Reviewed by Beth Kreitzer (Belmont Abbey College)
Published on H-German (April, 2008)
An Analysis of Luther's Writings on Death and Grief
In Martin Luther as Comforter, Neil Leroux offers a rhetorical analysis and close reading of Martin Luther's writings on death and its effects on the living, which ranged from treatises to public and private consolatory letters. The numerous writings that Leroux investigates cover a wide period, from 1519 to shortly before his own death, but still represent only a small portion of Luther's vast corpus. Not all of these texts have received extended attention by previous scholars, perhaps because they fall into the pastoral and practical categories of Luther's writings.
Leroux's own interest in the topic was sparked by a personal tragedy that propelled him into the contemporary discussions (or lack thereof) on death and grief. This book is clearly an outgrowth of his experiences with modern perspectives on and responses to death, dying, and those left behind--the book is replete with references to contemporary theory, much of it critical. And although Leroux is not so naïve as to believe that a sixteenth-century theologian can speak directly to the twenty-first-century experience, he is also not so enamored with modern psychological approaches that he thinks they could not use a fresh perspective, perhaps even a "reformation" of sorts. Leroux also is sharply critical of the lack of particularly Christian responses to the processes of dying and grief, and feels that in this particular arena, Luther has something very important to offer modern people.
The analysis begins with two documents written early in the Reformation, the "Sermon on Dying," a bestseller of 1519, and the "Fourteen Consolations," also published that same year. Perhaps the most obviously medieval of the texts here considered, these two writings from 1519 are Luther's contributions to (and corrections of) the ars moriendi, the popular "self-help" books for the dying in the late medieval period. Leroux argues that Luther uses these opportunities to correct the medieval preoccupation with the saints, insisting instead that true comfort comes from Christ, especially through scripture but also through the sacraments.
The remainder of the expository chapters deal with Luther's writings on martyrdom (beginning to be a pressing concern for the reformers), funeral sermons (funeral practice saw a seismic shift in the sixteenth century), consolatory letters (affirming the experience of grief in survivors, but frequently advising them to moderate its expression), and a fascinating open letter on whether or not it was morally acceptable to flee the plague (an excellent place to look for a view of Luther's ethics). This collection of texts represents some of the current hot topics in Reformation and early modern historical studies--martyrdom and popular piety are areas of intense interest among contemporary scholars. While Leroux draws on many of the central secondary studies in these areas, however, he contributes little to their discussions.
Martin Luther as Comforter sits in a rather odd position for a scholarly study--Leroux's primary methodological approach is linguistic, and he provides close attention to Luther's various texts, noting the uses of doublets, the first person plural (and other grammatical matters), literary forms such as anaphora and anthypophora, and literary structures such as the exordium and salutatio. While these terms are handily defined in an appendix, they are less integrated into the text, although they litter every page. Leroux's stated intention for such linguistic parsing is that "by looking closely at how Luther argues, we can learn the power his discourse has to convince readers what can be done about death" (p. xxv), and yet he spends remarkably little time in the book actually analyzing the actual or potential effect of these various linguistic forms and formats upon Luther's readers. He relies heavily on secondary sources for the historical background and situation of the texts, with plentiful citation. Yet, he correctly claims not to have written a historical study, for the contexts of the various writings are not nearly detailed enough for the reader to gain an adequate understanding of the "text in context." One example of this problem is the treatment of the tradition of ars moriendi. Here, the reader cannot tell to what extent Luther's writings were similar or dissimilar to those of his contemporaries. The history in this book seems instead to serve the purpose of making Luther's writings just intelligible enough to bring them forward to today's reader as contribution to and corrective for today's writings on death, dying, and the processes of grief. Leroux does point particular criticism toward Richard Marius's biography of Luther, which argued that Luther was obsessed with death, but this seems to be his primary contribution to historical discussions.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Beth Kreitzer. Review of Leroux, Neil R., Martin Luther as Comforter: Writings on Death.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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