Review: Katharina and Martin Luther by Michelle DeRusha
I'm a Lutheran Youth Pastor who, until now, could count on one hand the things I knew about Martin Luther, a key player in the Reformation and the person for whom my tradition is named.
1. He believed in the importance of Scripture alone.
2. He posted 95 theses, which got him into a lot of trouble with the powers at be.
3. He was married.
4. He was a monk.
5. He drank beer.
Most of those things I learned as a child attending a Lutheran grade school.
Truthfully, I feel a little guilty that my Luther knowledge is subpar and have always thought that at some point, I should read up on the guy.
I saw my chance when I learned Michelle DeRusha, whose book Spiritual Misfit I adored, was writing a book called Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.
While much has been written about Luther, Michelle's book is unique in that it focuses not just on Luther the Reformer, but on Luther the husband. Thus, Michelle's book is not just a biography of Martin Luther but also of Katharina Luther and of the marriage between the two. It is very readable (even for those who, like me, don't naturally gravitate toward biographies) and because it's more than just a theological tome, it's also extremely relatable.
Throughout Katharina and Martin Luther, I appreciated Michelle's blend of narrative style, imaginative storytelling and research – no small feat considering “scholars can't be absolutely sure of even the most basic facts about [Katharina's] early life.”
As I read Katharina and Martin Luther, I became increasingly aware of how much life has changed since the 16th century. For example, the church is no longer “the center of communal life” as it was then, impacting the “everyday lives of men, women, and children across every social stratum – law, order, morality, and eternity.” Understanding the context in which the Luther's lived makes Luther's work on “sola gratia – on grace alone” all the more stunning. It also makes it clear how progressive Martin actually was.
Martin was, for example, “horrified by the rampant corruption he observed among the clergy in Rome, from excessive materialism”, something that makes me wonder what he'd find horrific in the church today. He also advocated that “all Christians were priests, differing only in the roles they held.” He was also progressive in terms of the church's understanding of sex and sexuality. “For Luther, human sexuality was divinely ordained. God created the body to function in specific ways and to interrupt or prohibit that process was wrong.” Similarly, Martin's thoughts on childrearing were progressive. He believed husbands should be involved in childrearing and both he and Katharina “approached child rearing as nothing short of holy work.” The more I realized these things, the more Martin Luther shifted from a dodgy, old, archaic man to someone I actually liked.
Similarly, the more I learned about Katharina, the more I liked her. She was no typical 16th century woman. For one, she ran away from a convent. After doing so, she “refused to settle for a husband she didn't like.” Instead, “she did something virtually unheard of at the time: she essentially asked Luther to marry her.” In addition to managing the Luther's household, she also managed their business affairs. She was smart, cunning, and literate, even participating in the “discussions around the table and engaging Luther privately in conversations about [theological] topics herself.”
In Katharina and Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha has succeeded in writing an incredibly readable primer of the Luther's. Those interested in learning more about the Luther's, the reformation, or church history will particularly enjoy this book. Churches, too – especially those looking for ways to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – will find this resource a gift that can be used in many settings, including adult education classes or small groups, to spur on people's faith formation.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Katharina and Martin Luther in exchange for a fair and honest review.