The myth of neutral history is just that: a myth. If it actually existed, no one would want to read it. Every historian brings to their subject-matter a raft of experience, opinions, attitudes and assumptions that inform their perceptions, and influence both the issues they find interesting, and the questions they bring to their material. History is an attempt to discern the patterns that underlie the surviving traces of the past, not a bloodless chronicle of patternless events, and the interpretation of the records of the past demands personal gifts like imagination and empathy.—Eamon Duffy, “‘The Stripping of the Altars,’ 30 Years On,” abridged introduction to the new edition, Catholic Herald, March 30, 2022
How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 4 (The Reformation)
Following a hiatus for summer travel, this is the fourth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Reformation.”
So far in this series, we’ve seen Francis Schaeffer reduce the experiences of whole civilizations to a set of simple patterns in order to attack their worldviews—presenting them as negative object lessons for 20th-century audiences, especially in the United States. The Roman empire, Schaeffer said, was hideously cruel and ultimately collapsed because it was polytheistic and therefore pluralistic. For the same reason, he said, Rome was unable to tolerate Christianity, its eventual Christianization notwithstanding. Then Medieval Europe, he said, disastrously abandoned the authority of the Christian Bible for “humanistic” reason, despite (or because of) the problematic authority of the Catholic church; the Renaissance continued that process, “opening the door” for 20th-century relativism.
In each case, Schaeffer’s view of his subject has been deliberately negative. In going negative, he sometimes seems to be struggling against his own obvious appreciation for the art, architecture, and other lasting accomplishments of the societies he halfheartedly attacks.
But with this week’s episode, on the Protestant Reformation, Schaeffer suddenly inverts this approach. He is still forcing a lot of varied European history into a predetermined pattern, presenting a complex intellectual and social revolution as a half-hour object lesson for modern audiences. But now he makes European Protestantism play the role of a cultural hero, dismissing its flaws, rather than its virtues, as aberrations.
Perhaps that is part of the reason this episode draws so much from a 1953 movie.
Filmed in West Germany by the Jewish director Irving Pichel (a victim of the Hollywood blacklist), the Oscar-nominated Martin Luther had been commissioned by American Lutherans and written by a team that included the distinguished church historians Theodore G. Tappert and Jaroslav Pelikan. The title role was filled by Niall MacGinnis, an experienced and charismatic Irish-British character actor.
Scenes from this biopic are scattered throughout the fourth episode of How Should We Then Live. (Martin Luther also influenced the episode on the Middle Ages, which includes a dramatic reenactment that clearly plagiarizes a shot in the movie.) I find these excerpts enjoyable, and I think they enhance the episode. In fact, I also rather like the full movie, though most viewers, including critical historians, will find it very dated.
But one reason these scenes are here is that only a hero-worshiping, great-man-centered view of the Reformation can easily sustain the story Schaeffer wants to tell. Apart from Luther’s greatness and (presumably) divine providence, How Should We Then Live just doesn’t seem to have any clear historical sense of where the Reformation came from.
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