Before the Reformation, the meaning of life came highly structured from the hierarchy of the Church. One didn't ask questions. One didn't need to.
Many believers, perhaps most, experienced Truth through relics, images, and rituals—not as oppression but as comfort. To be sure, one did not meet God face to face. But one did not want to! For the late-medieval rank and file, assurance of salvation came not from bold access to the throne of God, but from the myriad mediating practices of penance and devotion.
In Luther, one scene in particular brings home this historical reality. Glowing with joy, a young mother who has purchased an indulgence (a remission of temporal punishment) for her crippled daughter holds it out to a gaunt Martin Luther: "Look what I bought for Greta!" She has been gulled by the rhetoric of the charlatan indulgence-seller, Johann Tetzel (Alfred Molina).
Luther (Joseph Fiennes) takes the paper and reads it. His anger at the corrupt establishment rises and boils over. He forgets the gentleness he has displayed toward her. "This is worthless," he says, crumpling it in his fist. "You must rely on God's love." Crestfallen, she turns and walks disconsolately away.
At several key moments in the movie, Luther faces the charge that he is tearing apart the church. He grapples repeatedly with the possibility that he is destroying, rather than building, God's kingdom. To their credit, though, the filmmakers resist the temptation of portraying a Lone Ranger Reformer against a thoroughly evil Church. There are enough sympathetic figures in the Catholic establishment (Matthieu Carriere's Cardinal Cajetan chief among them) to create some sense of historical nuance.
Moreover, we get to see some warts of the Reformation. Andreas ...1
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more