There is no shortage of Martin Luther biographies and this plethora of options can make it difficult for a new work to distinguish itself in the field. However, the volume that comes from the pen of Eric Metaxas manages to do so by combining the author/radio host’s trademark wit and flair with a historical character ripe for such a theatrical presentation. The mention of Metaxas’ current vocation as a radio host is not a slight, but rather an attempt to illustrate the colorful and playful spirit that fills the biography. The author is quite distinguished as an author, lecturer, and social commentator and this book reflects Metaxas’ personality and priorities quite nearly as much as it does that of its subject. While the results are entertaining and enlightening, this injection of personality is not always helpful. Metaxas’ work presents Martin Luther as a man who saved God from His own people, and in doing so, kickstarted the world’s journey out of the Dark Ages and into an era of enlightenment.
“The Man Who Rediscovered God”
Metaxas is not shy about his intentions with this biography, it is clearly stated in the book’s subtitle. The title page informs the reader that the book’s subject “rediscovered God and changed the world” (Metaxas, 2017). Its helpful to keep this phrase firmly in mind because it serves as Metaxas’ general thesis throughout. His presentation of Luther is not so much of a mortal human but as a monumental hero. To be sure, Metaxas utilizes his book’s opening chapter to dismiss and disprove several Luther-centric myths that have sprung-up in the half-millennium since he sparked the Reformation of the Christian church, but this careful deconstruction is undone somewhat by Metaxas’ near messianic treatment of Luther throughout the book.
For instance, when contrasting Luther with the humanist Desiderius Erasmus, he casts the former as slippery and somewhat shallow writer, whereas the venerable Luther is “an exegete savant” (Metaxas, 2017, p. 87) who was capable of deeper thought and more decisive actions. The word brilliant or its synonyms are so frequently used to describe Luther that by the book’s end the word is nearly meaningless. There is certainly no need for Metaxas to downplay the revolutionary nature of Luther’s work and writings, but the overwhelming praise and adoration for them, coupled with the steady reminder that Luther thought himself to be on a mission from God himself (Metaxas, 2017, pp. 205-206) creates the idea that Luther was more messiah than monk; more savior than saint.
Perhaps the most obvious, and from a Christian point-of-view most egregious, example of Metaxas’ presentation of Luther as divinely-established figure of import comes in the book’s tenth chapter. Here Metaxas happily comapres Luther’s arrival in Worms with that of Jesus Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In the biblical account, Jesus is hailed as a messiah and potential king as he entered the ancient city, only to be crucified a few days later. Metaxas openly invites his readers to see Luther’s entry in a similar vein as he quotes the thoughts of an eyewitness and then adds that “Luther could not help wondering whether that meant that he was days away from his own Good Friday” (Metaxas, 2017, p. 207). This obvious parallel of Luther with Jesus is keeping with Metaxas’ thesis that Luther rescued the church and the gospel from a papist prison and then delivered them back to the masses.
The Metaxas Method
Metaxas’ giftedness as storyteller is obvious throught. His rendering of long-dead historical figures brings them back to life in the reader’s imagination and grants them colorful and well-rounded personalities. Pope Leo, Luther’s primary antagonist and constant foil, is fleshed-out through a short back-story and the telling of a somewhat ancillary story concerning his pet elephant and an elaborate gag (Metaxas, 2017, p. 89). Luther’s story is one with a sizable cast of side and supporting characters, and it is to Metaxas’ credit that these key figures are given their due and sufficiently differentiated from each other throughout the book. The biography stretches over 450-pages in length, and yet the story never drags and the characters are never uninteresting.
Its also worth noting that Metaxas relies heavily on both secondary sources and Luther’s own writings. His endnotes almost universally reference either a collected edition of Luther’s work or other biographical tomes. As one reviewer put it, Metaxas “takes mostly secondary sources, including recent biographies, and gleans their good quotations and retells their stories with Metaxas’s own inimitable grace” (Kolb, 2018). All this to say that Metaxas’ goal and method is not to break new ground or conduct new research, but instead to take what is largely already known about the man and reframe it a package that reflects Metaxas’ philosophical outlook and is also more palatable to popular taste. His book veers much more towards the popular than the academic.
There is certainly much to admire about presenting such an important historical figure in a way that makes their story more accessible to the masses. After all, it does reflect much of what Luther himself aimed to do with the Bible and God. Luther labored long and arduously to translate the Bible into the common German vernacular so that it might be made available to even the common man (Metaxas, 2017, p. 290). Tellingly, he fleshed-out his completed work with his own commentary and with illustrations that reflected his opinions of the pope and the Catholic church (Metaxas, 2017, pp. 290-292). It seems fitting then that the most notable aspect of Metaxas’ homage to the man is the author’s trademark wit and the somewhat obtuse commentary that is incorporated in the narrative.
“The teaching is not mine”
In his review of the biography, Dr. Robert Kolb, a professor emeritus of theology and himself an author of several works pertaining to Luther, comments that “Every biography tells us something of its author as well as its subject, and that is the case here too” (Kolb, 2018). Metaxas fairly breezes through 450 pages worth of biography, but the riveting narrative of Luther’s revolution is regularly slowed and confused by injections of Metaxas’ own social commentary, theological opinions, or unabashed fawning over the man in question. It has already been noted that Metaxas presents Luther in a glowing, almost saintly aura, and to this end he often engages in unnecessary hyperbole.
For instance, when he recounts Luther’s first instance of celebrating Mass as a tonsured priest, Metaxas hypes it as the first time Luther had ever found himself “talking directly to the ineffable Almighty” (Metaxas, 2017, p. 38). However, Luther was a monk and was well-accustomed to praying. Metaxas even makes mention of the fact that Luther was used to praying the Pater Noster (Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer), which is a prayer directly addressed to God the Father. (Metaxas, 2017, p. 35). To be sure, there is a great weight and responsibility on the priest’s shoulders when he officiates Mass, but this can be conveyed without such misrepresentation.
Metaxas also has a curious predilection to referring to American Exceptionalism while speaking of a man who lived approximately 250 years prior to the country’s founding. On more than one occasion Metaxas hints that the American experiment is the natural culmination of Luther’s life and work, at one point even calling America’s dedication to religious liberty as “another of the high-water marks of Luther’s legacy”(Metaxas, 2017, p. 444). This despite the fact that, during the peasant uprising that shook Germany during his life, Luther adamantly opposed any sort of armed rebellion against established authority, going so far as to petition the German nobility to use their superior military might to fatally and finally crush the rebellion festering within their realm (Metaxas, 2017, p. 332). Odd, then, to claim as a Lutheran high-water mark a revolutionary movement that Luther himself would have loudly and boldly denounced.
Because he relies so heavily on secondary sources and Luther’s own work, it can be difficult to parse how accurately Metaxas conveys Luther’s foes and his surrounding world. Was Luther’s angst and despair in the confessional really the result of bad Catholic theology, or was it something more personal? Because Metaxas only give Luther’s side, the answer can’t be known or even guessed. Metaxas is complimentary of at least a couple Catholic figures, such as Luther’s mentor Staupitz, but presents them as exceptions to the rule. In Metaxas’ world the Catholic church was hopelessly corrupt and irreparably fallen, but he primarily leans on Luther’s opinions to establish this fact.Metaxas once again seems to be following his subject’s example. Luther was prone to defending his theology with claims that it was simply extracted from the Bible whole sale and thus “the teaching is not mine” (Metaxas, 2017). Metaxas would likely make a similar claim concerning his willingness to repeat Luther’s accounts of the world he faced.
When Metaxas goes about the business of telling Luther’s story, his book fairly sings. Although most definitely tilted in favor of the Reformer, the book still does an admirable job in demonstrating the stickier aspects of Luther’s Reformation and its ensuing fallout. He is far kinder to Luther than he is to his opponents, but this is to be expected in a biography written by a 21st-century evangelical commentator writing for a similar audience. What really harms the book is Metaxas’ insistence on dragging the future Luther ostensibly created backwards into the narrative of Luther’s life. That he does so with a fanboy’s enthusiasm and Lutheran-levels of self-assurance only makes it worse. These instances, of which there are several, unfortunately obscure and deform the portrait that Metaxas so wittily and colorfully paints of his subject. He offers wonderful descriptions of Luther and his great cast of cohorts and presents scenes with the life and verve of a novelist. But at key moments he injects just enough of himself into the narrative that it becomes confusing; is Metaxas describing Luther’s world or his own fairy tale?
Metaxas, E. (2017). Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. New York: Viking.