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Martin Luther: Monk, Reformer, Best-Selling Author

September 26, 2017

Exactly one month to the day after I was born, I was baptized in a Lutheran church. I still have a Sunday School perfect attendance pin emblazoned with the Luther rose.

I broke my arm the week before confirmation but there I am with an arm cast in the class picture—no way was I going to miss the opportunity to publicly answer the question: “what does this mean?”

I graduated from a Lutheran college, married the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, got my first job at a Lutheran University (left and returned again a decade later), and most of my closest friends are Lutheran. For better or for worse, my identity is inextricably linked with being Lutheran.

About the only other constant in my life, besides Lutheranism, that looms as large, that has shaped who I am, is my love for reading and talking about literature, and creative and academic writing. Oddly enough, it has only been in the past several years that I began to think seriously about how these two worlds—my faith life and my life as an English professor—intersect.

I was reading a book called "Imagined Communities" by Benedict Anderson in which he argues the concepts of “nation” and “nationality” are ideas that are as contrived as they are fixed in the modern mind. In the midst of tracing the genesis of the idea of nation, linking it to the emergence of print culture, Anderson writes: “In effect, Luther became the first best-selling author so known.

Or to put it another way, the first writer who could ‘sell’ his new books on the basis of his name” (39). Anderson estimates that a third of all books published in German that sold between 1518 and 1525 were authored by Luther, and that during the same time period “a total of 430 editions . . . of his Biblical translations appeared.”

Luther as a best-selling author was not a Luther that loomed in my psyche. In fact, as an undergraduate, such an idea would have diminished my estimation of him. As an aspiring elitist, I had firmly embraced the idea that “popular” writing was synonymous with “poor” writing. Keep your "Grisham" and your "King," I’ll be in the corner pretending to understand "Finnegan’s Wake."

However, over the past 20 years, the idea of a literary Canon—a list of texts college students must read—has gradually fallen out of fashion, and for very good reasons; namely, it has allowed historically marginalized people’s voices to be heard.

At the same, as I have delved more deeply into the historical context of literary texts, I also have discovered that some of my favorite literary texts—for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s "Uncle Tom’s Cabin"—were considered best-sellers, at home and abroad, during Stowe’s lifetime. Some lingering snobbery remains as I take perverse pleasure in the fact that two of my favorite writers, Henry David Thoreau "Walden" and Herman Melville "Moby Dick," both died in possession of more unsold texts in their store rooms than were circulated among the general population.

But back to the best-seller Luther. It’s probably safe to say he didn’t set out to be a best-selling author. However, he did have a deep concern about the quality of content, both of his own work and his translations; a deep concern about disseminating good (even great) ideas; a deep concern that the masses could consume texts without an intermediary.

In much the same way, I have the privilege of engaging in such work on a daily basis. My job these days is less about telling students what to read (although I still do a fair share of that) and more on how to read, how to judge the quality of texts, how to explicate the meaning of texts and, most importantly, I facilitate vigorous conversations about the ideas we encounter in texts, always asking: do these ideas make the world a better place?

Together, (in Luther’s perfect phrasing), we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest texts, asking one another “What does this mean?”