Book review: Author dives into Luther’s life, theology

Reading Martin Luther is like watching a buzzsaw cut through traditional spirituality.

But that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I stand firmly in the Presbyterian tradition that Luther kicked off exactly five centuries ago — yet I’ve never read much by or about the man himself; so to honor this year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I dug into one of the many recent titles on Luther: “Prayer, Meditation & Spiritual Trial,” by Gordon L. Isaac.

This slender but helpful volume asserts that its three titular activities — praying, meditating and suffering — constitute the essence of how Christians must live out their faith.

Despite his apparently narrow focus, Isaac offers a broad overview of Luther’s theology, covering such varied topics as bereavement, temptation, the Holy Spirit, marriage, wealth, resurrection, the sacraments, pilgrimage, Satan and death. Similarly, he offers an excellent intro on Luther’s life, including his conversion, his letters, his charity work, his illnesses, his conflicts with the Catholic church, his family life and his voluminous writings.

Far and away the most published author of the 16th century, Luther wrote the equivalent of 1,800 pages per year; his collected works total more than 100 volumes.

Major takeaways from this particular study:

Memorization, though derided by modern-day educators, was prized by medievals as providing a vast internal reservoir to help process new information — and for generating fresh ideas.

In a way that runs similarly counter to today’s thinking, medieval theologians were “indifferent to the pastness of the past.” For Luther, genuine spirituality could bring ancient events — such as communion, or the resurrection of Christ — into such proximity that they always seem to be happening now.

Yet again, meditation is often thought of as internal; but for Luther, the only worthwhile meditation has an outward focus — specifically, on Christ and the Scriptures.

So you can see that even at his remote distance in time, Luther continues to challenge our thinking, often turning standard assumptions upside down.

I was especially struck by his insistence that we cannot know God “as he is in himself,” but only as he’s revealed in Christ; this may explain why trying to think oneself into God’s presence, or achieve a sense of his nearness, often feels quixotic.

Luther also emphasized that faith means clinging to the love and promises of God even when it feels like he’s assailing us — like he’s our enemy. As examples, he cites Job and the New Testament’s Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15).

Likewise, Luther asserts that when we struggle with temptation and despair, we must seek out company, play games, laugh and make merry. In one personal letter to a friend who was wracked with self-doubt, the former monk goes so far as to state, “Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest, or even commit some sin in defiance of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles.”

Not quite what you’d expect from a devout 16th-century pastor.

Isaac stumbles briefly at the end, when he holds up Abraham as a case-study in the three spiritual principles he espouses. I found this section anticlimactic rather than persuasive.

Nevertheless, “Prayer, Meditation & Spiritual Trial” left me hungry for more from this key figure in Christian history.

Fortunately in this anniversary year, there’s no lack of other Luther books to choose from!