With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming on, I’m already seeing pieces — they annoy me too much for me to link to them — that see the anniversary as an opportunity to take sides, to say The Reformation is good because it supports this thing I approve of or The Reformation is bad because it supports this thing I disapprove of or This good thing just happened and thanks be to the Reformation which after all caused it or This bad thing just happened so curses upon the Reformation which after all caused it. It’s going to be bad enough when serious Catholics and Protestants use the anniversary to cudgel one another — that’s already started — but everyone else is going to want a piece of the action as well.
We could strive to understand the Reformation, to open up a very complex and multilayered phenomenon for reflection, to break down simplistic caricatures, to discover unexplored (or underexplored) possibilities. But taking sides is what our cultures seems to do with everything now. Everyone seems to be asking of every phenomenon, though with their own tribal affiliation substituted, “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?” So what does the Reformation mean for feminism, LGBTQ rights, transgender rights, race, Republicans and Democrats, Muslims in Europe? That’s what we’re going to be hearing for the next year: a few words on Martin Luther and then that’s enough about him, let’s talk about us and figure out whether Luther is for us or against us. Whatever is happening in this very moment will be the interpretative key people will use to (they think) unlock the meaning of the Reformation. For those of us who are more seriously interested in history and the complicated ways it does and does not shape the present, this is not going to be fun.