Book Review: Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk

 

Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk
Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk

Author: Michelle DeRusha
Publication Date: January 31, 2017
ISBN: 978-0801019104
Page Count: 320
Binding Type: US Hardcover
Publisher: Baker Books

Some authors display courage in their choices of topics, others by the frank honesty of their self-disclosure, and others by daring to traverse terrain through which many writers have traveled before them. Michelle DeRusha, through her work on Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk, falls into the third category. If one were to pick the historical figures to whom the most linear feet of library shelves have been devoted, then, in some order near the top of the list, one would name Jesus, Martin Luther, and Abraham Lincoln.

This year marks the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther’s decision to propose reforms of various practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In the five hundred years that have elapsed since 1517, the consequences—both intended and unintended—of that watershed event have touched most facets of modern Western civilization.

But who was Martin Luther, the man at the center of the debate? This book’s novel and distinctive answer reframes this often-asked question. The author makes a quick and convincing case that one cannot understand the event or the man without grasping the character of his life. And one cannot understand his life without coming to appreciate his marriage. Finally, one cannot understand his marriage without getting to know Katherina von Bora, the former nun with whom Martin, the ex-monk, forged the first marital partnership that one could call a modern, Western marriage.

The reader of Katharina & Martin Luther will turn its pages eagerly as the portrait of the couple comes to life. Martin’s life and thoughts persist in copious, written records, making the challenge in sketching his contribution one of selection. On the other hand, the author’s work creates a kind of biographical–paleontological portrait of Katharina. It’s as if the author has found a scattering of shards—only eight letters from Katharina’s hand survive—and reconstructs the woman’s life from those shards and from judiciously selected studies of the lives of sixteenth-century women generally and women religious particularly.

The delight in reading this book comes in the experience of watching the portrait of the relationship take shape and then comparing the couple’s marriage with contemporary relationships. The experience is like seeing the echoes of the faces of grandparents in the still-changing features of their grandchildren. While Katharina & Martin Luther is a biography, amply researched and documented, the author has found a way to vivify her findings and the book’s subjects by telling their shared story and drawing out its implications. This approach makes the book become a page-turner.

The celebrations and dissections of the Reformation, arguably one of the most significant historical events of the last millennium, will only increase in number as the year proceeds. If you want to begin your journey to appreciate this event’s influence on modern society and your own daily life from a place grounded in history and blooming with insights, then Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk is an excellent place to start.

The author included me in a team of readers who received copies of the book before its release.

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He is the One

“He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42, NAB)