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Max McLean’s Fellowship for Performing Arts has its latest production playing off-Broadway in New York—Martin Luther on Trial. The story, which McLean wrote along with playwright and King’s College professor Chris Cragin-Day, imagines Lucifer putting Luther on trial to see whether the father of the Protestant Reformation belongs in hell rather than heaven. In this show, McLean is essentially a producer—he does not act in the play itself. A national tour is in the works after the play’s New York run ends Jan. 29.
On the 500th anniversary of Luther writing his 95 Theses, this play is a creative approach to Luther’s reputation in history—implicitly acknowledging that many contemporary minds disdain the Reformer. The trial allows witnesses to appear both to tear apart his deep flaws (such as his anti-Semitic writings later in life) and to defend his work of rooting out corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. It quickly becomes clear the ultimate goal is to defend Luther’s legacy as a sinful man who still accomplished great feats for Christianity. Pope Francis appears at one point as a witness defending Luther.
The play has some fun with the courtroom concept, providing welcome lightness as characters debate topics like justification by faith and the unforgivable sin. The courtroom banter has some of the cheekiness of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (McLean starred in a theatrical adaptation of the book, one of his favorite productions). Lucifer in particular is witty and captivating, though being the baddest character in the universe, he does use some profanity.
The witness list includes Adolf Hitler, who discusses Luther’s role in creating a German nation by establishing a common language for the people through his mass printing of a vernacular Bible. Other witnesses attest to Luther’s influence on their lives, including Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King Jr., Christopher Hitchens, the Brothers Grimm, and Friedrich Nietzsche (who complains that people really misunderstood his philosophy).
The light banter weaves in with conversations about history and theology. Martin Luther King Jr., on the witness stand, must define what is the unforgivable sin and whether Luther has committed it: “It means God reached out to you personally … and you rejected him,” King says, and looks pointedly at Lucifer.
As witnesses are called, the play flashes back to scenes from Luther’s life: His “Here I stand” speech at the Diet of Worms, his engagement to Katie von Bora, his meeting with a Jewish rabbi, and his struggle with kidney stones (offered as a partial explanation for some of his angrier writings later on).
Those extensive historical scenes make the play a bit overly ambitious: It runs 130 minutes. McLean’s other projects, like The Screwtape Letters and most recently C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert, run between 70 and 80 minutes. Martin Luther is a major figure in history, a “Shakespeare-sized personality,” as McLean told me, but this play just needs a bit of a haircut.
Still, the concept is a fresh approach to reviewing Luther’s life and legacy that will likely appeal to Christian audiences—and the conclusion has a very C.S. Lewis–style theological twist.