially to Frederick the III of Saxony, protected him at every turn.

If anything in this book could prove tedious for lay readers, for those wanting more of the story of Luther’s indigestion, or insults to his critics, and less of the carefully detailed political exigencies between civic and religious leaders, it is worth pushing through Harline’s context rich narrative. His writing is filled with pathos and humor, much of it coming directly from Martin Luther and some at his expense. But given Luther’s own self-deprecation and lifetime of self-criticism and criticism from others, he would accept A World Ablaze as a great compliment, recognizing the sacrifice, scrutiny, and good will that shaped this lovely story, at once old and familiar, and as new and fresh as Luther’s vision of Jesus’ Gospel.

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