Martin Luther & the Mass Media

Recently, while chipping away at my backlog of notable films that should’ve been watched long ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the 2003 movie “Luther,” directed by Eric Till. For those who haven’t seen it, it is a stirring and beautiful portrayal of the early life of the great 16th-century theologian and launcher of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. In addition to being an engrossing drama and a thoughtful interpretation of the life of this pivotal figure in Christian history (and modernity itself), the film is an aesthetic feast that teems with stellar acting, gorgeous costumes, and breathtaking cinematography.

Martin Luther’s story contains many lessons, even for the non-religious. Foremost among them, I think, is the fact that nothing in intellectual history is foreordained. There is an instinctive tendency to view history in a Hegelian manner, as if truth always prevails and that ideas prevail simply by virtue of their merit. When you consider how easily Luther could have gone up in smoke in an auto-da-fé rather than launch a movement. Without the protection granted to him by Frederick of Saxony, Luther’s message would surely have been quickly nipped in the bud; it becomes evident that circumstance and the role of political factions in even the most rarefied of religious debates are critical.

The Protestant Reformation is often remembered as a triumph of reason over superstition and freedom over tyranny, but for me the tale has a rather different moral. I see in it the emergence of some other touchstones of modernity, especially the role of the mass media in politics.

Without in any way detracting from the cogency or timeliness of Luther’s theological critique of the practice of selling papal indulgences, I suspect that the factor most decisive in transforming the 95 Theses (which he famously nailed to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517) from a local dispute to an international cause celebre was the involvement of the printing press that had been invented a half century earlier.

To say that Luther’s cause was helped by this new media is to almost lie by understatement, as the singularly wide distribution of his tracts utterly changed the terms of debate and put the religious establishment of his day on the popular defensive for perhaps the first time in its history. A.G. Dickens writes in his 1966 book, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth Century Europe:

Between 1517 and 1520, Luther’s thirty publications probably sold well over 300,000 copies… Altogether in relation to the spread of religious ideas it seems difficult to exaggerate the significance of the Press, without which a revolution of this magnitude could scarcely have been consummated… For the first time in human history a great reading public judged the validity of revolutionary ideas through a mass-medium which used the vernacular languages together with the arts of the journalist and the cartoonist. (p. 51, quoted in Garth S. Jowett’s Propaganda and Persuasion.)

Another facet of the Luther tale that strikes me as particularly modern, if not postmodern, is the way in which the nascent mass media of Luther’s day relied heavily on sensationalism and polemics in place of background and holistic analysis. In some important ways, we seem to have come full circle to a baser, unapologetically partisan media environment for which ends justify means. Dehumanizing caricatures and oversimplified slogans of Rome (e.g., the “Whore of Babylon”), the Pope and Catholics, abounded then, not unlike the often cartoonish and sometimes willfully insulting portrayals of Islam and Muslims that bombard us today in our increasingly polarized times.

A recent episode from Western political life was for me especially reminiscent of the uglier side of the debates of Luther’s time. A Swedish newspaper published a political cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad worthy of the vile anti-Semitic tracts that have blighted Christian-Jewish relations for centuries. Not so long ago, Jews were routinely portrayed in popular European culture as bizarre semi-humans (hence the fondness for the image of in medieval and even early modern literature of Jewish men who inexplicably travel the world astride goats). Sadly, for others these unsubtle insinuations of demonic ties weren’t explicit enough, so Jews were regular portrayed as freaks of nature, such as “bearded he-goats” even people so animal-like that they suckled pigs (i.e., the Judensau, an indescribably offensive slur and motif that was long shockingly commonplace in northern European art). Fast forward to today, when we have some modern Western media, in the name of protecting the masses from another enemy within, publishing a similarly bestial image of Muhammad as a man with the body of a dog. The particulars are admittedly to different in some important respects, but the parallels and kindred demonizing animus are unmistakable.

Let’s hope history does not repeat itself with a new, Muslim-Christian rendition of the Thirty Years War, as well.