Martin Luther

Martin Luther
by Martin Marty
Viking, $19.95, 199 pp.

What to think about Martin Luther? In an ecumenical age, Protestants and Cath-olics no longer automatically take opposite sides, casting him as hero or villain. Yet he has not thereby become less controversial. He can still be portrayed as a modern hero-standing alone before the emperor and assembled German nobility, insisting on his right to think and read the Bible for himself. Or one can paint Luther as a villain, urging the nobles to “smite, slay and stab, secretly and openly” their rebellious peasants, and advising his fellow Germans to raze Jewish houses and set fire to synagogues. We can even dismiss him as so far away from our own time-this man grew up in a Germany haunted by witches and poltergeists, and threw inkpots at the devil-that we simply cannot understand him at all.

Martin Luther belongs to the Penguin Lives series, which provides short biographies for a general audience of an odd range of historical figures, from Crazy Horse to George H. W. Bush, Proust to Brando, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to Elvis Presley. These are people who still fascinate, and for whom, I assume, the series’ editor can find an interesting biographer. For Luther, no choice could be better than Martin Marty, a gifted historian, a lifelong Lutheran, and the most widely read scholarly interpreter of religion in America today. (And the most prolific. The best-known Marty joke has someone calling him and being told that Marty...

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About the Author

William C. Placher was the LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He died in November 2009.