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Rage, rage . . . or not?

27 October 2017

Five hundred years after the Reformation began with Martin Luther, Robin Baird-Smith reflects on holy anger


No stain on his scutcheon? Engraving by Hurel of Luther’s cell at Wartburg castle

No stain on his scutcheon? Engraving by Hurel of Luther’s cell at Wartburg castle

DURING the period 1521-22, Mar­tin Luther was in Wartburg Castle in Thuringia, working hard at his translation of the Bible into Ger­man. We learn from contemporary accounts that he was plagued by de­mons, depression, and general malaise, and that he sweated a great deal. He believed fervently in the devil, which today we would de­­scribe as that de­­structive force in the human psyche which can lead to a person’s being swallowed up; and this can lead past the point of no return — the point where all hope is abandoned.

Legend says that Martin Luther, in a rage, hurled his inkpot at the devil. We may sup­pose the devil derived some satisfaction from this. Perhaps the devil’s greatest tri­umph is that we should either take him too seriously — or fail to take him seriously enough. Luther would have thrown the inkpot at the devil only if he took him extremely seri­ously. (In other contexts, much of Luther’s rage was directed against his father, who was both a bully and a tyrant; and, famously, against the Pope.)

Years ago, when tourists visited Luther’s cell, the guide would ident­ify the dark stain next to the desk of the Reformer as the mark of where Luther threw the inkpot at the Devil. If you visit Luther’s cell today, a pin-prick of a hole in the wall will be proudly pointed out by the guide; but there is no sign of black ink. Maybe it is just a legend, but legends often have meaning. Certainly, it was so well known that it was in­­cluded in a famous collection of stories by the Brothers Grimm.


TODAY, psychotherapists define depression as rage or anger turned in on the self. At first sight, there­fore, Luther’s gesture might appear to be therapeutic: at last he could express his rage.

The manifestations of rage in public in con­temporary society are many and diverse, from road rage to computer rage. Rage is aimed at children, lovers, parents, authorities, subord­inates, and strangers; and at ideological, reli­gious, and political causes.

Murderous rage generates feel­ings that one would not normally bring to their obvious conclusion; but such feelings are standard liter­ary fare, not least for the Ancient Greeks. They puzzled over these urges, and explored their permuta­tions in myth and drama. Oedipus kills his father in a fit of road rage.


IT IS in this context that the Swiss Protestant theologian Lytta Basset has coined the phrase “Holy Rage”. She draws heavily on the Jewish Bible. So much of the relationship between God and Man in the Old Testament is a run­ning battle, an argument. This can be essential in human growth; for the gift of God himself must be found in our feel­ings. He abides at the very deepest level of who we are.

We can use our anger and aggres­sion as a powerfully creative force. Job shook his fist in anger at his suf­fering: “Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the righteous suffer?”’(Job 21.7-15). In return, God delivers a coup de poing: “Where were you when I created the world?” And, later: “Proud man, know you not that you know nothing?” At its most pro­ductive, rage against God can be a route to trusting independence. It is a call to spiritual adulthood and maturity.

When God says to Job, “Gird up thyself like a man and answer thou me” (Job 38.3), this is anger. Re­­member the words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his book School for Prayer: “To meet God means to enter into a cave with a tiger — it’s not a pussy cat that you meet, it is a tiger. You must enter into it, and not just seek information about it.”

Job understood this: “When I say ‘My bed shall comfort me, my couch shall ease my com­­plaint,’ then thou scarest me with dreams and terrifi­est me through visions. I loathe it. I would not live always. Let me alone” (Job 7.16).

There is no more effective mod­ern por­trayal of holy rage than the episode in Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to St Matthew when Jesus enters the Temple and casts out the merchants and moneylenders. The viewer detects graphically the slow rise to anger on the part of Jesus, to the point where it turns into viol­ence. This is rage as a form of primal energy.


AS THE years advanced, Luther began to see that the most effective weapon against the devil was ridi­cule rather than rage. Even anger can pass into ridicule: “Behold man has become as one of us,” God says (Genesis 3.22). And God is good at ridicule.

But the devil cannot bear it: he cannot en­dure not being taken seri­ously. If you hurl a pot of ink at him, you are taking him very seri­ously. Humour, mockery, and ridicule are means of keeping our­selves and others in pro­portion. “Satan”, Luther wrote, “may be over­come with ridicule, but in faith, and not in pre­sumption. If he does not stop to vex me but faces me with my sins, I reply ‘Dear Devil, I have heard the record. But I have com­mitted far more sins than stand in your record.’

“If he does not stop accusing me as a sinner I respond, ‘Holy Satan, pray for me. You have never done anything evil and alone are holy. Go to God and acquire grace for your­self. If you want to make me right­eous, I tell you ‘Physi­cian, heal thyself.’’”


MURIEL SPARK’s novel The Only Problem has a modern-day setting but is based on a close study of the book of Job. “The Book of Job has always fascinated me,” she wrote. “Job was a rich man, an establish­ment figure who endured all that suffering. Along came his friends, who told him he must have done something wrong, but he said ‘No, I think my character is rather good, actually.’” But, she continued, “I do not moralise in my novels — maybe I should, but I don’t. The literature of savage ridicule is the only weapon we have left.”

Maybe there is a lesson in this for us to- day. In the face of all the things in the world that plague us, we, too, should turn our rage into ridicule.

And perhaps we should not take ourselves too seriously, either.

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