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Review of Two Graphic Novels about Luther

Review of Two Graphic Novels about Luther

Rich Melheim et al., Luther: The Graphic Novel
(Stillwater: Faith Inkubators, 2016), 72 pp.
Daniel D. Maurer and Caitlin Like, Papa Luther: A Graphic Novel
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), 88 pp.

Reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

I’m still a bit stunned that it’s actually 2017. We’ve been building up to this anniversary for so long, and now it’s just a few months until the exact 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses.

The language to refer to this anniversary is telling in itself: we far more often say that it’s the anniversary of “the Reformation” or “the beginning of the Reformation” than of the Ninety-Five Theses. But why, exactly, does “the Reformation” begin with the Ninety-Five Theses? We could say it started with Luther’s “tower experience,” whenever and whatever exactly that was, but certainly before 1517. Or we could say, like the German scholar Oswald Bayer, that Luther’s real theological change came in 1518 when he shifted the emphasis from human repentance to Christ’s trustworthy word as the locus of certainty. Some have said the Reformation started with Luther’s trip to Rome in 1510 or 1511, but we could just as easily say the Reformation really began with Luther’s condemnation in 1521, since up to that time he was still a “good Catholic,” or at least technically still in good standing in the Roman church. Does the Reformation begin with a conversion experience, a public act, a defiance of authority, or condemnation by authority? It depends on what we need the Reformation to be.

The point is: the very choice of what and when to commemorate is telling. It tells us what we value and why. And the flood of all kinds of commemorative publications, films, musical works, and events have revealed a great deal about what Lutherans and other fans of Luther and the Reformation value.

To select just one genre among many to demonstrate the point, let’s take a look at two graphic novels that have come out in the last year to tell Luther’s story. Graphic novels have grown in sophistication and many are written for adults now, but these two Luther books are clearly meant for younger audiences—confirmation age and up. This is itself an important point, because these graphic novels are meant to retell the story of the Lutheran community and shore up young people’s Lutheran identity. The results are divergent, to say the least.

Papa Luther

This graphic novel, from Fortress, takes a quite a different tactic from the usual by telling the story from the point of view of two of Luther’s children. Here Luther the family man is front and center, and his explosive encounter with church authorities is a matter of memory, an opportunity for helping the children understand what’s at stake in being Christian. It’s an intriguing tactic: since remembering is what we’re doing this year anyway, remembering becomes the task of the story itself, but the framework is family life.

Hans (the oldest boy) and Lenchen (the oldest girl) are the main protagonists; other Luther children appear only in passing. The two eldest quarrel and struggle with each other, as siblings do, and Martin and Katharina have to figure out how to deal with them. Unfortunately, Katie comes off a bit crabby, in contrast to a warm, wise Martin.

The opening brother-sister battle elicits from the senior Luther a retelling of the parable of the prodigal son, to describe God’s love and why we should therefore love one another. The kids object that the story is both unfair and unrealistic—whether you take the father’s or the older brother’s point of view. Luther replies: “The point is that God considers us all God’s own children. God forgives. Period.”

I admit I was a bit skeptical thus far. It sounded like the usual American truncated shorthand of the gospel, a sort of human-rights acceptance of all, followed by a version of unconditional love that does not call forth repentance or regeneration. But, even as Luther goes on to mention how he didn’t always know that God was loving and forgiving, he adds, “Just as God disciplines us from time to time, like children, so you mother and I discipline you. It’s all a matter of believing in God’s promises to us in baptism. It’s about… faith!” To drive the point home, after another sibling eruption, Luther has both kids shovel horse manure—both the perpetrator, as a punishment, and the victim, as a lesson: forgiveness is hard work, too.

In most respects, the representation of Luther is pretty solid. Small crosses at the end of a quote indicate that it’s his own words (or closely based on them). The words put in Luther’s mouth are basically accurate, too. God is the one “who writes the good word in our hearts through Scripture!” And the tower experience is summarized: “It wasn’t about how good I was—it was about how good God already is. I could trust and hope in that fact!”

So far so good, theologically speaking. The graphic novel is not without its errors, though. It perpetuates the most common misinterpretation of indulgences, when Luther recounts: “I honestly could not believe what I was hearing. Tetzel was making promises of forgiveness and salvation by collecting money for the church! God doesn’t work that way. Forgiveness should be—forgiveness is—free!” A footnote clarifies: “The church of Luther’s time taught that those who hadn’t ‘paid’ enough for their sins would go to purgatory for a time before they were allowed into heaven.” A little later, still talking about Tetzel, Luther says, “The problem was he was promising something that was false—that people could buy their salvation—and that of their loved ones who had already died—by simply giving the church money!” Well, Tetzel may have led people on that way, and people may have believed that’s what indulgences were for, but it’s a shame to allow another generation to go on with the misunderstanding. Indulgences reduced the time of punishment in purgatory but did not in any way purchase salvation. And it’s worth recalling that, in 1517, Luther’s objection was not that purgatory didn’t exist or that punishment couldn’t be paid off, but that the truly penitent would rejoice in anything that refined their souls toward holiness, punishment included!

In addition, there’s a little overemphasis on the hard childhood, and Luther’s own parents are described as “peasants, commoners”—when in fact his father was a well-to-do entrepreneur in copper mining, which is why he could afford to send young Martin to good schools and university. Luther reports that in the monastery he had “daily prayer to attend—eight times a day!” as if that were a fate worse than death. Actually, the later Luther reported his love of the daily office long after he was released from his vows.

And as is usually the case in telling this story, there also is a bit of disdain for the medieval church as an institutional reality. “I never intended on destroying the church with my complaints,” Luther says—a bit ambiguously, as if he did in fact destroy the church after all. “In Germany, people were excited. I showed them that they had direct access to God’s freely given grace!” “Direct access” is an unfortunate choice of terms—“access through word and sacrament” would hit closer to the mark. Cardinals are described as “big-headed, red-hat-wearers”—though Cajetan was the brightest light of his day, and he didn’t interact with Luther in person because of direct command from the hierarchy not to; but actually he studied Luther’s writings at length and tried to understand them. Another peculiar sentence asserts, “Heresy is when a person disagrees with the pope and the church’s official point of view.” It sounds kind of sexy that way, at least to the American cult of rebellion and counterculture. “A false view of God that leads away from the gospel” would constitute a better definition. And finally, the unwillingness to let Luther refer to God as “He,” with double locutions in its place, sounds awkward in Luther’s mouth.

However, the story overall ends up being poignant and in an unexpected way shows what’s at stake. Hans and Lenchen ruminate on providence, trying to figure out why there is suffering when God is good. Time passes, Hans goes away to school, and Lenchen catches an illness she can never quite shake. Three letters from her to Hans are presented. For all their squabbling, we see now, there was real love between them. The story draws to a close when Hans receives a letter telling him to hurry home because Lenchen is dying. He makes it in time to see her—but Lenchen dies all the same. Father and son are confronted with their mutual grief. What of the gospel now? We hear that God’s promises hold fast even in the face of loss and grief, and Hans is comforted.

The final page offers one of Luther’s loveliest sayings: “This life therefore is not perfection, but growth in God’s love. Not health, but healing. Not being, but becoming. Not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we will be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is ongoing. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet shine in glory, but God will make all things new.”

Luther: The Graphic Novel

This other graphic novel is a production of FaithInk, an otherwise reputable outfit doing good stuff with confirmation curricula. But if this graphic novel is indicative of what the organization thinks the Reformation is all about, I’d have to advise thinking twice before proceeding any further. Because the whole book is an exercise in Lutheran dispensationalism.

Yes, dispensationalism, as in a theory of the meaning of church history that selectively and self-aggrandizingly construes events to build up a theology of glory for one’s own institutions. Lutherans normally love to mock this kind of thing, especially as seen in the Left Behind series, Jehovah’s Witnesses, old-school Adventists, doctrinaire Marxists, and pretty much anyone else who claims to have cracked the code of history. So it is not only ironic but pretty darn odious to see it on display in a graphic novel meant to form the historical imagination of our young adults.

The dispensationalism begins on the cover with the dramatic announcement: “The Medieval Era ended and the Modern Era began with one stormy monk!” So we learn right off the bat that history is neatly divided into epochs, and that our own Luther was the lynchpin of the ages, the first modern man—disregarding the last century of scholarship that has worked valiantly to undo that old stereotype, which implicitly sets Lutherans and other Protestants as the vanguards of progress and leaves Catholics in the dust. The inside cover goes on to say, “Human rights and an individual’s conscience meant nothing. Any dissent could land you in the stocks or find you facing the Inquisition and the stake…” No mention of the fact that the very concept of “human rights” didn’t exist then, or that “conscience” was a clear and important concept in medieval theology, which is exactly why Luther invoked it at his trial. Facts must give way to the dispensational scheme!

One might expect that such drama would be only on the cover, to draw readers in. But no; on it goes. The first page depicts Jan Hus screaming in agony as he burns at the stake—but also prophesying the coming of another, the swan that won’t be cooked as Hus the goose was. This is, indeed, a long-standing myth, and one that Luther’s own contemporaries liked to invoke. But why begin this graphic novel this way? Because it sets up a historical pattern and establishes the institutional church as essentially a torture machine of that regressive “medieval” period, soon to be replaced by enlightened “modern” times.

In the next section the dispensationalism lets up a bit. Whew. Unfortunately, what takes its place is Unaltered Erik Erikson—setting up Luther’s drama not only as historical but psychological and familial. It’s all about his father’s disapproval, his mother’s refusal to see him, the sense of total rejection. Old Hans Luther is shown actually slapping Luther in front of his friends at his first mass. This is apparently why Luther chose the Augustinians, because they are the “harshest” (not true, either of the Augustinians or of Luther’s choice), and the abbot is shown continually telling Luther to shut up in the rudest of tones. Luther takes the hint and starts scourging his back to a bloody mess instead.

The agonizing sense of his father’s rejection recurs through the story. Maybe they thought this would hold adolescents’ interest better than the truth? Even Luther’s tower experience—which finally has some theological validity, citing Romans 1:16, Isaiah 55, and Ephesians 2:8, and speaking of how God sent Christ to take sinners’ place—begins with Luther’s recollection of “parents who were convinced their son could not survive without regular thrashings.” This is all exaggerated well beyond what the historical record shows.

When the Ninety-Five Theses episode rolls around, the graphic novel does (and unusually, so they get extra credit for this) acknowledge that indulgences do not buy salvation but release from punishment in purgatory. A dramatic nailing is depicted, and that takes us back to the dispensationalism again. “It appears Jan Hus has risen from the ashes,” somebody says. Another person at an inn declares, in response to Luther’s treatise on the Babylonian Captivity, “The church doesn’t own us! The pope doesn’t own us! The state doesn’t even own us! We are free people in Christ!” You can be sure to excite a 21st-century American audience with a declaration of freedom—no need to qualify what “free” means, or that “ownership” was not exactly the issue at stake. By the time Luther burns the papal bull, we are told, “There was no turning back. The Protestant Reformation had begun.” And at the end of the trial at Worms: “With those three words—‘Here I Stand’—the Medieval Era ended and the Modern Era began.” Why, exactly? We’re not told. Perhaps something to do with conscience, but the casual reader will take away the message that the issue at stake is defying authority—which, of course, is self-evidently good.

More of the dispensational stuff appears as the story continues. Confusing matters even more, a Roman church official reports, “The reincarnation of Jan Hus has somehow managed to disappear before we could… ah… disappear him.” Reincarnation? Seriously? During Luther’s stay at the Wartburg, we’re told, “other bold Christians picked up the torch of reform”—again, because “reform” as such is self-evidently good—neglecting the small fact that Luther protested vigorously against their reforms!

Then a bit of self-justification for present practice creeps in with descriptions of worship: “Monotonous chants were replaced with beautiful hymns. Lutes—the guitars of the day—were welcomed into worship along with other instruments. Dramas and clowns emerged to tell the Bible stories. Clergy stopped wearing robes.” You can almost see “Godspell” being performed in the Castle Church chancel. Again, never mind the fact that Luther was a slow, careful, conservative reformer—only what was openly in defiance of the gospel had to be eliminated, and even then only slowly, with consideration for weak consciences. But why let weak consciences stand in the way of the juggernaut of history?

One brief page overlooks embarrassing artifacts of this progressive history—iconoclasm and the Peasants’ Revolt—just as later on we got another quick throwaway concession to the ugly facts: “[Luther] also wrote some terrible and hateful words… against the Pope, the Turks, the Jews, the Anabaptists, and anyone who didn’t happen to agree with his interpretations of what he considered sound Biblical doctrine.” The gut-wrenching action is also momentarily replaced by a ridiculous romantic scene between Luther and Katharina, and then depictions of their loving family life that would do a Mormon TV commercial proud.

Perhaps the strangest manifestation of the Lutheran dispensationalism at work, however, is that the end of the book shifts attention almost entirely to Charles V! Oh sure, we’ve got something about the Catechisms, and a tossed-off reference to Henry VIII of England, but a whole lot more about Charles sacking Rome, then regaining the pope’s support in the lead-up to the Diet of Augsburg. The end of the story is not Luther’s death at all but Charles’s, almost as if the drama was really the emperor’s attempt to halt history’s shift from medieval to modern. We are told: “The emperor had defeated the French, the Turks, and a scheming pope, but he could never manage to defeat the Protestants and their stubborn death-defying faith. The idea whose time had come—the righteousness of God as a free gift in Christ apart from works—was stronger than sword, flame, torture, and Inquisition. It could not be silenced” (my italics—you see why).

And then on the very last page comes the crowing event of the whole Reformation story: “Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, retired to a monastery in the remote mountains of western Spain. The most powerful ruler in the world—whose kingdoms covered 4 million square kilometers and stretched from the Americas to the edge of Asia—lived out his last days in relative seclusion, unaware of the fact that under his watch, the Medieval Era ended and the Modern Era began. And perhaps the biggest irony in history: three years to the week of signing the Augsburg Confession—the Augsburg Concession—the king who could neither roast a goose nor silence a monk, died alone in a solitary monk’s cell, surrounded by a wall full of clocks. Tick tock.” Well, barring the fact that the author couldn’t tell the difference between the Augsburg Confession in 1530 and the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, what in heaven’s name is the message being taught here? Evidently, that Luther was the vanguard of history, and that’s the most important thing about the Reformation.

The book is not entirely without charm. The illustration is vivid; a particularly nice part is when Luther rides into Worms, throngs all around him, singing. “A Mighty Fortress.” He calls out, “One little word shall fell him.” Somebody asks, “What one little word is that?” The answer: “Jesus!”

But Jesus is pretty much absent from the story; he is not the point. And to a large extent, Luther is not the point either—or else some better care might have been taken to the facts straight. The point seems to be socializing Lutheran youth into identifying all that is modern and progressive with their own religious tradition and scorning all that is medieval (and probably all that is Catholic) with regressive torture-hungry authoritarianism. And here I thought ecumenism had served its purpose.

In Summary…

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Luther is too famous for his own good. He is no longer a person but an inkblot test, and people see in him what they want to see—much like Albert Schweitzer observed about attempts to unearth the “historical Jesus.” However, all things considered, we know a lot more from a lot more sources about Luther than we do about Jesus, so that is not a valid excuse. Of course we are always going to bring our present-day questions to the past, but the past is not there to confirm our present. We should return to the past to undermine ourselves, to get another view on our all-consuming reality, to dethrone ourselves.

Even for Lutherans, there is so much in Luther’s story to undo our present theologies of glory, and no one is exempt. Luther: The Graphic Novel will not do that; it will only confirm biases and falsehoods for another generation. Papa Luther is a better choice, if one wants to go the graphic novel route, and it will more successfully lead to meaningful conversations about God and the gospel.

But maybe the real takeaway here is: please do your homework. We’ve only got a few months left, so use them wisely. Read a real biography of Luther (Scott Hendrix’s or Hans Wiersma’s revision of James Kittelson’s are both excellent choices). Or read Luther himself (my top choice is the Large Catechism, and there’s no end of great reading still available on the Luther Reading Challenge). Five hundredth anniversaries don’t roll around every day, after all.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.
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