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Angela Tilby: Luther, from rebel to doll

27 October 2017


Sensation: the Playmobil figure of Martin Luther, which has become the best-selling toy ever produced by the manufacturers

Sensation: the Playmobil figure of Martin Luther, which has become the best-selling toy ever produced by the manufacturers

A PLAYMOBILE figurine of Martin Luther has been the most successful toy ever manufactured by the German Brandstätter Group. The three-inch plastic model, with its chestnut hair, black gown, quill, and German Bible sold out in its first three days. More than a million little smiley-faced Luthers have now found their way into the hands of children aged four to 11.

From rebel to doll is some transformation. The Luther of history was a complex man with tempestuous emotions and an astonishing capacity for promoting his ideas. In the many appraisals of his life during this Reformation anniversary year, he has at least once been compared to Donald Trump (Comment, 13 April). Like Trump, he brilliantly harnessed the mass media of his day, skilfully exploiting the new technology of printing to push theological pamphlets to the masses. He was also, like Trump, sensitive to criticism and somewhat unpredictable.

His basic message was simple. His grasp of a single idea — justification by faith alone — transformed Western Christianity and the culture of Europe. But he transformed us all in a different way, too. He changed the way in which we thought about what it is to be a human being and a Christian.

The Christianity of the early and medieval Church tended to preach the “conversion of manners”. Human impulses and emotions were to be trained and disciplined as part of our growth into Christ. Self-management and self-control demonstrated the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

Up to a point, Luther would not have denied this. But, at the same time, he was not ashamed of strong emotion, nor was he frightened of his own anger. He did not apologise for utterances and writings that others regarded as intemperate. He was, in other words, a big personality, with his flaws as well as his virtues on display and available to all.

Perhaps that is one reason why the Lutheran Churches bear his name, when other Reformation Churches came to describe themselves by their beliefs: Reformed, Presbyterian, and so on.

Luther believed, of course, that humans could do nothing to save themselves. Our sinful state was a given. The whole project of personal asceticism was potentially dangerous, as it could suggest that we could make ourselves pleasing to God. Regarding us as, at the same time, justified and sinful enabled a less repressive attitude to emotion. There is no part of our make-up which is not flawed, and so perhaps no part that God’s grace cannot find a use for.

Luther’s personality, as well as his theology, filled public space, and, in that sense, he was the first Christian celebrity. That the Playmobile Luther has been such a resounding commercial success reveals something about our culture, which is at the same time both innocent and vaguely perverse.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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