Ah, the things you find in Topeka.
I wasn’t expecting to find Brand Luther (2015), but there it was in the New Books section of our library.
The title made me curious, but the subtitle really sealed the deal: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.
Luther + communication strategy? Irresistible.
And author Andrew Pettegree doesn’t disappoint. Get thee to a library (or to an online bookstore) if you have an interest in a) Luther and his works, b) Reformation history, c) history of rhetoric/mass communication/print, or d) history, generally. If all of these categories apply to you, move at superspeed.
In the final paragraph of Brand Luther, Pettegree restates the central paradox of the book, noting that “printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, but Luther was also a determining, shaping force in the German printing industry” (338). Pettegree makes this case convincingly, describing (in text and visuals) how Luther marshaled the resources of the print industry to defend his positions and advance his cause.
The book works as a biography of sorts, providing key details of Luther’s life, works, friends, and enemies. At the same time, it’s a story about media and movements—about writing great content quickly, tailoring it for an audience, getting the work into circulation, and crushing opponents with your output.
Pettegree offers some fascinating statistics on that output. He notes, for instance, that “in the years between 1521 and 1525, when the pamphlet war [Reformers vs. the established church] was at its height, Luther and his supporters outpublished their opponents by a margin of nine to one” (210). 9-1! As Pettegree points out, this dominance was a big advantage, helping to create “a clear impression of an emerging consensus.”
One of the real strengths of Brand Luther is Pettegree’s thorough research, including the colorful facts sprinkled throughout. For example, Pettegree reveals that Luther wrote 99 theses (against scholastic theology) just a few weeks before posting his 95 theses, but the former drew no interest. Artist Lucas Cranach was a three-time Bürgermeister (city leader) of Wittenberg. And the pamphlet wars saw titles such as Duke Heinrich’s Well-Grounded, Steadfast, Grave, True, Godly, Christian, Nobly Inclined Duplicae Against the Elector of Saxony’s Second Defamatory, Baseless, Fickle, Fabricated, Ungodly, Unchristian, Drunken, God-Detested Treatise.
Brand Luther maintains a sharp focus on the past, to Pettegree’s credit, but I did find myself thinking about contemporary connections at times. Among the topics that flitted through my head:
Luther fits the bill. If he were living now, would he be in the limelight?
The megachurch “look,” or visual identity
Luther’s publications all had a recognizable “look.” How are we doing with branding of Lutheran churches/publications today?
Or, how to dominate the airwaves. Luther and “the Donald,” as it turns out, have something in common.
Luther had it! Short, direct, colloquial. (For more on “Iowa,” click here.)
High aesthetic standards
No Comic Sans font for Luther. Probably not even Times New Roman.
Overall media strategy
Timing. Genius. Friends in the right places. A strong “voice.” Influence over media channels. An expanding crew of evangelizers. A recognizable brand. You can see Luther’s strategies everywhere you look, from product promotion to serious public debates. How might Luther operate in the digital age? (Just imagine those tweets…)
Before reading Brand Luther, I probably would have described the man as a reformer, theologian, preacher, professor, genius. Now, I’d add one more label: “media savvy communicator.”