Review: A Hot Pen

Not all journalism is profound or even good, a fact unchanged in 400 years. Yet written dissent is so overpowering they protected it in the Constitution. Dr. Harry Loewen was not a journalist – he was founding Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg – but would have made a first-rate city editor. Ink Against The Devil is required reading for every newsroom, every journalism school, everyone who treasurers the written word.

Luther 499 years ago posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the wall of Castle Church in Wittenburg. He had a “red-hot pen”, Loewen writes. Theses opposed the burning of heretics. It denounced corruption in the Catholic Church, and named names: “Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest money princes, not build the basilica of Saint Peter with his own money instead of with the money of poor believers?”

Luther’s Theses was written in Latin and “not intended for the general public but for theological colleagues for debate and discussion”. Boy and how. It triggered the Protestant Reformation, fueled the German Peasants’ War of 1525, and saw Luther’s writings republished in more than three million pamphlets and booklets. “Pamphleteers saw gold,” Loewen writes. “They recognized early that Luther’s Theses touched a raw nerve”; “Eager publishers translated and turned out copies of the Theses at an extraordinary rate, bringing Luther early fame and influence.”

Professor Loewen was a gifted writer. Ink Against The Devil is a beautifully-crafted biography that captures 16th century Germany, a dark world of tallow candles and infant mortality, where travellers risked death from highwaymen and wild boars, and a very large city like Münster had only 15,000 inhabitants.

Loewen’s profile is crisp and a pleasure to read. The Professor enjoys his subject. He is also honest, and in the best tradition of the free press does not shrink from a disquieting fact. Luther was a notorious anti-Semite whose rantings are so violent they were revived centuries later by the Nazi organ Der Stürmer. “Nothing could be said or done to excuse or mitigate the reformer’s hateful writings,” Loewen says; “One cannot sweep under the proverbial carpet what is both negative and painful.”

In his 1543 tract On The Jews And Their Lies Luther wrote synagogues should be burned and Jews driven from the cities under penalty of death. “I would deal severely with their lying mouth,” he wrote; “They let us work in the sweat of our brow to earn money and property while they sit behind the stove, idle away their time, fart, and roast pears. They stuff themselves, guzzle, and live in luxury and ease from our hard-earned goods. With their accursed usury they hold us and our property captive.”

Dr. Loewen recounts his 1997 visit to Luther’s church in the Saxony city of Lutherstadt-Wittenburg, where the Winnipeg professor was thrilled to stand at Luther’s pulpit till he glanced upwards at the carvings: “Just below the roofline there appeared a badly weathered sculpture known as the Judensau with several Jews vulgarly represented,” depicted with a sow and piglets: “I was not only shocked to see this hideous relief on Luther’s church, but also wondered why Luther had not removed it during his tenure as pastor,” he writes.

Professor Loewen died in 2015 in Kelowna, at 84. He was born in Stalinist Russia, survived the war and fled to Canada in 1948. Ink Against The Devil is his legacy. It is profound, and good.

By Holly Doan

Ink Against The Devil: Luther and His Opponents, by Harry Loewen; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 335 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-21361; $27.74

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