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Updated: Apr 25, 2020

WITHOUT RELEVANCE, history is little more than entertainment, a benign curiosity. History can be shy about giving up its secrets. It demands patience. Like a good book or a good film, it makes you wait. Then there are those rare seasons where relevance seems to jump off the page, that folds into the present tense with such ease as to take on a curious resemblance to life as you and I know it, addressing, as it might, some element of it. The Protestant Reformation is one of them. For all the white around its muzzle, the words of the reformers come to us lucid, sober, purchased, as they were, at an impossible cost. They speak with a clarity that cannot help but sparkle. That makes them relevant to a culture in want of clarity.

It seems history has something yet to teach.

In spite of the religious gloss that the movement has been given, the real argument of the Protestant Reformation, the life behind it was Liberty itself. In Luther’s ridiculous vitality, in his Falstaff genius for life lives the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, The French and American Revolutions, “I have a dream,” Christopher Hitchens, the Declaration of Independence, and “The Times They Are A’ Changing.” It is little surprise that the discovery of the New World preceded the Reformation by hardly a generation. The New World was as much in Luther as it was in Columbus.

This article is about the greater gain of reform, its high mark, Liberty.

The Reformation (a name it earned later, in hindsight) is an achievement, an evolutionary step in western culture. Liberty of conscience. The advent of self. The New World. And liberty at this height cannot be given. It has to be won. It has to be desired, wanted bad enough.

But first, some context.

In the years before 1517 and ignition of the Protestant Reformation, western culture lived within the broad and jealous gaze of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church enjoyed rule and possession among western kingdoms, being, as it was, the government among governments. She was the Holy Mother. At her head, the Holy Father, the Pope. No metaphor escaping her attention, the rest were her “children.” Sentiments were attached to her as a mother. You could not escape your mother’s shadow any more than you could do without her blessing. And attendance was not optional. Holy Mother Church permeated every possible franchise of daily life, public and private, and planted a flag there. Your life was not your own. Nor was your cash. Somebody had to pay for the Sistine Chapel, the popes new hat and jewels.

Her “children” were taught what to believe and how to believe, how to direct their sympathies and their tithe. In return they were given not only insurance from the torments of hell, a rule of life, and the consolations of the Holy Mother, but also magic, or what many of them came to believe was magic—the ceremony, its slow elevated step, the excess piety, the mystery of its dying Christ, the grand hush of it all, the strange highness in the tongue, the polish of its Latin that few, if any, could understand, including many of the priests who intoned the Mass. All life fell into a liturgy, into its precise rhythms, its mild stupor, making a kind of slow march through the ages. It kept the line moving, so to speak, creating custom, order, and the pretense of community.

Dissension from Holy Mother church had cruel, often lethal consequences.

Add superstition to tyranny and the image is complete. The church dominated by fear, by lush fabrication, lies that have little or nothing to do with authentic spirituality. “Miracle” plays confronted the believer with the atrocities of hell. There was no salvation, they were told, outside the church. The church controlled the narrative. Because scripture took a back seat to tradition, church councils, and papal opinion, the common believer was beguiled on a grand scale. Instead of truth, they got fables. Instead of leadership, they got domination. Instead of freedom, they got correction. Instead of love, an impostor.

Culture was ripe for change. It needed someone as outrageous as Luther, and his peculiar brand of Pow. But culture was ripe because the seeds of reform had been long planted, placing Luther at the harvest end of a long historical procession. For all his weight and presence, for all the press he gets, Martin Luther was not the first to comment or act on the abuses of the medieval church. That distinction goes to an Englishman, Oxford Professor and preacher, John Wycliffe (1320?-1384), who died one hundred years before Luther was born. Wycliffe was the first to comment on the corruptions of the papacy, the moral vacancy, the cooling of its oncewarm Jesus. He was the first to translate a vernacular bible, forbidden, as it was under the penalty of death. Had John Wycliffe not died of a stroke in 1384, he would have certainly burned for his trouble.

If Wycliffe was the lightning of reform, and he was, Martin Luther was the thunder that followed, that completed the cycle. “Does the pope set up laws? Let him set them up for himself and keep hands off my liberty!” Pow.

And this is no ordinary liberty. It is too hard earned. It is the liberty of the poet-martyr-translator William Tyndale (1494-1536) cast in a dungeon for five hundred days awaiting trial and execution for heresy. Five hundred days of solitude, without light, warmth, reading material, human contact. Liberty entered the dark confines with him, souldeep and unshakable, something his captors could neither understand nor take from him.

It is the liberty of Anne Askew (1521-1546), a gentle creature of twenty-five who was brutalized by her English tormentors, racked with such ferocity her bones were separated from their sockets, who chose to sing when confined to Newgate Prison, to haunt it with music (of her own composition) instead of giving way to despair. “I would rather die than break my faith,” cried Lady Liberty, the courageous Lady Anne. Days later, she had to be taken to her execution in a chair because she could not walk or move without severe pain. Liberty remained intact. Indomitable.

It is the liberty of Jan Hus (1369-1415), who sang his song above the snap and growl of the flames that consumed him.

Who are we to deny their instruction? Or that American culture suffers a mild stupor, a narcotic attraction to celebrity, and other grand pretensions of the age, drunk with entitlements, with our distractions, drunk with rage, with our new hatreds and too many old ones, drunk with religious and political zealotries, both toxic and both faith-based. And some homicide lurking in our shadows. Enough.

Maybe reform is a possibility. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it hasn’t yet crossed our minds. Maybe we’re not listening to the old voices as we should. Maybe they ask too much. Or perhaps we say we have no need of reform (just what the drunk would say).

I don’t hear thunder just yet. But I am hopeful.


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