500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified
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Playmobil, the German toy company, made unexpected headlines in 2015 when it released a limited edition Martin Luther figurine. Outside of how smiley it cast the cantankerous theologian, the toy itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. What got everyone’s attention was how quickly it flew off the shelves. Overnight little Luther became the fastest-selling item in the company’s 40-year history. While factories scrambled to catch up with demand, consumers descended on eBay in search of what they knew was the perfect gift for the pastor in their lives. At least, the ones with a sense of humor.

In retrospect, irony might have been the better word. It was not the first time Luther had been at the center of a collision between demand, expectation, and gift. Thankfully, the stakes were quite a bit lower this time around. The same cannot be said for those raised by his theology.

A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”

The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a ...

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