The year 2017 is special to Lutherans and church history buffs. It’s the five hundredth anniversary of when Martin Luther (1483-1546) supposedly posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Even though no historical evidence exists that Luther actually nailed his theses to any church door, tourists continue to arrive in Wittenberg, fake hammers in hand, to reenact the supposed event.
This strikes home to me: For 14 years, I wrote for The Wittenburg Door (misspelling intentional), which was the nation's only religious satire magazine. After the Door closed its doors, I thought my days poking fun at the church's foibles had come to an end. Here was a chance to resurrect this particular brand of writing, or at least, to reexamine if I wanted to resume the mantle of a religious satirist.
Certainly, there’s plenty to satirize in the official celebrations of Luther’s life going on now, starting with their propaganda for virtual consumption on the Internet. Germans may not be known for their sense of humor, but the actor portraying Luther in the Virtual Luther app (available at Google Play and iTunes) did make me laugh, albeit unintentionally. Animated videos featuring a Lego inspired Luther depict a Disneyfied version of following in Luther's steps. Yes, we are in the Luther Decade (2008-2017), a ten-year series of celebrations commemorating the launch of the Reformation.
As soon as I got to Wittenberg, the Luther-branded wares stared at me, begging for a response. Really now: rubber duckies, beer, and chocolate with Luther’s face? It’s good German beer and chocolate, though. Dutifully, I took my share of photographs hoping for inspiration to strike me, similar to the thunderstorm that apparently scared Luther into becoming a monk. No reaction happened. I felt no response to the medieval wares for sale on Reformation Day (October 31), no burning desire to return just to immerse myself in the entire town’s three-day reenactment of Luther’s wedding to Katharina von Bora each June. Not even taking a selfie next to the famous Castle Church door (replica bronze doors, not the original wood) could motivate me to resume my role as a religious satirist.
Traveling through the states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia, I found that some other sites along the 1,000-mile Luther Trail also carry out the German equivalent of "Washington Slept Here." Here marks the quaint spot where Luther may (or may not) have paid a visit, stopped for a pint, and spent the night.
At various themed restaurants, tourists can chow down on Luther's favorite treats such as charcoal grilled Thuringian Bratwurst. Many people, perhaps those who like the Medieval Times interactive dinners, seemed to delight in the meals served by period-costumed waiters at Hotel "Eisenacher Hof" in Eisenach.
Every so often, I found a spot devoid of tourist trappings where I could be still and reflect upon the actual history behind the hoopla. Take, for example, Erfurt, a town known as Luther's spiritual home. Here Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501 and later joined the city's Augustinian Monastery as a monk in July 1505. The town wasn't all Lutherfied, so that I could stroll along the Krämerbrücke (the Merchant’s Bridge) built over the Breitstrom (part of the Gera River) and feel for myself this piece of history without any push to join in some kind of prepackaged experience. In particular, the crisp cold that permeated the stone walls of the monastery gave me a clear sense of how the climate and architecture shaped Luther's studies.
A trek through Wartbug Castle produced in me a similarly eerie dank chill. At this UNESCO Heritage site overlooking the town of Eisenach, Luther sat for close to a year translating the Bible into German, hidden from Imperial orders for his arrest and death under a false name by a powerful patron. I could not fathom spending even one night in the sparse wood-paneled room.
I did delight in spending a night nearby, however, at the Romantik Hotel auf der Wartburg, a hotel situated at the foot of the castle designed to complement the castle’s brown stone architecture. I sweated in the German-style clothing-optional spa surrounded by the stone walls of the castles and a view overlooking the woodlands and the neighboring town of Eisenach. Finally, I found my version of paradise where I could soak into the history and landscape of this region, leaving behind any dreams of reawakening my religious satirical persona.
During my tours, I kept hearing the stories of how Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and his son, Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) used their skills as painters and printers to depict and promote the theological and political themes of the Reformation. Touring their workshops in Wittenberg and gallery exhibits of their work held throughout the region gave me opportunities to learn the details of how their work was at least as important as Luther’s writing to the Reformation. They used the newly-invented printing press to devastating effect, inventing mass propaganda techniques that have been with us ever since, now expanded via online social media tools.
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