The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Book Reviews

Crosscutting Lives

Richard Hughes Gibson

Martin Luther—Here I Stand installation (detail), 2010, by Ottmar Hörl, Wittenberg, Germany; Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy Stock Photo.

Encouraging us to reflect on the genealogies of ideas and what becomes of them in the age of mass media.

The arrival late last year of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses has kept the printing presses busy. The recent spate of Luther biographies alone could fill a bookshelf. This is a fitting tribute to Luther, who made his name through his prodigious use of print, a technology then only decades old. (The stir about those theses, for example, wasn’t caused by posting them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, then a nowhere spot on the map of Europe, but their dissemination by printers across German-speaking lands.) 

Luther’s, though, wasn’t the only “brand name” in the book stalls, fairs, and libraries of early-sixteenth-century Europe. As good a claim to this status could be made on behalf of Erasmus of Rotterdam, as he was identified on his works’ title pages. Everybody read Erasmus. Like all the other Reformers, Luther included several Erasmus titles in his personal library. Many of these men, Luther among them, recognized that without Erasmus’s contributions—foremost, his Greek New Testament—the Reformation might not have happened. (This was also a complaint heard from Catholic writers at the time, as distilled in the quip “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”) Erasmus, however, didn’t join the movement, finally breaking publicly with Luther in an acerbic exchange on free will in the mid-1520s. Among hardline members of the Catholic Church, meanwhile, Erasmus’s biblical scholarship and lampooning of clerical life made him no less a persona non grata. In 1542, less than a decade after his death, the Inquisition placed his entire corpus on the first Index of Prohibited Books.

Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind traces in crosscutting fashion both men’s paths to prominence, their respective trials once Europe started paying attention, their falling out, and their “aftermaths,” historical and present-day. Massing is not a scholar of the early modern period, or a theologian—like most authors of books on the quincentenary—but a veteran journalist. As he acknowledges in an afterword, this Jewish kid from Baltimore is an autodidact on the subject of Christian history, having been lured into a long-running “personal tutorial” on the topic by “periodic visits” to Rome and its churches in the 1990s. His previous books have dealt with altogether contemporary issues: The Fix (1988) offered a devastating critique of America’s war on drugs; Now They Tell Us (2004) reflected on the breakdown of press coverage of the war in Iraq. 

Massing explains in the introduction that he “approached the subject much as I would a newspaper or magazine assignment. Rather than visit a far-off land, I have traveled to a distant century.… Throughout, I have felt the same surge of excitement I have had while reporting a good story.” As in his journalistic writing, Massing shows a keen eye for the details of the physical world in which his principals moved. We see the “gashed landscape” surrounding Mansfeld, the mining town in which Luther was raised. We suffer the oppressively hot, cold, drafty, and altogether unsanitary rooms that gave the famously squeamish Erasmus fits everywhere he settled. We are exposed to the overcrowded conditions in Worms as the Diet drags on, the scarcity of rooms, fuel, and food stirring up fights; we see Spanish grandees daily galloping through the marketplace, scattering hapless pedestrians, and, even less edifyingly, “knights and grooms [relieving] themselves at every corner, creating breeding pools of contagion.” These observations don’t just make the narrative more colorful; Massing uses them to reveal the often-stifling conditions in which Erasmus and Luther mounted their great intellectual campaigns. If Luther’s works, in particular, rarely seem to possess a calm air, well, then, Massing suggests, they were of a piece with the hubbub of his world.

One of the unexpected delights of Fatal Discord is Massing’s ability to narrate the two scholars’ respective intellectual breakthroughs vividly, as events, even though the action, such as it was, mostly occurred in private spaces. Massing adeptly situates the lay reader to grasp the significance of Erasmus’s discovery of the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla’s notes on the New Testament, which revealed that the Vulgate (St. Jerome’s fourth-century Latin translation of Scripture) misconstrued the Greek word metanoia (“change of heart”) as referring to the sacrament of penance. He points out the “daring” word choices Erasmus made in his Latin translation of the New Testament, such as the substitution of sermo (to indicate “ongoing discourse, conversation”) for the Vulgate’s verbum in the opening words of John’s Gospel. Massing also uses Luther’s notes to bring to life his fateful reading of Romans in 1515, in which he struggled with the nature of righteousness, both divine and human. And he reveals Luther’s freehand style in his approach to translating first the New and then the Old Testament, which Massing dubs “Germanizing the Bible.” In short, scenes of reading and writing are among the most dramatic in the book.

Another strength of the book is that it situates Erasmus and Luther within a shared tradition and context. In his early chapters, Massing peppers his account of their efforts to “go back to the sources” with short biographies of the Church Fathers whose works and thought Erasmus and Luther believed themselves to be salvaging—Jerome, Augustine, Paul. In later chapters, he deftly shifts the narrative focus to the perspectives of allies, rivals, and adversaries (some parties gradually moving across that spectrum): Philipp Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, Andreas von Karlstadt (a Luther colleague who became a key figure in the Peasants’ Revolt), Jerome Alexander (the papal nuncio at Worms), Thomas More. Massing stresses that the Western mind has never contemplated the good, the true, and the beautiful in a vacuum: Politics—of nations, institutions, villages, households—always intrude. The approach also encourages us to reflect on the genealogies of ideas and what becomes of them in the age of mass media. Erasmus and Luther might be said, for example, to have rediscovered aspects of Paul, and their respective discoveries—about metanoia, about faith—had far-reaching reverberations that they could not dampen. Luther, too, laid eggs.

At the close of the book, in the aforementioned “aftermath” sections, Massing raises the question of the fates of his two subjects’ ideas down through the centuries. This is, of course, a familiar move at the end of historical studies, an attempt to answer the anticipated question from the reader—why does all of this matter to today’s world? While Massing frames his proposals as simply “trajectories of influence,” his attempt to move from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first comes across as not only rushed but also a bit boilerplate. He ends, in each case, with a proposition about the current day previewed in the introduction: That Erasmus finds his rightful heir in the contemporary European Union, Luther in the United States.

The material Massing offers in support of each case is disappointingly brief and ho-hum. Erasmus, we are told, endures in the EU-sponsored study-abroad program named after him, Luther in the “faith-based individualism” of American evangelicalism. This strict binary, moreover, goes against the grain of the narrative Massing has just told—in which the lives and thoughts of Erasmus and Luther were at once at odds and entangled. Isn’t Erasmus’s modern legacy also seen in American evangelicalism’s deep concern for original texts? (And maybe the dual influences of Erasmus and Luther are evident in an enterprise like the Museum of the Bible, in Washington, DC?) Let the parting words of this review be more generous than those that finally passed between Erasmus and Luther. In Fatal Discord, Massing presents his subjects’ chaotic world with the urgency of contemporary reporting. It is a valuable contribution to the Reformation bookshelf, and one, dear reader, worth adding to yours.