Is celebrating 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church the celebration of an irrelevant reformation? While those with a vested interest in Luther and/or Protestantism will offer a quick and bold, “Of course it’s not irrelevant!” and will most likely add, “The Gospel is never irrelevant!” the lack of conversation I’m hearing about the anniversary in the broader culture makes me wonder if such a response lacks adequate reflection.

Below is an edited version of the opening section of my 2016 dissertation, Re-Storying God: Re-Imagining the God of the Bible and Re-Enchanting our Neo-Secular Selves. Hopefully, it will add some food for thought as we consider what might be an irrelevant Reformation.

Did Luther launch and irrelevant Reformation?
Did Luther launch and irrelevant Reformation?

A Reformation Celebration

On October 31, 2017, the Western world will celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation as it remembers a then unknown and irrelevant Martin Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Based on the preparatory work this author witnessed during two trips to Wittenberg in the fifteen years prior to the anniversary, it will be an impressive celebration.

Simultaneously, it is doubtful the event will hold anything beyond historical significance to those in the once East German city or the post-Christian West. In other words, a night that changed the global landscape and transformed the faith of millions over the coming centuries is now predominantly a significant historical event with a religious sidebar.

Changing Social Imaginaries

The journey of how the West made the rapid transition from a society where life without God was incomprehensible to one where some find the very idea of faith in God untenable is the subject of philosopher Charles Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age. The exploration, which won Taylor both the Templeton and Kyoto awards for affirming and bettering life’s spiritual dimension, uses the concept of the “social imaginary,” a blend of images, stories, and ideas that define a society’s understanding of human flourishing and create the expectations that allow people to move through life and make sense of existence. Elsewhere, James Smith describes social imaginaries as worldviews for the heart instead of the mind.

Briefly, Taylor demonstrates how, in the premodern age, people perceived themselves as captives of the world. This earth was a place of mystery and enchantment. Natural and spiritual forces were active and threatening. Humans were passive agents seeking to survive in a dynamic world. Hope came from a distant deity who—depending on one’s relationship—might offer protection and blessing in the midst of the chaos.

It was from this pre-modern social imaginary that Luther penned the theses that launched the Reformation. But the West’s vision of the good life has dramatically changed.

An Irrelevant Reformation

Nine hundred years ago, the European Renaissance planted ideas suggesting this view of the world was inaccurate. These ideas began to take root four hundred years later and continued to grow until they bloomed and created the secular West.

The transition began as humanity’s self-perception moved from one of captivity to control, with people both recognizing and demonstrating their ability to assert authority over creation. Scientists and philosophers began to study and understand things that once seemed a mystery, stripping away at the creation’s enchantment.

With increasing disenchantment, these social leaders started wondering if creation was the appropriate word; a move one step away from concluding that because transcendent gods only served to defend people from an enchanted world, the Divine is unnecessary in a land of immanence.

Five-hundred years from “transcendent-enchantment” to “disenchanted-immanence”—from revolutionary Reformer to spiritual sidebar—Martin Luther going full circle, with his teaching as unknown and irrelevant today as the day it was nailed to the Wittenberg Door.

Some Further Thoughts and Questions

Please note, I do not see Jesus, the Gospel of the Kingdom, or the Bible as irrelevant. So please don’t read that into what I’ve said.

Moreover, personally, I find Luther and much of his teaching incredible relevant to my life. But I’m also well aware that how I view life and my exposure to Luther and his work are anything but common. And that’s really the point.

If the core of the Reformation is Jesus and the Gospel (as Luther would argue if he were here today), then how effective has the Reformation been through the West’s social imaginary transition?

Perhaps most importantly, what needs to happen for an irrelevant Reformation to become relevant again?




9 thoughts on “An Irrelevant Reformation?

  1. It was relevant at the time, because it was a churched culture, and the church dictated the culture. This challenged that, and it had massive repercussions.

    It will be relevant again when the church acts like the church enough that the unbelieving public clamors to support the church the way they do the Red Cross. It won’t happen as long as Christian privilege is exploited.

    1. I like the distinction between then and now in this conversation.

      One thing I keep thinking is that Christian theology was built in a culture and social imaginary that worked for the age, but since the way we think, feel, and perceive the world around us, that theology no longer speaks the way it once used to.

      I wonder what would happen if we started thinking about theology in less dogmatic ways and more mediums we can use to transmit something greater. Perhaps that’s the key ending the exploration of Christian privilege and discovering that narrative the Red Cross now offers. Thoughts?

      1. Bob Rognlien, in his book Experiential Worship, points out that we’re called on to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but each denomination tends to focus on one of those to the detriment of the others. Lutherans are all about mind. Salvation Army is all about strength. Pentecostals are all about soul/emotions. Many evangelicals are all about heart (willpower: making godly choices).

        What if our theology were holistic and encompassed all of these things in a Gospel context? Doctrine is something to be savored and chewed on, tasting every morsel, not just taking 2 bites & swallowing. The heart recognizes this great feast and seeks the best sides to savor with it. The soul exults in the beauty of the artistic ambiance. And all of this moves the strength to say, “This would be so much better when shared with literally anyone! I need to go out and invite people in here so they can taste and see that the Lord is good! I know—I’ll go hand out free samples!”

        1. I think that would be a huge positive step forward, but I still think it would often end up falling on deaf ears because the core story doesn’t resonate.

          A number of years ago, Leonard Sweet presented at CSL’s Day of Homiletical Reflection. As a part of it, he talked about Christ’s followers needing to do more than the Pharisees. He identified two variants of “more.”

          There’s more as the same, but better. And there’s more in a way that is different and beyond what we’ve been doing. It’s a paradigmatic shift.

          Most of the ideas out there are “more as better.” I think our world needs, “More as different.”

          1. I’ve been thinking about this and have trouble coming up with something. Western culture has adopted a lot of Christian values, so while adoption, loving your wife, not being racist, and stuff like that was different in Rome, it’s already considered good in our society. What would be different but also good?

          2. Interesting examples. Adoption aside, I think it is far harder to make a compelling case that the church has helped dismantle social values place on individual people (Jew vs. Gentile, male vs. female, slave vs. free, rich vs. poor) rather than upholding them. While I’m not going to deny some positive influence from the church, I’d say, generally speaking, the church looks far less like Jesus and far more like Rome.

            That said, given our gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status (on a global scale), and skin tone, I’m increasingly aware of how oblivious I am to so many of the ways I’m more Rome than Jesus (or ways I’ve convinced myself Rome is Jesus).

            So running with those lines, I think different would mean honoring and respecting the image of God in all people as opposed to creating better and more compassionate hierarchies. It means working to create a society that is just and equitable … and not allowing the elite to define what is just and equitable nor allowing them to control the process that brings about justice and equality. It means (like Wilberforce) to battle systemic injustices and assure that they aren’t replaced with a “better” systemic injustice (from slavery to Jim Crow).

            So for you and I, I think a different good begins with listening to the marginalized, the oppressed, and the cast out. It means asking how they see Jesus manifesting in their midst. It means asking how we can come alongside and serve them as they seek to create a better world for us all. It means inviting them to see the image of God in themselves, to recognize the power that is latent within them, and to set our power down and learn from them so we can hear the voice of God.


          3. Yeah, when I mentioned racism, I was sadly referring to the influence that the church had on society but then subsequently lost as it gained privilege. Society keeps (ever-so-gradually) improving, and in many ways, the church lags on this issue.

            I agree, but we need to do it without all the party baggage that usually goes with it. Maybe that’s the difference. No divisiveness, hearing people out & meeting them where they’re at. Everything soaked in grace. That’s a very different approach. At the same time, it will be hard to do so without perceived party affiliation. (As an independent moderate, people have assumed all kinds of things about my personal politics and are usually wrong.)

            I led a study Sunday on identity. Spent most of the time on our Baptismal identity, then discussed gender identity toward the end. I think I managed to surprise and/or offend everyone in the room, regardless where their party affiliation is. (Not posted online yet but will be soon.) I think people expected me to condemn, but I instead condemned condemning.

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