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Weaponizing Words, the Lutheran Way

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation it is worthwhile to try to enter the mind space of its spearhead, Martin Luther. He is a fascinating study for any lover of language because his entire conflict with and banishment from Catholicism were conducted through speech and writing—in multiple languages. No stronger weapons were involved or required for him to be the originator of a schism of thought in Christian theology and ecclesiology that still reverberates today. His achievement may provide inspiration for those who find themselves limited in resources but well-stocked with passionate ideas.

Luther's seminal act, in the modern version of the story, was his nailing a list of questions for discussion on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, traditionally said to have happened on October 31, 1517. Today these propositions and questions are popularly called the 95 Theses (and that's thesis in sense one, "an unproved statement put forward as a premise in an argument"). It's in dispute whether Luther actually nailed the list to the church door or anywhere, but it is known that he composed his points and questions (in Latin) and sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz at around the same time. Try for a moment to put yourself into the mind of Father Martin. What would possess a man to formulate and write down 95 points of controversy about the organization that employed him and send them to his direct supervisor? What would be the analog of your doing that today, and what would be the likely outcome?

By Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder - The Bridgeman Art Library, Public Domain

A possible outcome, in the modern cynical view, is that you would lose your job, the list would disappear, and nothing would change. Luther did lose his job; but the list certainly did not disappear, and a whole lot changed. Luther's list went viral, or at least the 16th-century equivalent of it: the 95 Theses were widely translated into then-current languages and were known all over Europe within two months. This fact lends credence the idea the Luther made an effort to ensure that his list came to the attention of others besides the archbishop, and perhaps he actually did the equivalent in his day of posting it online (that is, nail it to the door of a church).

If so, he was banking on a much more capacious attention span than the one that prevails today. As a listicle—and really, one of the great listicles of all time—Luther's theses lack two essential elements: a comfortably small number of items to digest (the ideal listicle has fewer than ten) and a subject hook that makes you think your life will be improved if you click. Had Luther been writing today, he would have felt compelled to come up with a better title—perhaps 95 Reasons the Catholic Church Has Lost Its Way—but even that may not seem clickworthy. A modern-day Luther would probably have to opt for something like Stuck in Purgatory? Why Not Pay the Pope?

To go a little further down the road of looking at Luther through the lens of modernity, it seems accurate to say that his mental state was one of cognitive dissonance: the thing that happens when you try to hold, and perhaps to reconcile, two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas. Keep in mind that believers of his day did not have the smorgasbord of denominations and faiths to choose from that we moderns enjoy: there was only one believer's game in town, and that was the Catholic Church. Luther's dilemma, as a priest and therefore a spokesperson and frontman for that organization, was that he could not reconcile his understanding of scripture (which he read in Latin and in the original languages) with the conduct of the Pope (Leo X) and his direct representatives.

Luther's bones to pick with the bosses were extremely detailed and specific. It is a challenge for any modern reader to get through the lot of them without getting a distinct feeling of TL;DR. He came to a very different understanding of the scriptural underpinnings of words and ideas that were central to Catholic doctrine—penance, righteousness, and justification among them—and he seemed convinced that the Pope and his inner circle were assuming a great deal more authority as the sole interpreters of God's word, and as dispensers of his judgment, than any scriptural account could warrant. But what could he do about it, as a very low man on the totem pole? If we can begin to appreciate the profundity of his undertaking, perhaps we can also see a model of what we can do when we find ourselves at odds with an authority who exercises overwhelming and detrimental control in our lives—a situation that everyone, at one time or another, will find themselves in. Here’s what worked for Luther.

Strategy number one: document everything and ensure that copies exist. Luther noted the conflicts he saw between scripture and priestly behavior diligently, systematically, and in a scholarly way. He distilled his observations and meditations into a list of very specific questions that clearly point up the conflict between his understanding of the Bible and the conduct he saw. Take, for example, thesis number 84: "What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, because of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love's sake?'"

Strategy number two: when you are called to account (as you inevitably will be if you attempt to stir the pot even in a fraction of the way that Luther did) be well prepared to answer, and do not back down. Here is the statement (in translation) that Luther made at the Diet of Worms in response to charges of heresy against him:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

With this statement, Luther sealed his fate: he was declared an outlaw, and but for the efforts of his supporters, might well have met his end soon after. Instead, he was taken into protection, where he proceeded to translate the Bible into German and began to lay the foundations of the religious denomination that still bears his name.

It is surely some comfort to note that the listicle you write for your situation need not be nearly as long, detailed, and consequential as the one that Luther wrote. It is also reassuring to reflect that today we enjoy freedoms of conscience and speech that would have been dangerous to exercise in Luther's time. But what is unchanged from Luther's time is that we may all, at some time, come into conflict with authorities who are both powerful and wrong. Luther's 400-year-old method still stands out as an example of how you can put words to work for you.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.