The Reformation Rag

2006 Aug 04 - 15

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In the Year of Our Lord fifteen hundred and seventeen

the Catholic Church got itself spooked on a special Halloween.


It seems the Church had made a truly unbelievable mistake.

Her highest officers thought of theology as something they could fake.


"You know," the pope said, "Saint Peter's, like Rome, won't be built in a day,

and somehow someone for this great work is going to have to pay.


But why should this construction on my wealth depend?

There are so many others whose coin I can spend.


We'll say it's all for the greater glory of Christ,

so we really don't care if the work is overpriced.


But to hire the best artisans what must we do? How far must we go?

We need a scheme of no real work that lets us rake in the dough."


"It's a fact," someone said, "that most of our people not one word can read.

I think we can exploit that fact to give us just what we need."


To see much beautiful writing to which a departed loved one's name was attached

would certainly gull the peasants. So the great plot was hatched.


Thus it was in Northern Germany, wandering from town to town

trundled a wagon, followed by an entourage and carrying an unfunny clown.


History tells us that Johannes Tetzel was the hapless clown's name.

He was the Church's snake-oil salesman, engaged in a truly cruel game.


"As soon as the coins in the money box ring

out from Purgatory another soul doth spring!"


So said Tetzel, who claimed he was selling the straight dope.

The indulgence is no fantasy: he got it right from the pope.


In ribbons and wax seals the calligraphy was dressed.

The indulgence was gaudy. The people were impressed.


But with this vile circus one monk was less than enamored,

so to the door of his church ninety-five theses he hammered.


Only on God's freely given grace, the monk believed, humans depended,

so at this attempt to bribe the Deity he was deeply offended.


The Church's men were flabbergasted at Martin Luther's audacity,

that he would actually challenge their ideas in his doctoral capacity.


So they brushed Luther off, believing that he couldn't be serious.

Something had surely gotten into the man and made him delirious.


They would ignore the foolish work of this dumb German monk.

When he wrote those insolent words he must have been drunk.


They didn't need to worry. This ado would soon sputter out.

The Church controlled all information, so this monk would not widely sow doubt.


But they were wrong, because Europe for a great revolution was ripe,

one that would succeed because Gutenberg's press used movable type.


Handbills, pamphlets, books and other writings galore

came tumbling off the presses and went flying out the door.


The mass printing of handbills for the Church was just the worst.

Nary a printer in Northern Europe bothered to get the Church's imprimatur first.


And the handbills' arguments weren't meant to be weak.

The bills displayed Biblical and classical quotes in Latin and Greek.


And in German too and even included cartoons, that slippery slope,

showing laughing, leering peasants blowing farts at the pope.


"Enough!" the churchmen cried. "To this sacrilege we must make an end.

Heaven forbid that such disdain for the Church should ever become a trend!"


So Luther was called to come and address the Diet of Worms

to explain to the ecclesiastical court why he questioned the Church's norms.


"Bow before my authority!" the pope's man said, "or I'll unleash my terror."

But Luther would not be cowed. He would not bow to an error.


Only before God or God's Son would he kneel

and not be crushed beneath Rome's corrupt heel.


"Here I stand," he said. "God help me! I can do no other."

And he stood by his work as you would stand by your brother.


Luther seemed doomed, but with Tetzel's antics Luther's prince had not been pleased,

so with his own power the Church's pressure on Luther the prince greatly eased.


Thus freed, Luther went and did something just spectacular:

he translated the Bible into the common German vernacular.


"No pope, no bishop, no priest wilt thou need

when the Word of God for thyself canst thou read."


Luther knew that in the end each of us stands before the Judge of All, trembling and alone.

Better to get used to that fact now, he believed. Ultimately we are, each of us, on our own.


But then the reluctant revolutionary found that his cause he could not command.

The Protestant Reformation got very quickly out of hand.


What could and should have been a smooth change just didn't go so well.

With wars and inquisitions the squabbling factions made Europe a frothing blowhole of Hell.


The one institution that should have brought that horror to a halt

could not do so; for at root the horror grew from the Church's fault.


For the Sadducees and Pharisees had come back in disguise.

They pretended to be Christians; they claimed to be wise.


Through the Church's ranks they contrived to rise and then with sly grins

they made the Vatican a welcome home to all seven of the deadly sins.


But over one inconvenient fact they had eventually to stumble.

Everyone knew that the Son of God had never been more than humble.


So everyone knew that the Church's sin was immense;

for to gather wealth in Christ's name is a blasphemous offense.


Made brittle by sin, the Church broke and the churchmen saw, to their pain

that all the pope's horses and all the pope's men could not put Christendom together again.


Death and resurrection are the beat of Christianity's heart. When an old church died, a new one arose.

And the people of Europe eventually accepted that they and their neighbors could worship in whatever church they chose.

And thence came the rock upon which our forefathers founded this great nation;

the simple trust in the individual manifest in the blessed Protestant Reformation.


And we all owe that doctrine and that blessing - and this is truly frightening -

to a young German law student who was startled by a bolt of lightning.


        If you want to read the "Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences", commonly called the Ninety-Five Theses, you can find a good English translation at or you can simple enter 95 theses into your search engine.


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