Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Dr Luther and Mr Hyde by Per Svensson

This year, on the 31 October, it will be 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. He probably did not actually nail them on the door, but this is how the story goes. Martin Luther was influenced by earlier reformist but it was Luther who sparked the Protestant Reformation. It was not supposed to be a reformist movement, but started out as a protest. In 1516 a papal commissioner was sent to Germany to raise money to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It would be sponsored by selling indulgences, and it was this tradition that Luther objected against. He wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences and enclosed a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. It was initially not a rebellious act, but more a scholarly objection. However, once the dice was rolling it went rather fast.

Dr Luther and Mr Hyde has been on my shelves for some years and I thought it would be a suitable year to read it. Per Svensson has added a sub title; "About faith and power then and now".  Looking at the circumstances at the time and comparing it to our times. You think there would be a contradiction there, but it actually works very well. If Luther had lived today he would probably have been an overworked academic, close to a burn out syndrome.  

His parents were rather prosperous, although his father worked himself into his position. Luther was put to school and university and the father had it all figured out. He would study law and be helpful in taking over the father's business. However, Luther fell into another track. When he discovered theology he knew which path he was taking. His father was not overjoyed when he decided to become a monk. He did not intend to stay quietly in a monastery. Luther was one of the most educated people of his days and also one of the most productive persons when it came to writing and translations.

Luther was an author and a commentator on all things cultural. After his attack on the indulgences he found himself an international celebrity. His ideas were discussed everywhere and his writings were printed in never heard of editions. He was a man of many talents and disguises. He was an anti-semite, he was accused of going the errands of the princes and kings, he was a dissident and a speaker for freedom. Per Svensson refer to a Swedish historian Ronny Ambj√∂rnsson who says that Luther's teachings are like; "a bow stretched between extremes, between fear and trust, kindness and anger, freedom and coercion." He continues with an observation which the author considers to be central for the understanding of Martin Luther. "His historical force has its ultimate foundation in that these conflicts exist, so to speak, on two levels, both between people in a society and within each one of these people". (My translation)  This is also why Per Svensson has named his book Dr Luther and Mr Hyde, referring to the conflict between good and evil in R.L. Stevenson's novel.

It is an interesting book where we come a little bit closer to the person Martin Luther, as far as this is possible. It also gives an interesting history of the times in which he was living, the politics, the religion, the wars. In January 1521 he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and became a wanted man. He had a protector in Frederick III (the Wise) who kept him in a monastery as protection for some years before he could come back to Wittenberg. It was during his time in the monastery that Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, as well as doctrinal writings.

In 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, one of 12 nuns he had helped escape from a convent. Although some other priests had married, it was Luther's marriage that set the precedence on clerical marriage. They seem to have had a happy marriage, though money was often short. They had six children and lived in a former monastery. Katharina took care of farming the land and taking boarders in order to earn some money.

Per Svensson is a writer and journalist and has thoroughly researched this book. It is easy to read and sometimes feels like a thriller considering the worried times, the excommunication and the hunting down on dissidents. He manages to provide a personal portrait of Luther. One is full of admiration for this man who lived his whole life with an idea, and managed to spread it among people. He had a dual personality, very quick in temper and did not always live himself according to his own doctrines. He was never afraid of speaking his mind.

This is a book written in Swedish. However, lots of books are certainly available on Martin Luther; the man, his work, his family and the times in which he managed to change a religion and take it away from the Catholic church. These days, the two churches of Christianity are working together to promote their belief. After all, the overall message is the same.  It is certainly an interesting topic and I might try to read something else about the history of the two religions.

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