Martin Luther, a Master of Media?

Few figures in history are attributed as many profiles as Martin Luther. Books of all kinds portray him not only as a reformer, but as a family man, a preacher, a revolutionary, a heretic, a madman, a prophet, a renegade, or even a “demon in the appearance of a man.” Brand Luther, by Dr. Andrew Pettegree, professor at St. Andrews University, hits bookstores in time for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In this insightful study, Pettegree investigates a neglected aspect of the great reformer: Luther, the master of media.

Although credit for the success of Luther’s Reformation has been attributed to many things—political conspiracy, divine providence, witchcraft, theological aptitude, the will of the people, blind luck, a combination of these, etc.—any study of the period worth its salt will acknowledge how the printing press factored into the Protestant movement. In fact, historians often ask whether there could have been the latter without the former.

This has been the typical historical treatment. But Pettegree comes at it from a different angle: Instead of asking how print shaped the Reformation, he asks how the Reformation shaped print.

His findings enrich our understanding of the Reformation and its enduring influence. He shows it transformed not only the church, but also the world of publishing—which in turn, by lending power to the reader, transformed how we conducted public dialogue and exchanged ideas. The legacy of the Reformation goes beyond the theologian’s studyroom: Every time you grab a paperback at a Barnes & Noble, you are benefiting from the Reformation.

But why should anyone (besides Reformation and/or communication historians) read Pettegree’s study of Luther as a master of media?

The study gives the modern church leader historical precedent for maneuvering their own ministry in a world that is shared, like Luther’s, with new and powerful technology. Any church leader who has fretted over the implications of livestreaming, social media, blogging, or the mobile device for the gospel will find some direction in this book—as well as some challenges. Though Pettegree does not devise modern applications from his study (that will be my undertaking), Brand Luther shows that recovering the gospel was only half the battle: how Luther preached it was just as important.

As Pettegree repeats fondly: “The medium itself was the message.”

Five-hundred years ago, in the town of Wittenberg, great times flowered elsewhere. A German market town, Wittenberg’s modest population of 2,000 would taste few of the riches of the European Renaissance. It was, in the words of its most famous resident, “In termino civilitatis” (i.e., “On the edge of civilization”). Small and ugly, nobody suspected this backwoods town would be the birthplace of the Reformation, nor would they have guessed that in a matter of decades the population would double as the town transformed into one of Europe’s printing powerhouses.

Equally unsuspicious was the Augustinian monk who would be responsible for that transformation. On a Tuesday morning in 1517, he left his monastery home where he worked as a professor and strutted half a mile to the other side of town. He was young, ernest, and lean—perhaps a consequence of the hours he dedicated to prayer, fasting, and frequent trips to the confessional. He was as Catholic as they come.

In his hand, he held a series of ninety-five propositions which he intended to nail to the castle church door. At the time, this was a conventional way to open up an academic debate. If anyone on the street noticed the monk that morning, he was promptly ignored. It was just another dull day in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t trying to start the Protestant Reformation, and he was oblivious to the fact that, as hammer struck nail, he was tolling the arrival of a movement that would ring throughout Europe.

Luther had posted theses in this fashion once before. Only two months prior, he tried to start a debate over scholasticism, which fizzled. However, that event was momentous in one respect: it meant Luther was finally published, though he was getting around to it a little later in life than most academics.

The theses he posted that Tuesday morning were on another controversy: indulgences. An indulgence was a grant by the Pope which could absolve sins or shorten an individual’s time in purgatory (or a relative of the individual), for a small fee. But even here, Luther was not the first to voice his disapproval—brighter and more powerful individuals than he had been criticizing indulgences for decades.

All this to say, Luther—at the time of the 95 Theses—was an obscure, recently-published, unimaginative monk of average education and little means in a periphery podunk. In short, the least likely candidate for profound and far-reaching reform.

As a critic put it: “That a single monk out of such a hole could undertake a Reformation is not to be tolerated.”

The question is this: Why did Luther succeed where so many others failed? What did he do differently than his contemporaries or earlier reformers like John Hus or John Wycliffe? The conventional answer is Luther had a printing press, while Hus and Wycliffe did not. But this doesn’t add up. By the time Luther entered the scene, the printing press was already seventy years old. And yet, printing was far from a thriving industry.

When an entrepreneurial goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, began to experiment with technology that could mass-produce books, “it was by no means clear that this was an invention the world really needed,” writes Pettegree. Books were nothing new, and the firmly-established book trade was centuries old. Each title was painstakingly written by hand and illustrated page by page, then bound together in ornate covers. These were the prized possessions of the few who could afford them, and even the very wealthy seldom owned more than 30 titles (enough to fit snugly on one IKEA bookshelf).

Gutenberg would gain some attention when he displayed some freshly printed Bibles at the Frankfurt Fair in 1454. However, the venture would ultimately bankrupt him. This story would repeat itself for the next seven decades. Fascinated by this new piece of tech, princes throughout Europe wanted printing shops set up in their territories. Soon there were presses in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, England, and Scandinavia. However, most of these closed after publishing only a handful of titles. Early adopters seldom profited.

Success in the printing world came down to one thing: geography. While the speed and precision with which printing houses manufactured books was wondrous, it amounted to several hundred pounds of paper that had to be shipped (somehow!) to the potential buyers scattered across the continent. The traditional method of ordering a book from the local scribe, on the other hand, was flexible and accommodating. For this reason, only printing presses located in large commercial centers managed to thrive. Although there were over 200 print shops in Europe in the 15th century, two-thirds of all books were manufactured by the top twelve.

In conclusion, the printing press did not guarantee the Reformation’s success. If John Hus or John Wycliffe had access to the same technology, it’s plausible their reformations would have played out no differently. First, it’s doubtful they would have been perceptible enough to see the potential of print. Until Luther, it seems no one did. Second, even if they were perceptive enough, it’s unlikely they would have been willing to break (or even thought to break) the conventions which Luther bulldozed.

It’s hard to believe within fifty years Wittenberg would, according to Pettegree, “defy all the rules of print economics and become a center of the book world.” Defy, indeed. The printing press in Wittenberg was one of those small-town, mostly useless purchases. Its distance from Europe’s large cities was a great disadvantage for the Reformation. But Luther brought something unique to the field: himself.

Luther would almost single-handedly rewrite the rules of publishing by inventing the world’s first church brand.

It began with the 95 Theses. When printed in Wittenberg, the editions were sloppy, without any embellishments, and the poor layout design hurt readability. However, after receiving copies from Luther, enthusiastic friends had the Theses published in major cities, such as Leipzig and Basel. The latter produced an exquisite edition which intellectuals weren’t ashamed to give as gifts to peers. (Desiderius Erasmus sent a copy of this edition to his English friend, Thomas More.) In this manner, Luther’s ideas entered the bloodstream of Europe’s intellectual community. He remembered this lesson: his books needed to be as beautiful as their contents if anyone was going to pick them up.

As they gained attention, the 95 Theses triggered some negative responses.

Johann Tetzel was commissioned by the Catholic Church to raise funds for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which he fulfilled by selling indulgences. Dissertations like Luther’s 95 Theses typically didn’t have a long shelf life. Usually, they were published by young minds aspiring for higher academic recognition, so they had little purpose beyond that formal academic occasion. But Luther’s theses were reprinted three times in three separate cities. “What is happening is unheard of!” Luther confided to a friend. And he was right. His writing had surprising mileage. And it was hurting Tetzel’s business.

In response, Tetzel wrote a rebuttal, claiming Luther’s 95 Theses were “presumptuous” and “erroneous.” Though fires were being lit, the entire ordeal up to this point still retained the character of an academic debate. What Luther did next brought that to a swift end.

Luther had never been interested in mere debate. He may have been a professor, and he may have enjoyed intellectual sparring, but he saw himself first and foremost as a minister to his flock. His interests and concerns were primarily pastoral, not academic. To Luther, the sale of indulgences was not only theologically wrong, but it exploited the flock of the church he was charged by God to care for. In Luther’s mind, this wasn’t just an issue that needed to be puzzled out by a bunch of dusty professors. It was a public issue, too.

So it followed, Luther penned his rebuttal to Tetzel’s rebuttal in the common vernacular, German.

Latin was the language of the church and the academy. Anyone who worked in ministry, education, or politics could read, speak, and write in Latin. It was a universal language, of sorts: a way to overcome Europe’s many linguistic obstacles. It was not only the tongue of theology, but of law, science, and international trade and politics. Luther’s original 95 Theses and Tetzel’s rebuttal were both written in Latin.

When Luther broke this convention, suddenly this became more than an academic dispute. It burst onto the public space. It wasn’t merely debated in offices and cloisters; now it was discussed in the streets and disputed inside homes. His rebuttal, Sermon on Indulgence and Grace, was an instant bestseller. Wittenberg’s modest little printing press would churn out three editions; within a year, it would be published in four major cities; Leipzig alone would reprint it four times. Public opinion turned against Tetzel so that he had to flee to Leipzig for protection. The Reformation was now underway.

Surprisingly, the clergy were not the first to see the Reformation coming. It didn’t take long after the 95 Theses for Europe’s printers to see Luther as a profitable business venture. They took notice of his Reformation long before Rome did. They pounced greedily on anything he wrote. Since these were the days before copyright or intellectual property laws, Luther never received a penny for his writings (later, he would be offered compensation, but he would refuse, he claimed, in order to retain his intellectual independence), and printers imitated each other shamelessly if a certain style or genre was doing well. Subsequently, four years after nailing the 95 Theses, Luther would stand trial in the Diet of Worms in 1521 to answer for his writings—but only the most controversial twenty-five of them.

By the end of 1522, Luther would have published 160 different titles.

Despite being unpublished for the first thirty years of his life, Luther wrote more in the span of a decade than some modern bloggers. He held the reigns on public discourse and had an influence over the German people that surprised even him. The average German reader now owned as many books, if not more, than the average prince from a decade before, and most of them had never owned a book before. Most of these books, if not all, were written by Luther or one of his fellow reformers, such as Philip Melanchthon. As printers rushed to meet the demand for Protestant literature, the Reformation took on the character of a literary enterprise—advancing through and fueled by the book.

All books of Luther’s day had three common traits: long, expensive, and Latin. The printing press changed nothing. Before Luther, books published by printers were practically identical to those published by scribes. The latter was still the model. Printed books still dealt in the same academic subjects, targeted the same (Latin-reading) consumers, and, due to their monstrous page count, made themselves extremely difficult to transport in bulk (and therefore sell). Luther would undermine each of these historic traits, inventing a new literary genre which exploited the strengths of the printing press. Thus was born the Flugschriften (i.e., “pamphlet”), a precursor to the modern paperback. These books were short, cheap, and German.

Luther’s first bestseller, Sermon on Indulgence and Grace, is a classic example of a Flugschriften. It was entitled a “sermon” somewhat ironically, since sermons of the period were an endurance test for preacher and congregant alike, but Luther’s rebuttal could be finished in ten minutes. While academic prose was dense and rambling, Luther’s was tight and bright. Writing in a manner that appealed to laymen readers, he dropped the dense and grand prose of an academic and opted for a rigorous but clear style that was startling and enjoyable. His sermons still make excellent armchair reading for Christians today.

Early and often, Luther complained of the quality of the workmanship coming out of his little Wittenberg print shop. This suggests he was no mere visionary. He oversaw every step of the publishing process. He wrote to his friend Spalatin about an edition of his On Confession he received from the publisher:

“I cannot say how unhappy and disgusted I am with the printing. I wish I had sent nothing in German. It is printed so poorly, so carelessly and confusedly, to say nothing of the bad typefaces and paper….What good does it do to work hard if such sloppiness and confusion causes other printers [remember, these were the days before copyright laws; Luther fully expected other printers to plagiarize his work] to make more mistakes that are worse? I do not want the Gospels and Epistles to be sinned against in this way; it is better to hide them than to bring them out in such a form.”

Luther believed the medium should reflect the beauty of the message. One can imagine him buzzing over the workers of the print shop, reviewing their work, giving orders, offering criticisms, and approving final copies. Over time, the design and aesthetics of his works improved and grew more distinctive. Columns had inviting thickness, the font was carefully selected, and white-space was used tactfully to guide the eye and give it room to breathe between lines of text. His Flugschriften eventually settled on a quarto format, when two sheets of paper are printed then folded into four. Since paper was the most expensive part of any book, this cut down the price significantly (an obsession of Luther’s: he was known to split one work into two smaller works to make it more affordable). Readers often purchased numerous Flugschriften at a time, then bound them together at home like a custom anthology.

Perhaps the best move Luther made was commissioning the artist Lucas Cranach to design the covers. Cranach was the most prominent artist of the period who never visited Italy. Though a contemporary of legends like Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, Cranach never studied with them, and subsequently was never influenced by the Italian Renaissance style. His work was distinctively German, which made his covers pop out on shelves. (Every woodcut Cranach designed could be used several times like a stamp, which was less expensive than inking each design by hand.) So significant was Cranach’s contribution that Pettegree claims, “It was Cranach who would be the authentic creator of Brand Luther.”

Finally, Luther made certain elements a mainstay of the book. Each Flugschriften had a neat, orderly title page (rather than immediately jumping into the content, like most Flugschriften of the day) which spelled out the subject and, if Luther wrote the book, the author’s name. This last element was not normal. Authors were seldom featured on covers unless it was a work of great importance and antiquity, such as a classic. However, Luther had become a brand. People would purchase a Flugschriften simply because he wrote it, and the printers cashed in on that fact by placing the author’s name front and center. Other authors began to do the same, and the practice has carried over to the modern day.

Reformation literature offered an alternative archetype for the publishing world. Due to the real profit of Reformation literature, design and ornamental features formerly limited to only the priciest books could now appear on pamphlets that sold for a few pennies. The Protestant Flugschriften was not only a delightful and profound read—it was a miniature work of art you could identify at a glance.

In conclusion, it wasn’t just the existence of the printing press that made the Reformation a success. Due credit must be given to the Reformation for what it did to the printing press. In the hands of Wycliffe or Hus, it might not have been nearly as effective. However, by applying—and in some respects, inventing—church brand marketing, Luther’s Reformation became an enduring triumph.

Applications for the Modern Church Leader

I. Technological adoption should be pastorally-minded

Many of Luther’s most controversial and daring innovations were preempted by his pastoral vocation. Most notably, his decision to carry out his theological disputes in the common vernacular essentially made his objections a public affair, accessible not only to intellectuals, clergy, and princes, but also to those against whom these injustices were being perpetrated. Consider your own flock, as well as your broader community. Whether it’s as serious as a social injustice or as minor as a communications pain-point, what tools are at your disposal either to solve the problem or bring about a greater good?

II. Technology is not intrinsically good

This is something even the most forward-thinking pastor knows, but let me reiterate it. Some might imagine that technology is salvific by nature, which could have some devastating results for your community. The printing press was essential for the renewal of the gospel, true—but it is also what made indulgences such a profitable practice in the first place. It is no accident that the most controversial teachings about indulgences corresponded with advances in printing technology. Indulgences were cheap to print and easy to distribute: they fit on a single page, and each page represented a substantial return. Naturally, the church favored teachings that were lucrative (if dubious), but because of the printing press indulgences acquired a place of prominence and controversy that may not have been possible before. In some respects, print brought out key doctrinal errors of the medieval church in devastating relief. As much as print made the Reformation, it made the problems the Reformation set out to correct.

III. Proper use of technology, not abstinence from it, is the policy historically taken by successful church leaders

Luther is just one example among many of this trend. Luther did not invent the printing press; he just used it better than his enemies or predecessors. Moreover, he didn’t keep his head down, write his rebuttals, and let the publishers do as they wished. He played an active part in the publishing process. He was a definite adopter.

IV. The Church has a role in determining how technology is used

There is no rule dictating we have to use technology the same way, or for the same reasons, as the rest of the world. The Church is in a position to act as a patron of technological advances; following Luther’s example, we can be leaders here rather than mere beneficiaries.

V. The medium must suit the message

If your message is beautiful, then so must be your delivery. If your message is for everyone, then present it as such. Luther’s 95 Theses was ignored by the intellectual community until someone republished it in an aesthetically-pleasing edition. We all owe that individual a great deal. What do the colors and other design elements in your sanctuary, website, social media pages, and mobile app say about your church?

VI. Your church is a print shop waiting to happen

The arrival of the internet and the personal computer means that every church, and each one of its members, can be a publisher. Your church is a center ripe for the production of content—the most important content there is. Moreover, you have a far larger audience than Luther ever did. He wrote in German for his fellow Germans, but you can bring the gospel to a laptop in the furthest country or to a smartphone in the darkest alleyway in your city.

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