Thursday, October 06, 2011
The saints among us
What I know of Reformation history comes largely as a result of a class called church history a hundred years ago or more when I was in junior high, in a Christian school, where Reformation Day was an upper case holiday, eclipsing, say, Pentecost, by a country mile. The thesis on the door at Wittenburg, Luther's tossing his inkwell at the Devil, his standing before the Diet of Worms (huge 7th grade giggles on that one) because of a papal bull (more chortling) and then his telling some king, "Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise!" (myth, historians say, but powerfully memorable to 12-year-olds)--all of that is in me forever.
But my faith tradition of birth and choice was created by Luther's French accomplice, John Calvin, who ministered in Geneva, Switzerland. My knowledge of Luther didn't end with my graduation from Christian school. I'll never forget how strange it seemed--even sinful--when a prof I really liked, an Anglican too, told a class I was taking in Shakespeare that there were plenty of German land barons who could care less about salvation by grace, but who fell in line behind the impious monk because they were more than thrilled to see someone chip away at the gargantuan power of the Roman Catholic Church. I was nearly 30, in graduate school, and I found it shocking to hear that some 16th century Lutherans may not have been saints.
Amazon advertized Eric Metaxas's recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for $1.99. That's right--Kindle version--only a $1.99. I know the outlines of the Bonhoeffer story, but not the details, so I picked it up, and I've been reading it lately. Bonhoeffer is a saint.
In that book Metaxas talks about Martin Luther. Somewhere along the line, I'd heard he was earthy; but Metaxas repeats things Luther said that no Christian school 7th grader should hear--or at least should have heard way back in the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was a kid.
"For most of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of of the inner ear called Meniere's disease, which results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus," not to mention mood swings and depression. That battery of maladies frequently set him off, Metaxas claims, in ways that made him say outrageous things in really outrageous ways. Trust me. Martin Luther said and wrote things unbecoming the saint he is in my Christian school, 7th-grade version of him, things I shall not repeat for fear my mother is reading.
It's always disconcerting to have to know that saints have feet of clay. We wish them better, just as we wish ourselves better, I suppose. And I suppose I'd be happier if Luther, like Calvin, and Bonhoeffer, and Mother Teresa,in actuality wore golden halos and had wings for shoulders. But they didn't. The unholy truth is that they were human, just as subject to sin as any of us.
But then, all of seventh grade wasn't just myth-making either because if that's true, if even Martin Luther had to put his pants on one leg at a time, then his own most grand pronouncement--yet another 7th grade sticky memory--is even more profoundly true: salvation comes by grace alone.
That's the real story of the Reformation anyway. The rest is window dressing. Well, windows that one in a while need to be cleaned anyway.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:55 AM