Hate Trump? Blame Luther

My therapist was concerned yesterday when I mentioned the blog post I had written about why I am not afraid of Trump. We were talking about the election and what I had learned on my travels in Germany to compete in the World Veteran Fencing Championships, and I had been telling her about the conversations that I and my fellow fencers had had with various Europeans about what we thought about the candidates. "Therapists have been reporting great anxiety on the part of their patients this election season, worse than they have ever encountered before," she said. "People are really scared." And yet, I assured her, I'm not, at least not of Mr. Trump, and not really of Mrs. Clinton, although I do worry greatly about the effect that her leadership is likely to have on our country. How is it that, unlike almost every one of my friends who posts about politics on Facebook, I am not anxious about him, and even as I dread a Hillary presidency, I seem to be able to remain calm at the thought that (according to our national media) she is likely to win? Conversely, why are so many in our country so scared? In a word, I blame Martin Luther. Have you heard of him? Maybe not; my colleagues in academia have not been all that interested in teaching students about the doings of dead white European males for some time. My guess would be that most Americans think "Martin" and "Luther" were simply the first two names of the Reverend King. But before MLK, there was ML--and ML has a lot to answer for.

Most particularly, this: "A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it." Oh, really? Do you believe me that Luther said this? Why? Is it because I have a certain prestige as a university professor? Or would you rather I hunt down the proper references? What if I found you a reference--would you believe that Luther actually said these words? Or would you want to know who recorded them? Whether Luther himself published them? Wouldn't you want to know something about the reliability of the source, whether we can actually trace it back to Luther's own pen? Of course you would. And yet, Luther himself, the university professor, has given you license to believe that you don't need to ask any of these questions in order to trust what is said; all you need is the text, sourceless, reference-less, context-less, and your own ability to read.

My academic colleagues will insist that I am simplifying horribly. "This is not at all what sola scriptura meant!" But it is what it has come to mean. Just read my colleague Brad Gregory's book on the unintended consequences of the Reformation, one of the most critical of which has been to destroy the very bases of authority on which to judge anything that Scripture, never mind any other text says. Luther, of course, did not accomplish this deconstruction all on his own. He had the help of Johannes Gutenberg and his movable-type press. In the blink of an eye, give or take a few decades around the year 1500, books went from something that had to be copied laboriously by hand, typically taking upwards of a year for a single copy of a substantial treatise, to something that could be reproduced relatively speaking over night and disseminated even more quickly--and in multiple copies--the next day.

Trust me on this: the world changed. Okay, so don't trust me; but trust my colleagues who have spent the past several decades studying the effects of what Elisabeth Eisenstein called "the Printing Revolution." No longer did the Church have a monopoly on literacy...oh, wait, sorry, I was reading from my notes on "stupid things people believe about the Middle Ages." The Church never had a "monopoly" on literacy; what it had was the resources and interest in promoting literacy, which it did throughout the Middle Ages, so much so that when Luther came along, there was already a sufficiently literate population to be impressed with his claim that "a simple layman armed with Scripture" could out-doctrine the pope. Unless the "simple layman" planned to beat the pope over the head with the book, the assumption was he could read it.

But could he understand it? Most modern Protestants (fun fact: "Protestants," like "red-necks" and "hillbillies," were the "Deplorables" of their day) would insist that they could, although to judge from the Bible studies I have attended over the years, not to mention the discussions I have had with students in class, I'm skeptical. As, to judge from the tentativeness with which my fellow Protestants typically approach the Scriptures, so are they. And yet, everything in our culture insists that they should not be: they can read, right? They don't need no stinking pope to tell them what the words mean. What could a pope possibly know about the meaning of the text that they don't? Well, for starters, he might be able to tell them something about why their Bibles (e.g. the Revised Standard Version that I grew up with) don't include all of the texts that the Bibles Catholics read do. But even more important (pace Luther) he might be able to explain better than the text alone ever could why the text has the authority that they attribute to it in the first place: because these are the texts that have been read over the centuries as authoritative for Christians. As to why they were ever authoritative for Christians in the first place, well, there you might want to read Margaret Barker.

The problem is that texts (pace Calvin) do not interpret themselves, as everyone who has ever encountered anything on the Internet can attest. Maybe you don't realize this when you are deciding what to read of a morning, but--newsflash--not all sources of information are equally reliable. Ah. But how do you know whom to trust? Well, B.L. (Before Luther) you might have gone to your priest or some other sufficiently well-educated person who had spent his or her life reading intensively in the texts that you wanted to understand. And if you were a medieval Christian consulting, say, a learned doctor at the university, you would learn that Scripture itself is full of contradictions or, at least, things that seem like contradictions. You would learn that not all translations of the Scriptures say exactly the same thing and that in order to appreciate the full meaning of the text, you would have to spend some time contemplating it, consulting commentaries on it, sifting the evidence, willing to change your mind about what you think the text means as you learned more about it. (In truth, this is more what Calvin's method actually was, as opposed to the way it is typically caricatured, as above.) Above all, and this was the great lesson of the medieval universities, even as they descended into ever more recherché minutiae about the meaning of the text, you would have to be willing to be comfortable with finding that everything you thought you knew was straw; that, difficult as it might be to believe, you were wrong. And yet, you would do so in the context of faith that there was truth to be found, if only you could ask the right questions.

But we're Protestants; we don't need all that rigamarole. Or do we? This is my theory about why people are feeling so anxious about the election: they have no idea whom to trust, and they are panicked because they have suddenly realized, just like the Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, sola scriptura can't hack it. We, like the early modern Europeans, are drowning in media, more sources of information than we know what to do with, but we have lost trust in the methods that we used to use to make sense of them. More to the point, we have cut ourselves off from the source of our convictions (read: our tradition), convinced that it had nothing to teach us. The result? As in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, enormous anxieties coupled with a propensity to see enemies, whether witches or racists, under every bush.

I'm a medievalist. More or less on a daily basis, I read idiotic things that people believe about the Middle Ages, even in the works of scholars and journalists whom I otherwise greatly respect. For example, this recent piece of consummate silliness by classicist Victor Davis Hanson on "Medieval America." Or the casual assertion in Christina Hoff Sommer's otherwise outstanding Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (1994) about the time "when people were of the opinion that the world was flat," a myth of the 19th century easily as durable as that reiterated by Hanson, that in the Middle Ages "superstition reigned in place of reason." (This latter one is more the fault of the Enlightenment, although Luther had a hand in it, too.) I am also, and I think this is even more to the point, a practiced exegete: I have spent my entire adult life reading the commentaries on Scripture that Luther ridiculed as without merit, unnecessary to the understanding of the faith. And guest what? I think he was wrong. I think he was wrong about Scripture, wrong about the sources of the Christian tradition, and above all wrong about Mary, as a consequence of which, Europe fell into civil war for hundreds of years, thousands of innocent women and men died after being accused by their neighbors of harboring the Devil, and, particularly in Europe, the Church became inextricably intwined in a way with the State that it had never been in the "superstitious" Middle Ages, leading directly, over the centuries, to the loss of faith that Europe is now suffering and without which even its political culture is on the verge of collapse. (It's complicated; see Brad Gregory's book.)

How does the above explain the anxieties people are feeling about the election? No, I am not going to go all apocalyptic on you, although that is another strain in the long tradition. As I am hardly the first to observe, I think we are living through a transformation easily as momentous as that which accompanied the invention of the printing press, most particularly in the explosion of sources. As in Luther's day, not everybody finds this greater availability of materials comforting, but, again as in the sixteenth century, neither do most people have the tools with which to evaluate the sources they are encountering. And so, as in the sixteenth century, irony of ironies, they fall back on Authority with its corollary Demonization. If you think that the insults flying around in our media today are bad, they are nothing on Luther's. (For example, to the pope: "I can with good conscience consider you a fart-ass and an enemy of God." Or: "Even if the Antichrist appears, what greater evil can he do than what you have done and do daily?") As a medievalist, I suppose, I am used to this: used to the slandering of the tradition, used to the way in which the evidence tends to disprove the most outrageous claims made about those on opposite sides of the debate, used to the anxiety of not being able to know for sure whether what anybody is reported as saying is actually true. What I am not used to and what frankly worries me is the way in which even some of my academic colleagues fall back in the heat of the fray not on the evidence, but on appeals to authority or on shaming me for reading things that they themselves do not read, as if simply looking at other interpretations of events was somehow beyond the pale.

There is a way out, but, trigger warning, it is not by trying to shut down everyone we disagree with. It is, as the Europeans, more particularly, the Dutch and the English discovered after almost two hundred years of constant warfare and which only the Dutch and English colonists in the New World fully embraced: freedom of speech. Are you sure we want to have to repeat the experiment over again without it? Because, I promise you, there are far worse things than Donald Trump.

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