I rented Luther this weekend and watched it twice. The opening credits proudly tout the name of the Lutheran bank that bankrolled the film (which I thought was kind of weird… you never see B of A or Wells Fargo logos come up with the studio logos at the beginning of a movie). The editing is poor and most of the actors have strange unidentifiable accents and deliver their lines in an awkward manner, with pauses in the wrong places (which is why I had to watch it twice and constantly rewind and use subtitles in order to catch much of the dialogue). And there are some terrible overdubs where the actors on film are clearly not saying anything remotely close to what you hear out of your speakers.
Also, the movie made it look like Luther died young, but he actually lived to the age of 62, which was a pretty descent lifespan in the 16th century. Furthermore, many people are familiar with what Luther actually looked like, because several portraits are in existence, and he was definitely much more portly than the young Joseph Fiennes. I don’t understand why Renée Zellweger gains 30 pounds to play Bridget Jones and Martin Short dons a fat suit for Primetime Glick, but Joseph Fiennes won’t do so much as stick a pillow under his shirt and put cotton balls in his cheeks.
But despite all this, and also despite the lack of DVD extras, the film is still well worth seeing. My favorite line is when the Augustinian abbot Johann von Staupitz tells Luther, “We preach best what we need to learn most.” I totally identify with that. If the church newsletter makes an impression on anyone in a certain week, you can bet that I was preaching to myself when I wrote it.
The movie references Matthew 16:16-18 and gives the foundational Protestant interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said, “On this rock I will build my church.” But other than that, this film about the great reformer who said, “Sola Scriptura!” is seriously lacking in Scripture. Probably the two most common things a Protestant lay churchgoer will hear about Luther deal with the book of Romans and the letter of James. Romans, because it changed Luther’s life, and therefore the course of western civilization. And James, because it’s the book that Luther wanted removed from the Canon of Scripture. The movie mentioned neither of these points.
They totally dropped the ball when it came to what at first glance appeared to be a fascinating cinematic portrayal of the scholar practicing Greek word studies. In the film, Luther is working on his German translation of the New Testament, and he says, “Take this verse in Saint Luke–‘It is the Father’s will that nothing be lost.” Actually, this is John 6:39, and given the filmmakers’ affinity for A.D.R., you think they would have fixed it. Joseph Fiennes goes on to describe the Greek word for ‘will’ as a “three-letter word” that “denotes passion, fire, inner organs”, etc. In actuality, the Greek word used by our Lord Jesus in the passage is thelema, which, when spelled with the Greek letter theta, contains six letters. And he couldn’t have meant that there are three letters in the German because the German word for ‘will’ contains five.
Das ist aber der Wille des Vaters, der mich gesandt hat, daß ich nichts verliere von allem, was er mir gegeben hat, sondern daß ich’s auferwecke am Jüngsten Tage. – Luther’s translation published 1545
So, if you’re one of those people who gets excited when a famous Hollywood actor stars in a film with spiritual subject matter (like me), don’t get too excited. Mel Gibson might be a papist, but he certainly treats the Holy Bible with a little more reverence and awe in The Passion.
Despite the scene I just described, the film does hold God’s word in its proper place theologically when the actors are talking about it (just not when they quote it or reference it directly). It is Luther’s exposure to Scripture that changes his life, not his monastic vows or his participation in Catholic rites. When he is on trial before the emperor, he says he will not recant unless he is shown that he is wrong through Scripture. Luther’s efforts to provide a German translation are accurately treated. And when Prince Frederick the Wise–extremely well-played by the late Sir Peter Ustinov (who played Herod the Great in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth)– receives his gift of a German New Testament from Luther, the scene is appropriately handled as the focal point, what the whole thing is all about. And what’s great is that Frederick doesn’t treat it like another sacred relic to add to his massive collection (which he wisely decided to pack up and put in storage after being impacted by Luther’s preaching), but he handles it gently and opens it and begins reading it.
We go to a church that is all about getting people into God’s Word. We go through it verse by verse on Sunday morning and Wednesday night, and we even have a Bible college that provides bachelor’s degrees and school of ministry certificates as well as audit programs so that laypeople can study the Word more deeply. And there are churches all over the world where they do the same thing. But sadly, there are still so many Christians who do not experience the life-changing benefits that come from personal Bible study and daily Bible reading. Without a knowledge of history, it is easy for people to be ignorant of the fact that so many people gave their lives in order for you to have the right to read the Bible for yourself. Even today in Asia and the Middle East, people are losing their lives trying to give common people access to God’s word. Please don’t take God’s word for granted. Treasure the Gospel!