I tend to view celebrity profiles the way I view a jar of mayonnaise left in the sun: almost certainly rotten but unhealthy to begin with. “Michael Fassbender Tees Off!” the Esquire cover beckons. “Ryan Reynolds!” shouts GQ. If it registers at all, it tends to prompt smug self-righteousness. God, I thank you that I am not like those who know who Kourtney and Scott are.
Yet my list of all-time favorite magazine articles is bursting with celebrity profiles. Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire profile of Fred Rogers. David Foster Wallace’s pieces on Roger Federer and John Ziegler. Malcolm Gladwell on Ron Popeil. Gay Talese’s classic, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” What gives? It’s not just that I like celebrity profiles so long as they’re my celebrities: Other than Mr. Rogers, I hadn’t cared about the subjects. Rather, each profile was less concerned about extending the celebrity’s celebrity than with finding what he reveals about the world in which we all live. It’s true of some of my favorite CT articles, too. See Melissa Steffan’s 2013 profile of Jesus Calling author Sarah Young, which was really about how we pray and expect God to answer.
To launch this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, we thought about how much attention to give to Luther himself. He’s a fascinating and mega-sized figure, well worth exploring in depth. We’ve forgotten what a celebrity he was: In the early 1520s, woodcut posters of his face sold out as they were printed and showed up all over Europe. In many ways, Luther welcomed and fed that celebrity. But he knew he wasn’t the story: “Discard your exalted opinion of me, and do not expect more from me than I can render, for I am nothing, and can do nothing, and am daily becoming more of a cipher,” he wrote to an early supporter.
But perhaps he’s less a cipher than he is a key. Like a key—or the best celebrity profiles—the point is not the thing itself but what it helps you to understand. That’s what we’re celebrating in this issue: How Luther helped us understand the gospel of grace, the dangers of division, the clarity of Scripture, and other invigorating truths. It’s what Luther himself suggests we do:
“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends . . . the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”
Ted Olsen (@TedOlsen) is CT’s director of editorial development.
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