Massing (Now They Tell Us), a former executive editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, superbly accomplishes the mammoth task of writing a dual biography of Desiderus Erasmus (1466–1536) and Martin Luther (1483–1546) that places the pair within their historical context. Massing argues that the schools of thought represented by Erasmus and Luther—a pluralistic humanism and an evangelical religion, respectively—still shape Western religious and political thought today. Erasmus, a Catholic priest, lived in the Netherlands; his translation of the New Testament sparked a large debate around authorship and intent. Luther, a German monk, famously launched the Protestant Reformation. Massing writes an entertaining, briskly paced narrative that whisks readers among the Low Countries, Paris, Germany, and England to ground the story within the complex theological history that helped to shape the work and lives of Luther and Erasmus. Apart from a few small stumbles—Massing seems not to understand the significance of the “golden rose” sent to England’s King Henry VIII by the pope, for example, although he later correctly explains the same symbol sent to Elector Frederick—this is a masterly work. Massing manages to juggle the complicated biographies and life work of both Erasmus and Luther while giving the reader a well-written, comprehensive background of pre-Reformation theology. (Feb.)
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated the author's role at the Columbia Journalism Review.