Thursday, December 29, 2011

The real lesson of Martin Luther

When you spend the first 18 years of your life spending nearly every waking minute involved in some facet of religious practice, you spend the rest of your life recovering.  Religion was the family business.  Preachers regularly got fired from their congregations because their children misbehaved—a fact that was brought up often in our house.  So even though I was pretty much the perfect little choir boy, I had 200 "mothers" in church who would instantly remind me of my failings.  The reasons most people have tales of the preachers kids being the wildest ones around include exaggerations based on higher standards, and because often kids in that situation will rebel spectacularly.

So while I pretty much behaved myself, I HATED the experience.  I tolerated the "God and the church ladies are always watching" pressure.  I endured the utter tedium of sitting though the 26th Bible study lesson on Psalm 1.  But what really infuriated me was the idea that if you didn't believe the unbelievable, you were really on your way to eternal damnation.  Listening to your parents pray for your soul because you have concluded that Noah's Ark didn't happen is highly troubling.  Unfortunately, there was no way to finesse this issue because even if you agreed that Jonah's whale was a fiction that ignorant people told each other to make a larger point, there was still the problem that the two most important beliefs of Christianity were God made man and the resurrection of the dead—Christmas and Easter—and neither were especially believable as told.

So while I grew up in something of a golden age of science in teaching and public policy that happened when the Sputnik scare had provided world-class science texts to even the smallest and poorest school districts in the nation, I found my love for scientific rationality in direct conflict with the family business.  In fairness to my father, even though he preached the miracles of Christ from the pulpit, he also bought me an expensive set of encyclopedias when I started to ask how airplanes fly, took us children outside on some seriously cold nights to observe astronomical events—especially those having to do with the artifacts of the space race, and took his sons to the library once a week to reload the household supply of the popular science publications.  So maybe his religious persona was largely influenced by his need to please the Jesus-wants-you-to-be-an-idiot crowd that seemed to attend his churches.  That is not to say he wasn't a true believer—it's just that he also understood that scientific investigation is an honest pursuit of the truth and if his son was a science geek, he might as well encourage the behavior.

So the unfortunate reality of my childhood is that I had to deal with a lot of absolutely artificial issues like "can I love my parents if I want to believe that no one ever converted water into wine by magic?"  Worse, these artificial dilemmas ate up an astonishing amount of time and energy.  So when I could get away from this absurd religious repression I was absolutely determined that I would never again be in a situation where someone could emotionally blackmail me into pretending to believe something unbelievable.

Beyond that, I had to deal with the bitterness over all the intellectual investment (memorizing Bible verses) and the sheer amount of time I had been required to spend learning about something I thought was hokum.  So since then, I have sought to mine something of worth from that investment.  And what I have discovered is that stripped of the mumbo-jumbo, religion is actually an incredibly important subject that affects everything from artistic expression to economic development.  I actually had a head start in my religion-is-just-another-manifestation-of-culture analysis courtesy of something my father did to celebrate Reformation Sunday on several occasions.  He would rent this movie that told the story of Martin Luther's role in the great division of western Christian practice.  He would set up the 16mm projector in the church sanctuary and we would watch brave / devout Martin fight the corruption, sin, and evil of the Roman church.  I remember being terrified the first time I saw the portrayal of the gang on horseback who took Luther off to the Castle of Frederick the Wise in Wartburg.  But then the lights would come up and my father would give a little sermon highlighting the movie's portrayal of Roman corruption or Luther's struggle to define God's love.

But one of the more fascinating scenes for me were those where the 95 thesis were printed.  I believe the film-makers had used historically authentic printing presses which showed their dedication to demonstrating the link between Luther and his printer-admirers.  As my father explained to me, without those printers, Luther would have been just another man of conscience burned at the stake for heresy—like Jan Hus.

Luther's close relationship to the emerging German printing industry was not especially surprising since Luther was a prolific author who churned out best-sellers including a German translation of the Bible that is still used to this day.  Even better for the printers, Luther made literacy a demonstration of devotion and having a family Bible a sign of a good Christian home.  This was an excellent basis for a relationship, actually—the printers saved Luther's life and he helped them prosper.

I soon discovered that a deep understanding for why and how religious people were motivated explained a very great deal indeed about the economic development of Northern Europe.  For example.  Lutherans made music their preferred artistic expression.  As a result, Lutheran churches of even modest means bought pipe organs.  Pipe organs cannot work unless built to incredibly fine tolerances.  Therefore, the requirement of music in Lutheran churches led to a large market for precision manufacture.  So today we find that wherever there have been Lutherans, there is also widespread precision industry.

Beyond the practical examples, there is this little matter that the study of economics itself is rooted in the discipline of moral philosophy.  At some point, it dawned on me that compared to how the vast majority of youth is wasted, my dreary religious upbringing had at least provided me with some valuable insights.  I just wish that I hadn't had to extract them from these enormous piles of purest ignorance.  Oh well, we don't choose our childhoods—we just try to make the best of them.

Anyway, I offer this long explanation for why I am about to do something I have not done before on this blog and may never do again—post an extract of something written in The Economist.  I tend to look on that rag with contempt because it is a smug, arrogant Brit-twit version of neoliberal thinking published in London—the global epicenter of financial corruption.  But I make this exception because they are writing about my longest-term intellectual passion—the relationship between Luther, the printers, and the Reformation.

One of my favorite intellectual pastimes goes like this—if printing led to the Protestant Reformation, and it did, what will be the social outcomes of other revolutions in communications?  I remember how excited I became the first night I got Final Cut Pro 1.0.1 to run on an Apple G3 and capture footage from a Sony VX2000 over Firewire.  The idea that television was no longer exclusively in the hands of the insanely rich and their warped worldviews had me literally dancing with joy.  Of course, I thought the resulting social change would happen overnight.  I forgot that it took 78 years from Gutenberg's press until the 95 Thesis got printed.  Well, about that much time has passed since they really got television to work and for most of that time, it has done little more than industrialize envy and virtually eliminate literate discourse from the marketplace of ideas.  But now that millions of people can capture and edit high-quality video on their cellphones, a Reformation-sized change seems almost inevitable.  And all of this goes triple for the Internet so in combination with people-powered video, humanity is getting a vastly more interesting view of themselves and their institutions.

Social media in the 16th Century
How Luther went viral 
Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation
Dec 17th 2011

IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed. 
That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.

Scholars have long debated the relative importance of printed media, oral transmission and images in rallying popular support for the Reformation. Some have championed the central role of printing, a relatively new technology at the time. Opponents of this view emphasise the importance of preaching and other forms of oral transmission. More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation. 
Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate, namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message. more


  1. Great entry, Jonathan. I learned something both from your entry and the Economist article, which I would not have otherwise read. Happy (almost) New Year!

  2. Thanks Rob. The interesting thing about this story is that while it is virtually unknown in USA outside a tiny group of Lutherans interested in church history, it is so widely known in Yurp that even the Economist, which is almost always wrong about everything, manages to get it right.

  3. Very interesting. My grandfather was the eldest son of a Methodist minister. He hated organized religion. When asked by his mother "if we had no churches, what would we replace them with" my grandfather responded "mother, when we got rid of small pox, what did we replace it with?" Excellent article about Luther, the printing industry and economics. I have been thinking for a long time that the Internet would change society as profoundly as the printing press, I just could not predict how it would come about.

  4. Martin Luther King was an inspiration for everyone. He did things that people only think of. People idealize him in their own ways. Thanks for the article.