So what's the best film about Martin Luther and the Reformation? Martin Luther (1953) or Luther (2003)? The 2017 PBS documentary, Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World or its Wisconsin Synod remix, Return to Grace: Luther's Life and Legacy?
I have fond memories of the 1953 film, having seen many screenings in church basements as a child. As an adult, living in Topeka, Kansas, from 1983 to 1986, I remember the local PBS station showing the film every year during the last week in October. There was an introduction by David Soul, who some may remember from the classic 1970s television series, “Starsky and Hutch”. The actor also is the son of Dr. Richard Solberg, a Lutheran minister who served as a religious affairs advisor to the U.S. High Commission in Berlin and as senior representative for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) refugee relief agency that was involved in the post World War II reconstruction of Germany.
“Martin Luther” still has its strong points, I think, but there are some things that make it less than the best introduction to the Reformation for contemporary audiences. It's in black-and-white, of course, and slow-paced, with less fluid camera work than more current films. Then there's the curious fact that the British-made film has all the people of higher education and status speak Oxford English, while the peasants speak with working-class accents. That's something that's hard for people not raised with British class consciousness to appreciate, even if one speaks English in the first place.
The 2003 film has its weaknesses, too. Mainly, I think, because it tries to present a broader historical context, yet within the confines of a two-hour featur film, it presents too much information and yet not enough. Who are all these people, and what is their relationship to Martin Luther? It's hard to keep track, if you do not already know. I have heard the 2017 documentary is even better, but I have not had the chance to see it.
At any rate, we showed what I think are the best parts of the 2003 film: Luther´s pilgrimage to Rome in 1511; the entire segment on Tetzel's sale of indulgences and Luther's posting of the 95 Theses; the Diet of Worms; and the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession. We invited people from the community, and the time between the clips allowed for plenty of discussion about issues which still divide us from the Roman Catholic church (penance, purgatory and the papacy), and the enduring significance of “Scripture alone”, “faith alone” and “grace alone”.
Also, in the week before our special Reformation Day service on October 29, Luz Maria presented vacation Bible school lessons emphasize salvation by faith and grace in place of her regular afterschool tutoring. The preschool children heard of the importance of everyone being able to read the Bible in their own language and made a representation of Luther's seal.
But the real high point of it all was on Sunday, October 29, when we received Jeckson Gabriel Marquiz Marquina and Kimberly Gabriela Roa Marquina as communicant members of our congregation by public confession of faith. As I stressed in the sermon, public confession is not only good for the soul, it could change the world.