Thursday, October 26, 2017

Luther Geographies

My first academic dinner was on the 10th day of a November. It was in a restaurant near our undergraduate campus that I had previously thought of as a bar that was just a bit nicer than our usual dives. A guest speaker had come to our class on the philosophy of religion (I had taken several classes and even completed an internship in this area), and our professor had taken the speaker and just a couple of students out to dinner afterwards.

Near the end of the meal, a couple of the servers came out with a cake. It might have had five candles, and I am pretty sure they were trying to sing. They faltered a bit as they addressed "Dr. Luther" and looked back and forth at each of the people at the table who seemed old enough to be doctors, none of whom were responding.

It turns out that our Dr. Benson was a bit of a joker, and a bigger devotee of Martin Luther than I had realized. I knew Dr. Benson was a protestant, but I did not know that he was such a protestant. I also did not realize that Martin Luther would have been 500 years old on that day. (Though I must say, I think Dr. Benson might have been off by a year or two.) The cake was to celebrate the founder of the protestant reformation.

Thirty-some years out of college, we now have the quincentennial of that act of rebellion: Martin Luther, a youngish monk, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral. Or at least mailing a letter that gets remembered that way. All of this came to mind as I listened to Tom Gjelten's report on that half-millenium anniversary, the causes of the rift, and recent efforts toward reconciliation between those long-divided factions.

Portrait by Lucas Cranach
The story connects in three small ways to my work as a geographer. First, in Luther's time the political power of the church was only just beginning to be challenged. During his childhood, for example, that Pope Alexander VI put the line on the map that divided what was to be the Americas (and much of the rest of the world, eventually) between Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas was audacious, to put things mildly, but it shaped Latin America, which was to become my major area of study.

My first undergraduate major had been the German language, and in one of my geography classes I wrote a research paper about the language. Specifically, I had noticed that I could read Martin Luther's translation of the Bible (Die Bibel) more easily than I could a modern German translation, such as The Good News Bible (Der Guter Nachricht).

In writing the term paper for the only course I took on European geography, I learned that Luther himself had helped to shape the language. Of the many dialects that were spoken during his lifetime, his own dialect became dominant in the written form of the language, precisely because he had used it in his Bible. And because keeping the Bible out of the hands of ordinary Christians had been one of his 95 complaints, the movement he launched ensured that the written version of his dialect would become the standard over a much broader area than the spoken version had been. And thus five centuries later it is what gets taught to foreign students of the language.

The final connection between Luther and my work as a geographer is in the form of an organization that bears his name. Lutheran World Relief is a church-affiliated agency that provides both short-term aid and long-term development assistance to communities throughout the world. Some of that work has involved promoting the fair-trade model for coffee growers, and building on that model. When I started looking for a place to take students to learn about coffee, I was introduced to LWR staff members in Nicaragua who were helping coffee growers to establish a home-based agroecotourism enterprise in La Corona, Matagalpa -- a small community that would become my home away from home each winter.

Lagniappes

When making the morning coffee, I am often able to catch the 9-minute BBC program Witness, which airs on WBUR in Boston each morning at 4:50. The premise is that unique insight on historical events is provided by conversation with people who were witness to those events. Sometimes this is done with a twist, by consulting historians -- in this case Lyndal Roper -- and original documents. The Martin Luther's 95 Theses installment includes a good description of why people were so upset about indulgences, and how Luther's associates used the printed word to give Luther a far greater impact than otherwise he would have had.

Added November 5: Reformation quincentennial coverage continues; just yesterday I heard an interview on BBC with linguist Ruth Sanders, whose German: Biography of a Language includes the Luther Bible I mention above as a key turning point in the development of the language. It is almost as if she read that paper I wrote as a college student! As someone who used to speak the language fluently, I look forward to reading the rest of the story of its origins.

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