MARTIN LUTHER by Richard Marius


The Christian Between God and Death
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The darkest biography yet of the irascible Luther, by Harvard professor emeritus and novelist Marius (Thomas More: A Biography, 1984, etc.). Marius claims that Luther’s profound fear of death drove him to the extremes of the Reformation—extremes that, in Marius’s view, were largely unnecessary to achieve lasting change. Marius may have overstepped the biographer’s boundaries by concluding that history without Luther would have been far much more peaceful: “for more than a century after Luther’s death, Europe was strewn with the slaughtered corpses of people who would have lived normal lives if Luther had never lived at all.” Marius places the blame for much of modern ontological uncertainty squarely on the monk’s shoulders, and also saddles him with responsibility for desacralizing communion, contributing to the decline of biblical authority, and plunging Europe into religious intolerance. These charges may be harsh, but Marius does show where Luther’s writings degenerated into virulent anti-Semitism (a topic universally glossed over by previous biographers) and superstition. Marius also surpasses other biographers in tortuously documenting the reformer’s dark side; here we see Luther as an unstable individual whose depths of despair were truly frightening. Yet Marius’s book tends too far in this direction and almost completely ignores the joy that also, paradoxically, suffused Luther’s copious writing and his personal life. Marius chooses to end Luther’s story in 1527, almost two full decades before his death, saying that the later Luther is “not as interesting” as the man who sparked the Reformation. But by neglecting the last two decades of Luther’s life Marius also ignores his transformation into a family man and, at times, a mellower creature. Marius’s book should be read in tandem with Heiko Oberman’s similarly titled Luther: Man Between God and the Devil for a more balanced portrait. Valuable for its depiction of Luther’s mad wrestling with doubt and despair, but too one-sided to capture the contradictions in its complex subject. (16 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-674-55090-0
Page count: 532pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1999


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