Something about the style of this thick volume arguing that Martin Luther cannily practiced what we’d today call brand management kept me from getting a good grip, and I gave up before getting too far. I did learn a few interesting things before calling it quits, though. It left me hungrier to learn more of the fundamentals regarding the church of Luther’s time, and the schism that he wrought in it, than this book focused on.

Luther wasn’t necessarily being a badass by nailing his indulgence-challenging theses to the church door. The church was a center of community life in his Wittenburg, and its doors served as a popular place to post documents of public interest. That said, the church did boast one of the most extensive collections of indulgence-granting relics in Europe…

The Catholic principle of indulgences was, and perhaps still is, far stranger than I thought. I learned in school that in olden days you could buy indulgences to forgive your sins instantly, and so rich naughty people would go do all sorts of awful things and then drop some money in the collection plate and feel they got off scott-free. The reality of these supernatural easements, of course, proves far subtler and more varied that that.

The idea of indulgences has less to do with nullifying sins and more that earthly acts of penance (cash donations to one’s church among them) can reduce the amount of time your soul — or, often, the soul of a departed relative — would need to spend in Purgatory. Both Brand Luther and the frustratingly dense Wikipedia article on indulgences casually list reductions in wait-times in the thousands, even in the millions of years. That is bonkers and wonderful and I really want to know where these numbers come from. (And apparently the pope occasionaly tosses out freebie indulgences over the radio, and over Twitter now, too? So this is still a thing!)

Luther lived his schism. He didn’t set out to completely derail the Church and divest it of its power throughout much of Europe, but it happened anyway — and in his lifetime. He went along with it, to the degree that this monk cast aside his vows of celibacy and settled down with a family. I would love to learn more about what exactly went down during those years from Luther’s perspective, both in the world and in his own mind as the world changed.

February is Black History Month in the United States, and in that context I recently heard again a dispelling of the homey myth of Rosa Parks as an innocent everywoman swept up by history after the day she felt simply too tired to change seats. In truth, she was a lifelong civil-rights activist, both before and after that bus ride, and she knew exactly what she was doing. But the sanitized myth that I (and countless other Americans) learned as a kid carried through much of my life, and I thought about her story when considering how little I knew about Luther as a person, and not just a catalyst.

I wish to return to all these topics, in time. But before that, and after all of last year’s auto-back-patting, I’ve allowed my reading list to become dominated by white dudes again. Just as I was finishing with The Brain Electric a friend proactively lent me a softcover collection of essays that would break this pattern. I popped Brand Luther off the queue per protocol, but I think I ended up just too impatient to read those essays instead. So, I will.


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