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Brand Luther

Saturday, February 18, 2017 11:57
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While we are reaching for historical parallels to describe the delegitimization of the mainstream media, the so-called “epidemic of fake news” and the waning power of Washington’s liberal establishment, this is by far my favorite one and the most accurate one:

“The print shop was busy with men arranging type and hanging freshly inked sheets up to dry. Johann Rhau-Grunenberg’s operation in the town of a few thousand people on the Elbe River was small, but work was steady because of the new university that had been established in 1502.

Faculty brought course materials to be printed for their students, and occasional books and pamphlets came off the presses. But after 1517, one professor in particular was a frequent visitor to the shop. He also was a writer, a monk and a preacher at the city church, and he tended to micro-manage the editing of his pages and even the look of the type and occasional illustrations.

He was Martin Luther, and almost entirely because of his ideas and his use of the relatively new printing industry, he turned the German town of Wittenberg into the center of European printing for much of the 16th century.

Of course, Luther was responsible for much more than that. We know him as the initial leader of the Protestant Reformation, the radical break of churches from the Roman Catholic establishment that spread quickly across Europe. That swift growth of the ideas of a little-known monk and his supporters came about because Luther understood how to use the revolutionary technology of the printing press, according to historian Andrew Pettegree, author of the 2015 book, “Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation.” …

Luther was the 16th century equivalent of a social media master. He surely would have used Twitter had it been invented, as his adversaries would have, too. In fact, some of the “95 Theses” would have fit nicely into 140 characters, such as No. 27: “They preach man-made doctrines who say that so soon as the coin jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out of purgatory,” and No. 54: “Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on the Word.”

His cause ultimately succeeded, but in his day he had enemies as bitter as those opposing Donald Trump and his tweets today. …”

Luther’s biting take on Johann Tetzel’s famous jingle could have been a tweet: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.”

Just yesterday, Pope Francis condemned President Trump and the rise of populism:

“Pope Francis isn’t taking the Trump party line.

Just days before the election, he cautioned against “social walls” and “false prophets” fueling fear and intolerance in politics. “No tyranny finds support without tapping into our fears,” Francis said. “This is key. Hence, all tyranny is terrorist.” …

He also condemned the growth of populist and xenophobic movements, calling them a “grave danger for humanity.” And he criticized leaders who rely on “fear, insecurity, quarrels, and even people’s justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills on to a ‘non-neighbor.’ ”

None of these statements are particularly shocking. But what’s notable is the frequency with which the pope is speaking out. Francis has become one of the world’s staunchest defenders of immigrants, Muslims and liberal democracy itself.” …”

The Reformation was a media revolution and populist revolution:

“No surprise that it’s more complicated than that, but a new book by British historian Andrew Pettegree reveals a central and heretofore little-appreciated aspect: Luther’s master role in the imagination and execution of what had to have been the world’s first mass-media-driven revolution. Luther didn’t just reimagine the Christian faith, he figured out how to share his vision through the innovative use and manipulation of a nascent communications technology: the printing press.

“Printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, but Luther was also a determining, shaping force in the German printing industry,” Pettegree writes. “After Luther, print and public communication would never be the same again.” …

As “Brand Luther” makes clear, Luther realized the untapped potential of print as a mass medium and used it to broadcast his message to lay readers across the German states, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers via this new social media. He responded to the first scholarly criticism of his theses not in Latin, the language of scholarship, but in German, with a clear, straightforward 1,500-word essay that could be read aloud in 10 minutes. It fit perfectly into an eight-page pamphlet that could be quickly and cheaply printed and reprinted, each copy using but a single sheet of paper, folded in quarto. “It was an instant publishing sensation. …”

The Catholic hierarchy was dismissive of Martin Luther.

“None of this was as it should have been. In 1517 the church hierarchy was very confident of its ability to close down the hubbub around Luther. The usual channels, a confidential letter to persons of influence, underpinned by a judicial process in Rome, should have sufficed to silence a turbulent priest. There was no reason that the criticism of indulgences, fairly commonplace already in intellectual circles, should become a toxic public event. Most of all, there was no reason to believe that Electoral Saxony, a medium-sized state far away from the main centers of European power politics, could incubate an event of European importance …”

Martin Luther was the early modern equivalent of a blogger or troll in some out of the way backwater like Nebraska challenging the power of the New York-based mainstream media.

Note: I’m reading Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe–and Started the Protestant Reformation. Check it out.


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