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by Kenneth L. Woodward
Martin Marty's Martin Luther
Martin Marty's biography of Martin Luther is the latest volume in Penguin Lives, a series edited by James Atlas with the aim of matching name writers with name subjects, and published for a general audience as a library of biographical essays of no more than 200 pages each. This format, which places a premium on interpretation, has produced an interesting if uneven series of marriages; some work, some don't. Garry Wills on Augustine was the first and probably the best marriage of minds since Augustine has long been not only Wills' special passion but also his favorite font for footnotes, regardless of what he is writing about. Peter Gay on Mozart was a happy combination, but Francine du Plessix Gray proved to be a cranky choice for the nearly inscrutable Simone Weil. Thomas Cahill used his assigned subject, Pope John XXIII, to pout about the papacy of John Paul II, and Karen Armstrong demonstrated that the Buddha is yet another subject about which she has nothing new or even interesting to say.
Marty shares more than a first name with his subject. As an ordained Lutheran pastor, he surely must have come to terms with Luther long before he became a preeminent historian of American religion. Still, no two personalities could be less alike, and Marty does not hide his ambivalence toward the man who—also ambivalently—gave his name to one family of Christians in what is now a denominational division of labor. I think I am right in saying that this is Marty's first biography, though the list of his publications is as long as the Mississippi and therefore error on this biographical point should be forgivable. But on the Reformation he is, if academic balkanization is to be respected, a highly skilled and informed auditor, which is why, perhaps, he agreed to take on Luther—and why, in any case, one wants to read Martin on Martin.
Like other scholars, Marty sees Luther as a man of the late Middle Ages whose religious doubts and despair influenced the development of early modernity, ...