A World Ablaze

The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation

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Craig Harline
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2017.
     312 pages.
     $27.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190275181.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation was published in time for, and in commemoration of, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenburg. While this work certainly has value, it does not present any new information about Luther or the beginnings of the Reformation. Instead it rehearses to the reader the long known narrative of Luther’s wrestle with scripture, the statement of his 95 Theses, and his (inadvertent) starting of a movement. 

What then is Craig Harline’s contribution to the study of Luther and Protestantism’s origin? The answer to that question may lie in investigating the work’s style and approach rather than its content. Harline’s Luther, for one, is far more human than heroic. “Which means” it “features (just to warn anyone hoping for monumental) Brother Martin, the flesh-and-blood sometimes-cranky friar-professor, instead of Luther, the great bronze icon who changed the [course of Christian History]” (1). True to form, Luther is referred to throughout usually as “Brother Martin” or “Doctor Martin” for that, Harline explains, is how his congregants would have referred to him. These names aid Harline as he seeks to detach the human Martin from the Luther of history, or perhaps more particularly, collective Protestant memory. 

This work also seeks to grapple, somewhat, with the psychology of Luther. Presented to the reader is Luther’s assertion that he was “the most wrenched man on earth” (17). This scrupulous feeling of unworthiness is presented as a motivating cause for Luther’s wrestling with the idea of grace and his eventual arrival at Protestant notions of the term. This is not necessarily new, but it is nevertheless refreshing, and it reinforces Harline’s commitment to a more human Dr. Martin. 

Most important, however, is the narrative styling of the work. Far from the bland toneless style now stereotyped as academic prose, Harline’s work reads more like a novel than an academic biography, not in the sense that it lacks rigor or depth, but rather in the sense that it is engaging and descriptive. The reader is pulled in as though they are reading a historical fiction piece about a relatable and human character with whom they can empathize, and for whom they can hope and fear. An example is found in the opening chapter where two young travelers meet a mysterious stranger knight at an inn. The narrative continues, with drama reminiscent of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as the young travelers converse with the knight regarding Martin Luther, about whom they have heard but have never met. After a long conversation and parting ways it is revealed that the knight was in fact “Dr. Martin” himself, now in hiding. 

The work may not be ideal for the seasoned scholar of Luther. It does not necessarily add to what is already know about the man, be he Luther or Dr. Martin. However, it is prefect for the lay reader who “know[s] the name Martin Luther but [isn’t] exactly sure why” (1). Looking towards that aim, Harline’s work is an absolute success. 

Lastly, looking back towards the academy, Harline’s stylistic choices may themselves be a great contribution. A World Ablaze provides for the scholar a fine model of how to create an academic work that might also find a home with a wider audience. Too often the scholar misses the mark in this regard, writing only for their peers. As scholars go on to create their own works, in or outside of Reformation studies, A World Ablaze might serve as a fine point of stylistic reference for reaching an audience outside of the so-called ivory tower.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is a graduate student in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craig Harline is the author of numerous books on the history of Christianity, especially during the Reformation, including Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America (2011), which was a finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize from the Columbia School of Journalism, and Sunday: A History of the First Day From Babylonia to the Super Bowl (2007), which was one of Publishers Weekly's Best Religion Books of the Year. His memoir, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary (2014) received Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Book of the Year award in the category of Religion. He is currently Professor of History at Brigham Young University, and has been a visiting professor at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Belgium.

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