Martin Luther is arguably the most important historical figure of the last thousand years. “Luther” won’t be the best movie in 1,000 years, but it is a good film about a great story.
“Luther” opens with a law student caught in a spectacular lightning storm. He is so terrified that he prays to St. Anne, promising to become a monk if she keeps him from becoming toast. People have gone to seminary for worse reasons.
Luther works hard for the salvation the church has taught him he must earn, but he’s tortured by guilt—even though his mentor assures him, “In two years I’ve never heard you confess anything remotely interesting.”
The brilliant monk is sent to Wittenberg to work on a doctorate, teach theology and preach every Sunday, but he becomes disillusioned with a church more interested in fund raising than in being Christ.
The selling of relics (first-century souvenirs) and indulgences (tickets to heaven) becomes the target of Luther’s subversive wit. He points out that many saints left behind more body parts than they started out with and that “18 of the 12 apostles are buried in Spain.” He preaches that people shouldn’t “obsess over relics and indulgences when Christ is here, in your love for each other and in the Word.”
Luther emphasized personal faith and the Bible in a way that challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door on All Hallows’ Eve in 1517 looks more like what probably happened than how you would expect a movie to portray the event: Luther’s tract is just one of many documents hanging on the community bulletin board.
The movie also portrays the 1521 Diet of Worms, where church leaders demand that Luther recant. He responds courageously: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me, here I stand.”
It’s expecting too much to ask a movie to capture the passion, wit and intelligence of Martin Luther in two hours. It’s hard to do justice to it all—the translation of the Bible into German, the encouragement of clergy to marry, and the anarchy let loose by Luther’s ideas.
The movie is messy–like the Reformation–but the film closes by noting that “540 million people worship in churches with roots in the Reformation.” Christians owe a debt to Luther for proclaiming the priesthood of all believers, and they should catch this movie fast, because it’s not going to challenge “The Lord of the Rings” for box-office supremacy.
It’s not often that major figures of the Christian faith are depicted in feature films, so if you see only one movie this year about a 16th-century theologian, make it this one.
Brett Younger is pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images of violence
Director: Eric Till
Writers: Camille Thomasson and Bart Gavigan
Cast: Martin Luther: Joseph Fiennes; John Tetzel: Alfred Molina; Girolamo Aleander: Jonathan Firth; Katharina von Bora: Claire Cox; Frederick the Wise: Peter Ustinov; John von Staupitz: Bruno Ganz.