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book review

On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a relatively obscure Augustinian monk and academic in Germany, nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.CSU Archives

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World

By Eric Metaxas

Viking, 496 pages, $40

All Things Made New: The Reformation and its Legacy

By Diarmaid MacCulloch

Oxford University Press, 542 pages, $22

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation

By Peter Marshall

Yale University Press, 652 pages, $51.55

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

By Lyndal Roper

Random House, 592 pages, $31.99

Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval

By Heinz Schilling

Oxford University Press, 608 pages, $63

Grand anniversaries are to authors and publishers what voters are to a politician. They love them, albeit briefly. We can wait all day for a biography of a specific character or a history of a precise event, and then they all come along at once. That's the case with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which is – all cynicism aside – a vital event in both the evolution and consciousness of Western society. On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a relatively obscure Augustinian monk and academic in Germany, nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, issuing a challenge to Rome, shattering the religious homogeneity of Europe and changing the world.

Changing the world is something to which Eric Metaxas refers in his book's title but then rather spoils it with a reference to rediscovering God. That, in fact, is part of the problem with this entirely adequate but tendentious life of Luther. History is best when we are convinced the players don't know the outcome, which of course they don't. That's not the case here. It's a "great life" explored rather than an intriguing story told. The author is something of a star in the American conservative Christian firmament, but the heaven in question is not quite as sparkling as all that. He has written biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce, so it was inevitable that a life of Luther would come along for the 500th.

In other words, he's a journeyman author and seems to write for the occasion rather than for the vocation. Not that this is a failed book, and the tale is told in generally accessible terms. A frighteningly devout young man who as a priest would tremble at the idea of celebrating the mass, Luther became increasingly uncomfortable with Rome's unethical behaviour and then its theology. He was as much a product of his opponents' reaction as his own ideas, but when obliged to search further into scripture and history found his Catholicism melting away and an alternative, "protesting" Christian ideal emerging from the resulting religious puddle.

Metaxas is reliable on Luther as an often-troubled man who had no idea what he had initiated. He is also delicate in writing of his marriage to the former nun Katharina von Bora and the death of their daughter, Magdalene, who died in Luther's arms. But the book is inconsistent, leaping from event to event with strangely unequal attention. It also often seems padded, artificially distended with information that any interested reader would find online or in any reference book. He lists, for example, all 95 theses and a full letter from Pope Leo X, who excommunicated Luther. The former, in particular, is obviously of central importance but it interrupts the flow of the book and, as any biographer knows, there's none so tempting as an obliging original source that takes up a whole bunch of pages!

Oxford professor Lyndal Roper is a far superior companion for anybody who wants to encounter Luther for the first time – or, for that matter, who already knows the man rather well. In her intensely thorough but always stylish biography, she places him firmly in his era but also as a figure of colossal historical significance. Luther's Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, as the 95 Theses are also known, began an exponential process of theological and political revolution. It was a perfect political storm: the rise of nationalism, the development of printing, an increase in literacy and a festering resentment of Rome's power, corruption and arrogance.

Luther was a pioneer in the field but far from the first to question the Catholic interpretation of Scripture and authority; that had been occurring for centuries. Popes and bishops seldom reacted well – the brilliant 14th-century English theologian and priest John Wycliffe escaped punishment thanks to powerful friends, but after his death his body was removed from consecrated ground and burned, the ashes thrown into the local river. Luther was not metaphorically taller than his reforming forerunners but he could stand on their shoulders.

Then there was the almost manic energy, the combination of invincible self-confidence and a breathless determination to impose his will. Roper attributes some of this to Luther's childhood – she is compelling on the man's early days – and depicts how the more he was opposed and threatened, the more he felt called to rip apart the curtain of the religious status quo.

He was a figure of undoubted genius, but it's also likely he didn't entirely realize what he had done. He developed a new theology as he went along, one that would be known as Protestantism, then saw a fresh generation of dissidents take their places across Christendom. There could have been no Calvin, Zwingli or Cranmer without the plump German.

But if he often wrote and thought like an angel, he hated like a devil. This is something that both Roper and German historian Heinz Schilling show without any partisan reservation. Luther's infamous statements on the Peasants' War in the mid-1520s, for example, are chilling – particularly as the peasants in question assumed that Luther was on their side and felt encouraged by his work. He condemned them as "faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious, murderers, robbers, and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and authority to punish" and argued that "a rebel is not worth rational arguments, for he does not accept them. You have to answer people like that with a fist."

Worse because of its grotesque contemporary resonance was Luther's anti-Semitism. As both books explain, he began by being open and friendly toward the Jewish people, believing this attitude would lead to mass conversion. When it failed, he gradually turned against them and finally produced a long treatise entitled On the Jews and Their Lies. In it he calls for the burning of synagogues and schools, the destruction of Jewish homes, the theft of Jewish holy books, forced manual labour and, if possible, complete ejection from the country. The Third Reich trumpeted this filth, as did many Lutherans. It must be stressed, however, that there were always valiant Lutheran voices – Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis, being a great example – who disagreed, and since 1945 the Lutheran church has bared and beaten its soul over this issue and has been startlingly honest in its self-criticism.

Schilling puts it rather well when he writes, "This book is not about a Luther in whom we can find the spirit of our own time; this book is about … a Luther whose thoughts and actions are out of kilter with the interests of later generations." That is an essential, robustly ethical prism. Roper's is the more satisfying of the two biographies, but read as partners – as daunting as that may be – there is little more to be said about the man.

The Reformation may have started in Germany, but it soon spread throughout northern Europe and beyond. France was far closer than we may think to becoming a pluralistic or even Protestant state at one point, and reform made major inroads almost everywhere outside of Spain and Italy. British academic and broadcaster Diarmaid MacCulloch was knighted in 2012 for his services to literature, and his writings have to a large extent shaped Reformation history. His genuinely masterful life of the archbishop and martyr Thomas Cranmer is one of the truly great modern biographies. This volume is a compilation of 22 essays tackling Europe as well as Britain and dipping with a delicious expertise into subjects as diverse as the Council of Trent, Tudor royal image making, the Anglican prayer book and the alleged latitude of the Church of England.

MacCulloch also writes exquisitely. "If you study the sixteenth-century, you are inevitably present at something like the aftermath of a particularly disastrous car-crash. All around are half-demolished structures, debris, people figuring out how to make sense of lives that have suddenly been transformed." There, now pretend you're not hooked.

Peter Marshall has written a long overdue single-volume history of the Reformation in England, 50 years years after the seminal work by the great A.G. Dickens. There have been numerous books about various aspects of what happened under Henry VIII and his three children – and many television accounts, from the sublime Wolf Hall to the ridiculous The Tudors – but no popular yet scholarly study as broad in scope as this one. It's become fashionable in historical circles to revise standard assumptions, making the case that Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary, wasn't really all that bad (she was) or that Elizabeth I was in fact intolerant and cruel (she wasn't), but Marshall is more responsible and thoughtful than that.

It's a profound book with a light touch – and all the more impressive in that the author is covering almost a century of intellectual, social and religious history. That demands a whole nest of intellectual disciplines and understandings, and while he's perhaps better on the early rather than the latter period, it will be a long time before the book is surpassed. And, of course, a long time before the next major anniversary.

As MacCulloch said in an earlier book, "So much of the story so far has not been about unbelief at all, but sincere and troubled belief. When the children of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the children of the Jewish diaspora turned on the religions that had bred them, they mostly sought not to abolish God but to see him in a clearer light." Let that light shine on.

Michael Coren is the author of Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage, among other books.

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