Friday, June 09, 2006

History Project

Though I've got 40 pages left in the final book, here are my brief comments on the Luther biographies I've read so far. They stand as 3 distinct ways to do history.

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
This is mostly a conventional history biography, but of the best sort. Bainton brings a real life to his subject. There are moments when it reads like a novel. Bainton also gives a glowing perspective: Luther's flaws are pointed out, but quickly glossed and always followed by an attempted explanation. I recommend it as a starting point on Luther's life.

Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther
As Dr. Buschen says, this is psychanalytic history par excellence. I would summarize two areas of focus: Martin's stormy relationship with his father, and the development of a "great man" through an identity crisis. This book is a bit dense sometimes, but Erikson fills it with incredible ideas and insightful comparisons. While finishing it up, I thought that if people really want to understand me, they should read this book.

Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
Here we have Revisionist History. Erikson involves some historiography, but Oberman takes history on in force. He is essentially taking common perceptions and myths of the meaning of Luther and explaining why they are wrong. He gives a wider context to Luther's time in order to make sense of Luther the man and his theology (for example: other biographers gloss the reason the Augustinians sent Luther to Rome, and focus on his experience there; Oberman gives the context and meaning of the monastic conflict that sent Luther to Rome, which helps to illuminate the broader issues going on leading up to the Reformation).
I recommend this history if you are already familiar with Luther's biography and Reformation history--it's not all convincing, but it definitely forces a re-examination of perception.

Luther's biography isn't just a story of a monkish theologian coming to his ideas. Luther's life was one of events. His theological writings must be understood in this context. He was not writing in an ivory tower, protected to do nothing but think and pray. He was writing in the center of the storm. History happened in the case of Luther. The wider context of Europe at the time is what makes his life exciting. Reading his biography, I'm always struck with the contributing figures, and would like to go further learning about them: Frederick the Wise, Hutton, Melanchton, Zwingli.

Also, an intriguing discovery: I never knew that Hutton the author of "Lives of Obscure Men" that Dr. Buschen taught us about was the very same Hutton who as a knight was attempting a nationalist revolution at the time of Luther's revolt.

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