"Reformation Day" soon approaches. On the last Sunday of October, Protestants everywhere (especially Lutherans) celebrate Martin Luther and his (supposed) nailing on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg “95 Theses” protesting outrageous perversions of the Catholic Church (in his day the only church). You might say October 31, 1517 is the birthday of the Protestant Church.
So, to make it a party here at the Comic Lens, let’s enjoy a bit of Martin Luther’s notorious, if now often-overlooked humor. Believe it or not, Brother Martin was a very funny guy! May I suggest a wonderful book, The Wit of Martin Luther by Eric W. Gritsch (2006 Fortress Press), for a full and most entertaining encounter.
Luther used humor to express his theological ideas in all sorts of ways. Perhaps it’s because he struggled with melancholy as well as profoundest opposition to his passionately-held ideas; his humor served as a life-raft keeping his spirits and Spirit buoyed. In addition, humor often proves a great tool for winning the sway of the crowd, be it a crowd of peasants or scholars; perhaps that’s why Luther regularly went for the funny.
And there’s the fact that Martin was known to be a man who loved having a good time and loved letting other people know it, even as he joked. Like when he said, “Tomorrow I have to lecture on the drunkenness of Noah [Gen. 9:20-27], so I should drink enough this evening to be able to talk about that wickedness as one who knows by experience.” (Gritsch, p. 119)
One of my favorite examples of Luther Laughter is the pamphlet he circulated in 1542 against his long-time nemesis Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the man to whom the 95 Theses was delivered 25 years previously (in a letter if not nailed to the church door). Despite all the controversy and criticism the Theses had engendered against Albrecht over the years, the Archbishop continued to engage in what Luther saw as the Church’s ultimate perversion, "selling indulgences," ie offering to forgive sins and offer salvation to those who paid the Church proper sums of money. And now, Albrecht was offering salvation in a new, peculiar way: if payment was made to view, solemnly, an exhibit of his beloved collection of relics (ie purported bits of petrified remains) of dead saints.
Suddenly, there appeared, anonymously, a "New Pamphlet from the Rhine," excitedly announcing an additional exhibit filled with newly discovered relics so special a special indulgence was being offered by the Pope! Included in this fantastic new collection (and I quote):
- three flames from the burning bush on Mount Sinai [Exod. 3:3],
- two feathers and an egg from the Holy Spirit,
- a whole pound of the wind that roared by Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb [1 Kings 19:11],
- five nice strings from the harp of David, and
- three beautiful locks of Absalom's hair, which got caught in the oak and left him hanging [2 Sam. 18:9].
Oh my, grab the kids, the binoculars and all your guilders and hurry in to see...and be saved!!!
In addition, the pamphlet writer said he’d received a tip from a "friend in high places" that hinted the Archbishop had willed a trifle of his pious, loyal heart and whole section of his truthful tongue to his existing relic collection, and whoever paid extra now to view it then would receive forgiveness for all sins committed up to the time of payment and for ten more years. What a unique opportunity to obtain a special state of grace! (Gritsch, pp. 29-30)
Later, after the pamphlet was widely circulated (and guffawed at), Luther admitted he was the rascally author.
Luther once described his mission in this way:
“Perhaps I owe my God and the world another work of folly [besides the Theses]. I intend to pay my debt honestly. And if I succeed I shall for the time being become a court jester. And if I fail, I still have one advantage -- no one need buy me a cap or put scissors to my head [his monk's cowl would serve as a jester's cap]. It is a question of who will put the bells on whom [that is, who is the bigger fool]. …Paul says, "He who wishes to be wise was must become a fool" [1 Cor. 3:18]. Moreover, since I am not only a fool, but also a sworn doctor of Holy Scripture, I am glad for the opportunity to fulfill my doctor's oath, even in the guise of a fool." [Gritsch, p. 21]
Finally, a quick introduction to Luther Laughter would not be complete without mention of Brother Martin’s most notorious and at least one of his favorites subjects for silliness and satire: pooping. Perhaps that's because it fit well with his very "low" theology of humanity, or because he suffered from digestive problems throughout his life, or because he was a lively, earthy guy.
In any case, he once wrote:
"I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away." (Gritsch, p. 7)
No highfalutin' Catholic-sounded Latin phrases were needed to describe his spiritual discipline, no siree!
Luther liked to refer to the bathroom as his "tower room," where he found solace from distress, both physically and spiritually. He talked about his experience in the tower room frequently, as when he once told his dinner guests "The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower at the lavatory." (Gritsch, p. 13). No doubt that made both the conversation and the food that followed that much more tasty (at least for the host!).
And then there's the unforgettable antidote he shared with his wife when he knew he soon would die: “I'm like a ripe stool and the world's like a gigantic anus, and we're about to let go of each other.” (Gritsch, p. 5)
I can hear he and his wife singing it now…. “You say scatological, I say eschatological….”
Happy Reformation Day to you and yours! (Regardless of your stripe of belief!!) May you experience a reforming of your faith and, in honor of Brother Martin, may it include a raucous, scandalous holy laugh or three!!!