Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand argued that it was necessary to go back 500 years to explain the New World. He started with the new religion that was born—Protestantism. It was of course just a version of the old Catholicism, but it had some important innovations that had important long term consequences. Martin Luther was particularly vexed by,
“the regional archbishop, in order to cover the costs of celebrating his elevation to cardinal, has encouraged local Christians to pay money to be forgiven their sins (and the sins of deceased loved ones), thereby reducing or eliminating the posthumous wait in purgatory.”
After all it really didn’t make sense that paying money for prayers would put us in front of the line in heaven.
Luther was also upset by the holy relics found in his local church. Most of them of course were fake. The relics included:
“a piece of straw from baby Jesus’s manger, threads from His swaddling clothes, a bit of Mary’s breast milk, a hair from adult Jesus’s beard, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, and a thorn from His crucifixion crown. The young theologian, appalled by the church’s merchandising, writes an impassioned three-thousand-word critique in proto-PowerPoint form, nails it to the door of the church on All Saints’ Eve, Halloween, and for good measure sends a copy of his screed to the archbishop himself.”
The church had been selling fake news. It’s not popular now; it wasn’t popular then.
The manifesto that Luther published in 1517 also had a profound effect. Andersen described its genesis this way:
“Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phoney VIP passes to Heaven. “There is no divine authority,” one of his theses pointed out, “for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.”
That didn’t have much to say for itself either. But Martin Luther had 2 extremely important ideas that actually had some long-term pernicious effects. The first of those ideas was that,
“clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for him- or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.”
This allowed everyone to create his or her own truth. While I am no advocate for relying on authority, this idea had some dangerous consequences. Some people in time abandoned the notion of truth entirely, or at least substituted the idea that anyone could claim truth for any idea, no matter how hair-brained.
Luther had a second important concept to bring forth. This was the idea that belief or faith was all-important. It did not matter what one did, if one had the right faith or belief. You could not buy your way into heaven but why were beliefs or faith so important? I have never quite understood that. Maybe someone can explain.
Andersen describes the new attitude of Protestantism this way:
“…out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”
Good ideas are not often enough to launch a revolution in thought on their own. In Luther’s case he took advantage of an astounding new technology—the printing press. As Andersen said,
“No new technology, during the thousand years between gunpowder and the steam engine, was as disruptive as the printing press, and Protestantism was its first viral cultural phenomenon.”
Reminds me of the disruptive effect modern technologies like social media have had. Are we on the brink of another revolution in thought? What will it’s long term consequences be?