How to represent Martin Luther in a museum?

In my previous post, I told 5 stories from Eisleben. I wrote it as a commentary on five photos I took on the day we went to Eisleben. But there’s more to say about that day, Monday, day eight.

In Eisleben we visited the residences in which Martin Luther was born, and in which he died. The two homes have been converted into museums.

Luther is the major figure of the Reformation, of the rupture of the Roman Catholic Church, the birth of Protestantism.

Protestant theology, Protestant reading of the Bible, led to the end of the power of Pope and Emperor, and caused massive political changes.[1]

It’s complicated. At the core of the story is the meaning and significance of the word “holy.”

It’s hard to say when the “Holy Roman Empire” ended. Technically, it’s 1806, when Francis II of Austria relinquished the title of Holy Roman Emperor, two years after Napoleon crowned himself king of France.

But the fate of the empire was cast in 1648 when the 30-years’ war[2] ended with the Peace of Westphalia.[3]

The cause of the end of empire wasn’t just Lutheranism, centred in Wittenberg. It was also Presbyterianism, centred in Geneva – there are many “reformed” churches in Europe, including in Germany.

The main cause of the end of the empire was Luther’s compelling translation of the Bible from Greek into German (1534), its spread due to advances in printing technology and kingly sanction.[4]

(Wycliff’s translation of the Bible from Latin into English was earlier, in 1395. Though it had a great impact, it was a wooden, word-for-word translation. No friend of the king, Wycliff was burned at the stake.)

That brief discussion of the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t covered by the guide who showed us Luther’s birth and death museums. But it’s important, because it shows the impact of Christian theology on the organization of the state, on politics.

It’s especially important because the two museums were created by and are run by the state, which also certifies the guides.

A state which is secular. A state which brushes off theology as a guide to good rulership. A state in the former East Germany, in which Christians were looked down upon by the rulers.

Why do I raise the above? Because I felt the museums give too much prominence to negative aspects of Luther. I’ll give a few examples from the birth museum.

It gives Luther’s advice as the reason for locating the graveyard outside the city limits – a decision made during a pandemic, long before modern understanding of how diseases spread.

It highlights Luther’s polemic, during a revolt, that the peasants were under the influence of devils.

It seems to give greater prominence to Luther’s views on the importance of baptism, than the impact of his 95 theses and his quarrels with the Roman Catholics.

I was happy to see frank acceptance of many negative things about Luther – including his outrageous views about Jews[5]. I also noticed some exhibits about his work to make education available to all – but I think this should have been given much more prominence.

I admit that there is much difficulty in representing Luther’s teachings, for, unlike John Calvin, Luther never wrote a systematic theology. Luther was above all a pastor, responding to situations as they arose. For him, being decisive and persuasive was more important than fine consistency – though he did achieve that in some of his writings.

I left Eisleben pondering these questions:

How to present the life, work, and thoughts of such a man? Can the medium of a museum succeed in doing so? What role should non-Christians play in it? What – other than tourist revenue – would be lost if these museums didn’t exist? Has my appreciation of Luther increased because I now know the size, furniture, and warmth of his family home?

It’s possible that I’ve misrepresented the museums because we may have skipped some parts of each museum.

Why? Because one member of our group fell into the baptismal pool in the Peter and Paul church. We had to wait for her to dry herself and put on fresh clothes before resuming our tour. This limited the time available for the guide to show us the museums.

From Eisleben we went to visit a “partner church” in Hof district. Sadly, we were delayed by about two hours due to an accident on the highway.

The highlight of the visit to Hof was a pipe organ in their church building. It has 4,000 pipes! The organist invited us to stand next to him as he played some music for us, including some ‘requests.’ It was heavenly.

Our hosts had prepared a lovely feast for us. Alas there wasn’t enough time for us to enjoy it, as we had to leave for Neuendettelsau before the bus driver exceeded the 9-10 hours he’s allowed to drive each day[6].

We also sang one of our songs in the magnificent building. However, we left in a sombre mood, since we’d learned that church attendance has dwindled, and the vast church is mostly empty during services.

End of Day 8.

[1] “The Holy Roman Emperor” was Catholic, crowned by the Pope. He ruled over vast territories well beyond the borders of his own land of residence.

[2] During this war, some areas of modern Germany lost 50% of their population. The total number of deaths may have been as high as 8 million, both of soldiers and of civilians, caused not only by battles, but also by famine and disease.

[3] The Peace of Augsburg (1555), which established the principle “whose realm, their religion” (cuius regio, eius religio), didn’t assure lasting peace partly because of the growth of reformed, Presbyterian (Calvinistic) churches.

[4] It wasn’t until Vatican II, which ended in 1965, that Catholic laypeople were encouraged to read the bible.

[5] The Jewish Virtual Library contains a selection of his views. Hitler and the Nazis later made extensive use of his views in their propaganda against Jews.

[6] “Daily driving period shall not exceed 9 hours, with an exemption of twice a week when it can be extended to 10 hours.” EU Regulation.

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