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Martin Luther: 95 theses but the Pope ain't one

Our secular, sceptical times have taken their toll on Martin Luther. Try Googling him. Luther does come up as the one who started the Reformation in Wittenberg 500 years ago by issuing the 95 Theses. But before you get to the bottom of the first page of available links, he is overwhelmed by references to Martin Luther King, whose contemporary relevance is so more much readily recognised than that of the man after whom he was named.

And what of “justification by faith”, Luther’s great theological insight that became one of the red lines in the Reformation disputes? It is a long way down the list on Google, buried beneath references to DCI John Luther, the TV detective played by Idris Elba. For a modern audience, “justification by faith” is one of those impenetrable technical phrases — the religious equivalent of quantitative easing — that simply confirm their prejudice that they can’t “do” God.

When he preached and wrote about “justification by faith” half a millennium ago, Luther found a ready audience — first in his native Germany and then far beyond — because he was talking about what was the most important issue for many in the late medieval age: how to get to heaven. Life was seen as hanging by a thread, especially if you were on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Flood or famine destroyed livelihoods apparently on a devilish whim. The Black Death had swept across the continent in the 14th century, and marauding armies would appear from nowhere, intent only on plunder and murder. Such a backdrop to daily life naturally turned thoughts to salvation.

In 21st-century Europe, there is still plenty of anxiety, for example about the threats, real or imagined, posed by immigration, terrorism or globalisation. Yet the net result of our fears seems to be to turn many away from institutional religion rather than towards it.

But eternal life still retains its appeal. Some polls put the figure for those who believe in heaven as high as 70 per cent. Perhaps Luther’s talk of salvation and how to earn it isn’t quite so irrelevant after all.

Part of the problem seems to be that, as an individual, Martin Luther isn’t an easy man to like. The best-known of his obsessions — his terrible constipation and his obsessive fear of the devil — invite repulsion and derision rather than engagement, while his anti-Semitic remarks, made towards the end of his life and later taken up with gusto by the Nazis, risk turning him into a ghoul. Of late, Luther’s life and achievements have become something of a minority pursuit, restricted to those 70 million worldwide who call themselves Lutherans,  and in literature to an army of academics. It is sometimes said that more books and papers have been written about Luther than anyone else except Jesus, but most have failed in recent times to distil his life for a general audience. Except in Germany, where 30 per cent of the population is Lutheran. There, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary, a Playmobil model of the friar from Wittenberg has become the fastest-selling toy its makers have ever put on the market, with 34,000 sold in its first 72 hours on the shelf.

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