It was a good year for Martin Luther. In 1517, the defiant priest reportedly nailed 95 complaints to the door of a Catholic church in Germany. Five hundred years later, Luther fans celebrated with festivals and exhibits on the “Luther Trail” that took tourists to 68 European sites in 19 countries. Luther’s medieval image appeared on tote bags, T-shirts, coffee mugs, cellphone cases, cookie cutters and snow globes.
Not bad for a guy who was branded a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo X. Luther’s ideas helped spark a revolution that led to the Protestant Reformation. Over the centuries Luther has evolved in popular culture from an outlaw to a wise theologian who helped teach the church important lessons.
But he remains controversial. When Playmobil, a German toy company, released a three-inch plastic action figure of Martin Luther, it quickly became the company’s fastest selling product. A few words printed on little Luther’s plastic Bible, however, kicked up memories that the German reformer had written virulent attacks against the Jewish religion, harsh words that some say lay the groundwork for German anti-Semitism and the Nazi movement.
Mired in myth
Martin Luther’s life (1483-1546) is mired in myth. The story that he became a monk after being struck by lightning is certainly apocryphal. Scholars suggest it is unlikely he actually nailed his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church in 1517. As a professor of theology, he may simply have delivered them to his superiors and colleagues to incite religious debate.
Admirers claim Luther wrestled with the devil, in the flesh, and threw an inkwell at Satan, staining a wall. But the wrestling with ink certainly refers to his struggles while writing about controversial topics. Detractors have claimed he was alcoholic, mentally ill, and darkly self-absorbed. And records show he never actually spoke the words “Here I stand!”…