Introducing the Luther Reading Challengeby Sarah Wilson — March 16, 2015
It can’t have escaped your notice that the Reformation is approaching its 500th anniversary in just a couple of years. The buzz among Lutherans in the U.S. and around the world is gaining momentum, and even outside the fold of the faithful there is growing interest, of mixed quality—it’s pretty exciting that the Martin Luther figurine became Playmobil’s bestselling toy of all time within three days of its release this winter, but somewhat less than encouraging that the Luther Insult Generator is one of the most popular internet memes.
Luther’s reputation is as controversial as ever. He’s the liberator from overbearing religious scrutiny, the first great anti-Catholic, the champion of conscience, the first modern man, a libertine, the single-handed destroyer of the united western church, the arch-heretic; the ancestor of the division of church and state, the Protestant work ethic, and the Holocaust—all depending on who you talk to. Lutherans may have a more nuanced view, but far too often we still interpret Luther by means of slogans and half-remembered principles. Sometimes I wonder if we really know what “grace” or “the theology of the cross” means.
And more recently, too, I have noticed a certain reluctance to voice Lutheran theology—not for lack of conviction, but out of ecumenical deference. I suspect that Lutherans have been taught Luther by contrast to enemies for so long (not an altogether surprising approach, given the Reformation’s history and legacy) that, when we no longer label other Christians as enemies, we are at a loss to know how to describe ourselves. Sometimes the blame shifts away from Catholics and the Reformed to new enemies, usually of the fundamentalist type, as if all we had to offer was a corrective to other Christians’ mistakes. If that were the case, and our only mission were poaching, we’d do well to pack it in for good in 2017.
Or—maybe there is much more to discover in Luther, beyond even what Lutherans expect! That’s the wager we’re placing with the Luther Reading Challenge. LF fans already know that we place a high premium on reading as a form of intellectual and spiritual growth and of church renewal. A commitment to education was the one of the most important diaconal and social expressions of Reformation theology, and that means reading—deep, sustained, careful, engaged reading. That was the idea behind the Theological Reading Challenge we started in 2013 and continued again in 2014.
Given the enormous significance of the approaching anniversary, we’ve decided to veer from the previous format of the Reading Challenges—which started with Old Testament and New Testament texts and ranged through church history up to the modern period—for a Luther-specific one. From now until October 2017, the new Luther Reading Challenge on its own dedicated website will feature a whole range of Luther’s writings, starting (of course) with the 95 Theses and ending with his hymns. Our focus will be Luther’s foundational theological thought, pastoral and spiritual teaching, and less on the polemics and controversies. The latter are important, but they loom so large in the popular imagination they hardly need the help. Our interest here is Luther as a teacher and preacher of the Christian faith.
Each of the Luther texts comes with a brief introduction explaining the context and pointing out the key themes. Readers can add comments and engage in discussion in the right-hand column. All it takes is signing up for a free account. Please join in and spread the word!