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Columnists Remarkable Providences
As I noted two weeks ago, many high school students today do not know much about history. That holds for biblical history as well. One student wrote that in Genesis, "God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Montezuma," and, "Jacob, son of Isaac, stole his brother's birth mark." A summary of Exodus went like this: "Pharaoh forced the Hebrew slaves to make bread without straw. Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments."
Some students, apparently, do understand the intricacies of church discipline. According to one test paper, "Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull."
There are two good reasons for remembering Luther this week. One is that it's still not too late for churches to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative by planning a Reformation Day celebration on Oct. 31. It's good to remember the day in 1517 when Martin Luther midwifed Protestantism by hammering 95 hard-hitting theses onto the cathedral door in Wittenberg. (Later, a papal declaration called a "bull" excommunicated him.) Church and Christian school parties are good alternatives to the celebrations of witchery held at government school Halloween parties.
The other reason to celebrate Reformation Day is that groups like People for the American Way are once again rumbling about Christians banning books. It's good to remember that the impulse to literacy grew out of a desire to read God's Word, and that the modern publishing industry owes its start to the Reformation.
After all, literacy was low in Europe and throughout the world until the 16th century--perhaps about one of a hundred persons could read. Monks were literate, and Jewish males also learned to read, but the typical medieval aristocrat saw reading as a servile and boring activity, much less worthwhile than, say, hawking. Corporate CEOs today often have fancy computers, but they retain secretaries to type their memos and assistants to scan their screens. Kings of medieval Europe had fancy Bibles for bragging, but they remained illiterate and employed designated readers.
Peasants were also discouraged from reading, even if they could learn. A 16th-century French treatise argued that ordinary folks should not read the Bible, lest they become confused; they should learn only from priests. (Today, government authorities mainly argue that ordinary people should not listen to talk radio, lest they become confused; they should learn only from Peter Jennings.)
Luther and other Reformation leaders, however, emphasized the importance of Bible reading: Christians were to find out for themselves what God was saying. Literacy rates soared where the Protestant Reformation took root and remained low wherever it was fought off. As reading became fundamental, printers first published Bibles and biblical commentaries, then essays and political commentaries, and eventually novels and newspapers. More publishing in turn led to more of a push for reading, and the upward spiral led to the growth of massive literacy over the next several centuries.
Luther also worked hard to make the Bible more understandable to everyday readers. In preparing his German translation Luther so understood the need for specific detail to attract readers that when he wanted to describe the precious stones and coins mentioned in the Bible, he first examined German court jewels and numismatic collections. Similarly, when Luther needed to describe Old Testament sacrifices, he visited slaughterhouses and gained information from butchers. He was a vivid reporter as well as a tenacious theologian.
Luther even encouraged the reading of godly books along with the Bible. He opposed attempts to halt dissemination of ideas by purging either publications or authors. "Heretics," he said, "should be vanquished with books, not with burnings." The great Puritan poet John Milton also called for freedom of expression in 1644 when he wrote, "Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"
Despite what liberal propagandists say, the battle over censorship today most often pits non-Christian fear vs. Christian willingness to debate. For example, in current public school battles Christians want to allow both evolution and creation to be discussed, but non-Christians typically demand that only one view, the evolutionary faith, be given to students. Last week was "Banned Books Week," but the book most banned in public schools is the Bible.
Let's honor Luther for encouraging folks to read the truth, with the faith that the truth will make them free.