PW: You note in your biography Martin Luther that although Luther is often cited as one of the most influential people of the last millennium, there are only three English-language biographies of him in print. Why?
Martin Marty: Number one, any major figure receives attention in a cyclic fashion. We overdo Gandhi, and then we underdo Gandhi. Secondly, Luther has usually belonged to the history of ideas, and the trend in the last decades has been toward social history. We've seen lots of studies of day-to-day life or ordinary people. But today we're coming back to the understanding that ideas have consequences. We're coming to a kind of synthesis, where we're bringing social and intellectual history back together. So Luther is right in there.
PW: What about Luther is most challenging for a biographer?
MM: It's difficult to take the ideas that went with his set of experiences and stay faithful to them while making him a subject of vital curiosity for today. Also, his apocalyptic fervor and whatever else led him to such ugly, gross statements at the end of his life are hard to understand. There's no way to excuse that at all, but you also don't want to turn the whole book into one more polemic about Luther and the Jews.
PW: You're a lifelong Lutheran—are you by chance named after Martin Luther?
MM: It didn't occur to me to wonder about my name while I was growing up. But my brother and sister say that it was because of Luther. I left home at 14 to go to a Lutheran prep school. I always wanted to write. My brother recently found a book I wrote about Martin Luther when I was in eighth grade, so I must have been thinking about him for a long time. But the Luther we studied in ecclesiology was really boring. A century of scholastics had come along and systematized him.
PW: You've noted that Luther is spurring some popular interest, evinced by a recent PBS docudrama and also by the theatrical film Luther (with Joseph Fiennes). What did you think of those films?
MM: The PBS thing was very accurate. I had a little disagreement with the accent on him as a lonely liberator, because I see Luther much more in a churchly context. I think he thought of himself as a Catholic all his life. He wouldn't have gotten anywhere without his friends at Wittenberg University. But in general, it was very accurate.
PW: You write that Luther was a person often plagued with Anfechtungen. What does this mean?
MM: Most people see the move from doubt to faith as fairly simple. But that didn't work for Luther, who always said that although the devil, the world and our own flesh send us temptation, the deepest was sent from God. I call this the 3:00 in the morning feeling, when you wake up and it hits you how huge the universe is, and how pointless it all seems. We're absolutely tiny; we're dust. Luther had doubt even after he had faith. He says enough things that make him sound so cocksure and smug that you're alienated, and then you read other things where he sounds so desperate and alone that you wonder if he was really a Christian.
PW: You've written more than 50 books in your career, and you're at work on several more. Um, do you ever sleep?
MM: I don't need a lot of sleep. I get up at 4:44 in the morning, using a little watch alarm that my wife won't hear. I have my morning devotion with a Moravian book. My wife comes downstairs at six and we read four newspapers together. By 7:30 or 8, I come over to the studio. I take two little seven or 10-minute naps every day, and go to bed around 11 p.m. But I'm not compulsive. I lead a good life, going out to dinner with friends. On Sunday we'll go to a jazz mass. I don't think people have ever caught me saying the words, "I'm busy." I'm scheduled and I can't be in two places at the same time, but I'm not too busy. It's a good life.