Story Magazine - Spring/Summer, 2009

Would Martin Luther Tweet?

by Shelley Cunningham, '98, M.Div.

If Martin Luther were alive today, would the father of Lutheranism use modern-day technologies to spread the Word? Would he blog about the 95 Theses? Change his Facebook status? Edit the "indulgences" page on Wikipedia? Tweet his philosophies on Twitter in 140 characters or less?

From the Reformation to today Lutherans have taken advantage of technology to share God's message--but back in Luther's day, that meant movable type and printed material, not bytes and electronic transmission.

"Luther and his followers really knew how to make use of the new media," said Mary Jane Haemig, associate professor of church history. "The Catholics tended to print in Latin, because they weren't concerned about appealing to the laity. But Luther wanted to get the Bible into the hands of the people, so they could use it themselves."

Movable type and the printing press were invented in the mid-15th century. Luther and his followers published pamphlets, treatises and broadsides, figuring they could reach a wide slice of society by using the printing technology and publishing in German.

But when Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522, it brought the Bible closer to the people in a whole new way. "Martin Luther wasn't the first person to translate the Bible into German, but what distinguished Luther's Bibles from the others was that it was such a good translation," said Haemig. "It was accurate, but it didn't sound like a translation. It 'spoke' German."

This was important. Since only an estimated five to 10 percent of the population was literate, Luther intended his Bible to be read aloud. "Luther believed that even the most uneducated person could understand the Biblical message," said Haemig. "So he sought to guide people in reading the Bible" by giving them tools to help. He wrote prefaces to the Old and New Testaments, and to individual books, that gave the plot and main themes. He also included notes in the margins of his translation that explained a particular theological perspective--not unlike the "Lutheran Lens"  notes in the newly published Lutheran Study Bible.

In addition, much of what Luther did was intended to get people reading and studying the Bible together. His Catechism was meant to be a basic introduction to the Bible: what God expects from us, what God promises and gives to us and how we are to act and communicate in response. His goal was that once people learned their Catechism at home or in church, they would be drawn deeper into the Bible itself.

Today people find faith communities not only in the home and at church, but online. Mary Hinkle Shore, associate professor of New Testament, has long been a proponent of using the Internet to connect with others. She started keeping a blog when she was on sabbatical five years ago as an academic enterprise, but soon found it became more devotional.

"I missed chapel so much and I needed a way to feed myself and share what I was discovering about life and God," she said. "Some people think online community disembodies you, but as people read and responded to my blog I got a sense of being upheld and cared for."

Faculty blogging is only one way Luther Seminary takes advantage of changing technologies to spread the Word. Chapel is available via the Web or podcast. Lay school classes are offered over the Internet. And the seminary is currently developing a new Web-based resource called Enter the Bible which will "put the expertise of our faculty literally at your fingertips," said Sally Peters, director of the Center for Lifelong Learning. "It is an easy-to-use and comprehensive way to find answers to your Bible questions without having to search through reference books."

Enter the Bible a free online resource, will include video clips, artwork, historical and chronological references and theological perspectives in addition to basic information about the biblical books, characters and themes. It will be launched as part of the Book of Faith Jubilee that Luther Seminary is hosting Aug. 14-16.

UPDATE 8-14: Enter the Bible is now available!