Stirring Scenes from the Life of Luther
by Gerhard E. Lenski
Who was Martin Luther? What should a child know about him? This short book from 1935 gives a brief sketch of Luther’s life aimed at schoolchildren. It walks through his childhood, entrance into the monastery, combat against indulgences, stand at the Diet of Worms, the establishment of the Augsburg Confession, and Luther’s death.
Here, let me sum up for you: Don’t give a child this book. Don’t give it to an adult, either.
First, though the book is entitled Stirring Scenes from the Life of Luther I wasn’t stirred at all. In fact, I found the narrative to be pretty severely lacking. This isn’t simply a matter of the book being older; one of my favorite fiction series is The Wizard of Oz and its thirteen novel sequels which all predate this volume. The tone felt like a pastor who’s used to teaching seminarians trying to give a children’s sermon. He might claim he told a story, but all the kids would say all he did was talk about something, not tell a story!
More importantly, the bulk of the book feels like Luther worship. “Do you know that, if you were to choose for each one of the five fingers on your hand, the five greatest men that have ever lived, Martin Luther would be in that number” (10)? “A great historian has said that we all need Martin Luther. He does not need us – he has done his life’s work and he has done it well. But we need him” (11-12). “The gates of the world have opened wise to admit the man Luther. None can deny him a high and honored place in the councils of the great. His name lives on earth as his soul lives in heaven” (78).
Just… just no. Look, God used Martin Luther well. He gave Luther many good gifts and gave him a place in history that caused much good to be done. I am grateful. There’s a reason I’m Lutheran: With the Augsburg Confession (as well as all the Book of Concord) I see a church that values Law and Gospel, and I see a place where Jesus is clearly taught. But Luther was a man used by God. This book didn’t convey that; it made Luther a hero above all others.
We don’t need Luther. We need Jesus. Luther was good because he pointed to Jesus, and I’ll honor that by keeping Jesus as the center of what I need. Luther didn’t die for me – Jesus did! Luther doesn’t forgive me – Jesus does!
Another major weakness of the book is historical selectivism. Not only is Luther made out to be nearly sinless (he knew he needed Jesus and his conscience tormented him; other than that we’re never presented with a hint that the man wasn’t sinless on earth), but in a brief section the book addresses Luther’s friends. It mentions that Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession, a good and faithful confession of what the Bible teaches (69). It praises Melanchthon for his faithfulness, never once mentioning that later in life he abandoned the Lutherans and was in fact quite faithless. Perhaps the author wanted to make it an easy good guys/ bad guys book, but he isn’t afraid of talking about Carlstadt: “There were those who were faithful from beginning to end – and there were also those faithful at one time but not so at another” (71).
The entire problem with this book is the desire to see our heroes as perfect. That’s not how God describes anyone. All have sinned. Me. You. Luther. Abraham. Moses. The only one who never gave in to temptation, though he faced every single one, was Jesus. That makes every person who knows Jesus at the same time a sinner and a saint – and only a saint because Jesus has taken our guilt away. That includes people like Luther.
We would do our kids a world of good to show them that we are all sinners in need of Jesus, and that God is faithful and forgives. Let’s not lift up any hero to perfect status – not Abraham, not Moses, not Luther. If you want to teach your kids something about Luther, skip this book. It’s not good.