- A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation by Craig Harline
On 31 October 1517—also known as the eve of All Saints' Day—a little-known professor from the backwater city of Wittenberg posted—almost certainly by mail, rather than on the door of the castle church, as would later be written—ninety-five theses against the sale of indulgences. This obscure professor was, of course, Martin Luther and his articles, though inconspicuous at the time, became the catalyst for the Reformation: that sixteenth-century rupture within Western [End Page 647] Christianity, which persists and defines this global faith into the present. Of the roughly 2.2 billion Christians alive in the world today, thirty-seven percent belong to churches inspired by Luther and his famous break with the Catholic Church. The outbreak of this religious wrangle, now over five-hundred years in the past, is thus a matter of ongoing, international significance.
The story of Luther's explosive confrontation with the Western Church has been told many times, and even more so during the years surrounding the 2017 quincentenary of the posting of his ninety-five theses. However, what distinguishes Craig Harline's A World Ablaze from other recent reconstructions are his intended audience and his historicist approach. Harline writes for educated, but uninitiated readers; for those "who know the name Luther but aren't exactly sure why" (p. 1). He seeks to produce a narrative of Luther's early years of fame—from the autumn of 1517 to the spring of 1522—that does not imbue this period with later significance. In retelling the pivotal moments of Luther's rise to prominence—the controversy sparked by his ninety-five theses, Luther's meeting with Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg, his famous debate with Johann Eck at Leipzig, his appearance before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, his solitary if productive sojourn in the Wartburg, and his return to public life at Wittenberg—Harline attempts to show "how unlikely and fragile and bewildering" these events were and to help readers experience them in "the same nerve-wracking and uncertain way" that Luther lived them (p. 2).
A World Ablaze is, thus, a well-written and finely-crafted narrative, which is both engaging and informative. Each of its fourteen chronological chapters focus on an episode in Luther's early career and begin with evocative and thematically-appropriate stage directions, like "Outside Rome, a Very Large Hunting Lodge. May 2, 1520. The Feast of St Athanasius, Who Hated Heresy" (p. 144). Harline is a gifted storyteller and his retelling brings to life the theological, political, and personal issues involved in this complex story. He also has a knack for contextualizing and explaining key details, including the percentage of the population engaged in higher learning (pp. 10–12), the relative cost of buying an indulgence (pp. 28–29), or exactly what an Imperial Diet was (p. 88). Moreover, this account is seasoned with colorful details—for example, the Leipzig beer that students named after a farmer's rake because of what it did to your stomach (p. 123) or the time that Luther threw a strange dog out of a castle window for fear that it was a demon (p. 238)—as well as with Harline's winning sense of humor. A World Ablaze is, therefore, a strikingly readable text, which [End Page 648] is ideal for non-academic readers and undergraduates encountering Luther and the Reformation for the first time.
This book, however, is not without flaws. Some are minor infelicities, such as the repeated and comical reference to people "shedding" their robes "Old-Testament style" (pp. 128, 209); which is presumably a garbled allusion to biblical figures "rending" their garments in grief (2 Samuel 13:31) or anger (Matthew 26:65). Other problems are more fundamental. In a laudable attempt to present Luther as he was perceived by those nearest to him, Harline elects to call him "Brother Martin" or...