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Commentary: Luther renaissance on its way?

Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Editor

Is it just wishful thinking or are we perhaps gearing up to bid farewell to post-modernity? Something odd is going on. Post-modernity's motto seems to be "Here I stand - and here, and here, and here." Suddenly, we note in the United States a renewed interest in the clarity of Martin Luther, whose most famous words (apocryphal or not) were: "Here I stand. God help me. Amen."

It's not that people with a sense of history had ever underestimated the 16th-century father of the Reformation. Three years ago, Life magazine and A&E ranked him third on their lists of the past millennium's top 100 people, although 78 percent of all Americans have no idea who he was, according to opinion polls; more often than not they confuse him with Martin Luther King, the slain civil rights leader.

Now, Luther seems to be popping up everywhere in the United States. Two denominational publishing houses - Augsburg-Fortress in Minneapolis and Concordia St. Louis - have just come out with new biographies of the Reformer. A Luther comic book for children is about to appear. In July, public television, prompted by no particular event such as an anniversary, broadcast a two-hour special on Luther. And on Sept. 26 a marvelously fast feature film, which is both theologically sound and entertaining, will open in 300 theaters in the U.S.

Its title is, simply, "Luther."

It is the first full-length film on Luther in more than half a century. Packed with action, whimsy and yet Gospel-centered, it avoids stereotypes. Don't expect to hear Luther's great anthem, "A Mighty Fortress is our God"; this work, directed by Eric Zill, is not about Luther, the musician.

Neither should you expect a lengthy discussion on Luther's theologically motivated anti-Jewish outbursts late in life, outbursts that gave him such a bad press after World War II. This film is about a period in Luther's life when he was young and immensely dynamic, and when he was one of the first theologians to stress Christianity's debt to Judaism, reminding his co-religionists in a powerful text "That Jesus Christ was born a Jew."

Don't even expect lengthy discourses about Luther and his magnificent wife, Katherine von Bora, who would actually make a superb topic for a separate movie. Yes, you will see how she and several other sisters flee from their cloister, hiding in herring barrels. There is a subtle love scene between Katherine, played enchantingly by English actress Claire Fox, and the Reformer, a former Augustinian monk.

You will see nothing of Luther's family life, which set the pattern for the Protestant parsonage that for centuries had an immense impact on the cultures of Germany, Scandinavia, Britain and North America. Again, this is not what this film is all about. "There simply wasn't enough time for all this," said Dennis A. Clauss, corporate projects leader of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, the movie's sponsor.

Its focus is much more daring. In a period of moral and religious relativism, where man cooks up his own ever-changing "truths" according to his own whims, the weather and impressions gained from the latest television talk shows, this film is totally anti-cyclical. It centers on mankind's most pressing question, which triggered Luther's Reformation: "How do I find a merciful God?"

This is a time when the words from the Mighty Fortress' third stanza ring remarkably topical: "Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threat'ning to devour us." In this environment some of us are aching to hear someone say: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason... my conscience is captive to the Word of God: I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."

"Here I stand" - these words spoken by Luther in 1518 before the Imperial Diet of Worms will give you goose bumps, especially when you know how close he was to a fiery death at the stake. It is one of the two most gripping scenes in this film where British actor Joseph Fiennes ("Shakespeare in Love") portrays the Reformer superbly - his faith, his drive, and his humor. The fact that this particular scene is shown with meticulous historical accuracy in every detail enhances the movie's significance.

The second spellbinder comes toward the end in a depiction of the Augsburg Diet of 1530, where the Protestant princes step forward, one by one, bowing their heads to emperor Charles V, and declaring themselves willing to be decapitated for the sake of the Gospel. O, that in these decadent days when the filthiest fingers fumble with Scripture, we would hear statements like the one spoken by the prince-elector of Brandenburg: "Before I let anyone take as of them (his subjects) the Word of God and ask me to deny my belief, I will kneel and let them strike off my head."

When I previewed this film, I was reminded of the 1966 classic, "A Man for All Seasons," about another towering Reformation-era figure, Sir Thomas More, the Catholic martyr. It takes a genius to weave together commanding faith statements, hilarity, human interest and great cinematography without slipping into bad taste. Eric Zill accomplished that.

You walk with Luther into Rome and observe whoring monks. You nod laughingly as he says, "In Rome, you can buy sex and salvation." You are in the middle of a papal boar hunt, where the pontiff slays a wild pig. You stand in the crowd as Johannes Tetzel, the brilliant Dominican monk, hawks indulgences, prompting the Reformation. And you laugh with Professor Luther's students as he ridicules the folly of collecting relics: "Eighteen of the 12 apostles are buried in Spain alone."

You smile at the immensely mature whimsy with which Sir Peter Ustinov portrays the elector-prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Luther's protector, and you recoil at the carnage of the 1525 Peasants' War, which was triggered by the Protestant Reformation. With Luther, you are aghast at its price in human lives - 50,000-100,000.

This film hits America and - a month later - Europe at a perfect time, when the dual craze of political correctness and godlessness (which does not allow for towering giants such as Luther) is arguably reaching its peak. In this climate, it is gratifying to hear Joseph Fiennes' profession of his belief.

He readily admits, "Soccer is my church." But then he will tell interviewers that acting Luther made him ponder his own faith more deeply: "You can't get away from it if you embrace this man."


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