There is no time like the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to read up on Martin Luther’s life and legacy. In the midst of the plurality of celebrations and denigrations of Luther, there are dozens of myths, incubated over the past five centuries, that portray the man as much greater or much worse than he actually was. Some of them have even found their way into discussions of Church History through reputable sources.
Andreas Malessa’s book, The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths, is an honest attempt to bust some of the myths that have helped make Luther’s legacy larger than life. Some of them are confirmed while others (some of the most fun ones) must be consigned to the dust heap.
Among the many topics covered in the twenty-five chapters of this volume are Luther’s famous quote about planting an apple tree, even if he knew the end of the world was coming. (Not true.) Or, that Luther was consistently a heavy drinker by his culture’s standards. (Also not true.) Similarly, Malessa takes up the idea that Luther’s best theological thinking came while he was relieving himself. Alas, this, too, must be set aside as a myth that is just true enough to be believable.
The common theme of many of the myths is that they are usually not too far from the truth. Luther did drink beer and sometimes joke about getting drunk. However, in a world where the water was of questionable purity, beer was probably a safer bet. Luther was certainly constipated and wrote to his friends of the miseries caused by a diet with too little fiber, but the idea that his theologizing was tied to his bathroom habits was fomented by his foes to discredit his work.
Malessa also takes on some of the other basic historical misconceptions around Luther. He never wanted to start a new denomination. He did, sadly, fall into putrid anti-Semitism in his later years, though not in quite the way it is sometimes portrayed. He actually wasn’t the first to translate any of the Bible into German. The brief volume does good historical work in setting some of these myths to rights, too.
Christians should be known as people of truth, which makes The Unreformed Martin Luther a welcome addition to the host of volumes on the Reformation. It will certainly not appeal to everyone in every local church, but it has a place in the library of seminaries, Christian schools, and those interested in Church History.
A book like this would make an interesting auxiliary volume in a course focused on the Reformers. It also is an entertaining read for those who enjoy a bit of Church History after a hard day’s work. The chapters are concise, the prose is lucid, and the subject matter is entertaining. Reading this book is a fun way to spend a few hours.
NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.