Daily Archives: December 2, 2008

Off Topic: We Are Obsessed with Relics

Actually, Joseph Fiennes says it more like, “We are ub-sehssed…With rel-licks;” and the pitch of his voice goes higher as the word “relics” comes out of his mouth about halfway through this film:


I came across this post by a fellow Falcons and Yellow Jackets fan last week. Were it not for his encouragement, or at least his blog entry, I would not have watched it. I must say, I’m glad I did.

Below you shall find what went through my mind during the screening:

Noting Martin Luther

About eighteen minutes into Eric Till’s film Luther (2003), based on the life of Martin Luther, Joseph Fiennes (who plays the title character) quizzes his theology instructor about the implications of interpreting the Bible. The conversation runs as follows:

Professor Andreas Karlstadt (Jochen Horst): Nulla salus extra ecclesiam. This debate has raged for over 1,4000 years, from the earliest days of the church. But now, the Fifth Lateran Council has reaffirmed Saint Cyprian’s famous dictum, “nulla salus extra ecclesiam—outside the Holy Roman church, there is no salvation.”

Luther: Professor Karlstadt, what of the Greek Christians?

Professor: The Greek Christians? Well, an early church document clearly states that a Roman bishop, not a Greek, was Saint Peter’s successor. And, of course, it was Peter whom our Lord Christ made His representative on earth.

Luther: So we must consider the saints of the Greek church to be damned?

Professor: You miss the point.

Luther: But that is the inevitable consequence of Cyprian’s claim—Greek Christians are outside salvation. Or is this claim based on an over-literal reading of Matthew 16:18—“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church.” Yet two lines earlier, in verse 16, we find the very foundation of our faith—“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Surely the more universal we make these great words, the nearer we come to the mind of Christ.

Professor: You question the authority of the church council, sir?

Luther: Not at all. Though in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council allowed the Cyprian could be wrong and salvation could exist outside the church….though not outside Christ.

The camera tracks in to Fiennes’s face in close-up when he utters these last lines, then back to the Professor, and then immediately cuts to an extreme low angle medium shot of two horizontal wooden beams (parallel to the top and the bottom of the frame) and a young boy hanging from a noose (his upper body is visible and is parallel to the sides of the frame). His eyes are closed, his skin is a pale purple and dingy; his blond hair is long enough to graze his eyebrows. The camera then tracks down and the rest of his body can be seen “interlaced” with the rest of the wooden beams. This shot is on screen for about ten seconds. The boy’s father cuts him down and Luther cradles the body. The boy apparently committed suicide and would thus not be received a Christian burial. Luther felt it was ridiculous. He wanted to give the boy a proper burial. Another thought-provoking set of lines delivered as he starts digging:

Some people say that according to God’s justice, this boy is damned because he took his life. I say it was overcome by the devil. Is this child any more to blame for the despair that overtook him than an innocent man who is murdered by a robber in the woods? God must be mercy. God is mercy.

In the next scene, Luther is speaking to a congregation and basically teaches that God is not angry and bent on making your afterlife miserable. Rather, God is love. The scene following that one features Professor Karlstadt and another teacher listening in on one of Luther’s lectures. Did the real Martin Luther have such a sense of humor akin to the college professors you admired or adored, the ones that made inorganic chemistry or English 101 remotely entertaining? Observe:

When I became a monk, I believed the monk’s cowl would make me holy. Was I an arrogant fool? Now they have made me a doctor of divinity and I’m tempted to believe that this scholar’s robe will make me wise. Well, God once spoke through the mouth of an ass and perhaps he’s about to do so again.

But, I’ll tell you straight what I think. Who here has been to Rome? Did you buy an indulgence? I did. For a silver florin, I freed my grandfather from Purgatory. For twice that, I could have sprung grandma and Uncle Marcus too, but I didn’t have the funds, so they had to stay in the hot place. As for myself, the priests assured me that by gazing at the sacred relics, I could down my time in Purgatory. Luckily for me, Rome had enough nails from the Holy Cross to shoe every horse in Saxony.

But there are relics elsewhere in Christendom. Eighteen out of twelve apostles are buried in Spain. And yet here in Wittenberg, we have the pick of the crop—bread from the Last Supper, milk from the Virgin’s breast, a thorn that pierced Christ’s brow on Calvary, and 19,000 other bits of sacred bone, all authenticated sacred relics. Even John Tetzel himself, Inquisitor of Poland and Saxony, seller of indulgences extraordinary connoisseur of relics, envies our collection! To possess them for a single night, he would willingly surrender five years of his earthly life. Or 500 years in Purgatory.

Later in the film, Luther meets with Girolamo Aleander (Jonathan Firth), representative for Cardinal Cajetan (Mathieu Carriere). Aleander instructs Luther to say “one word and one word only, ‘Revoco—‘ I recant.What transpires between Luther and the Cardinal sounds like something I would hear different denominations speak on:

Cardinal: My son, I know you desire to be a faithful servant of Christ and His church. I am here to help you…

Luther: Have I erred?

Cardinal: Yes, you have erred.

Luther: How? That I may avoid such error again.

Cardinal: You have erred by teaching new doctrines.

Luther: Which of my teachings is offensive to Rome?

Cardinal: For one, indulgences. Pope Clement’s decree, Unigenitus, clearly states that the merits of Christ are a treasure of indulgences.

Luther: Acquire. I’m sorry, Your Grace. I think you’ll find it says….”The merits of Christ acquire the treasure of indulgences.”

Cardinal: I am not here to wrangle with you.

Luther: No, Your Grace. But, Unigenitus was issued 175 years ago and were this degree no so embarrassing to our church, perhaps it would not be commonly called Extravagante and left out of most collections of canon law. It contradicts Anomitanos.

Cardinal: Our present Pope Leo is in harmony with Clement’s decree…and there ends the matter.

Luther: The honor of the papacy is not preserved by the naked assertion of Papal authority but by safeguarding the Pope’s credibility and the clear testimonies of divine Scripture.

Cardinal: The Pope interprets Scripture.

Luther: He may interpret it, but he is not above it. We both know that the selling of indulgences has no Scriptural support. If common people could read the Bible for themselves, they would understand just how broad the church’s interpretations are.

Cardinal: That is outrageous! The Scriptures are too complex for even the average priest to understand, much less the common man. Indulgences are an established tradition which give comfort to millions of simple Christians.

Luther: Comfort? Your Grace, I’m not interested in comfort. Comfort is not the issue!

Cardinal: So you consider your discomfort more important than the survival of Christianity?

Luther: I’m interested in the truth!

Cardinal: The truth? The Turks are building armies on our eastern borders. We are on the brink of war. To the west, lies a world of souls who have never heard the name of Christ. That is the truth! Christianity is tearing apart, and just when we need unity most, you create confusion!

Luther: My goal is not to quarrel with the Pope or the church, but to defend them with more than mere opinion. The Gospel cannot be denied for the word of man.

Another good bit:

Prince Frederick (Sir Peter Ustinov): There are two ways of saying no to someone you believe to be stronger than yourself. The first is to say nothing and go on merely doing what you were doing before and pretend that you never heard. Allow time and inertia to be your allies….The second is to say no in such a kind and thoughtful way it befuddles them. Naturally, if both these strategies fail, there is nothing but to relent. Or to fight! And of course, if you decide to fight, you also have to decide to win.

End titles:

What happened at Augsburg pushed open the door of religious freedom. Martin Luther lived for another 16 years, preaching and teaching the Word. He and Katharina von Bora enjoyed a happy marriage and six children. Luther’s influence extended into economics, politics, education and music, and his translation of the Bible became a foundation stone of the German language. Today over 540 million people worship in the churches inspired by his Reformation.

The film’s tagline: Rebel. Genius. Liberator.


Luther’s faith in a God of mercy and love was certainly an important cornerstone (?) of his spirituality. Politically, I think his belief that a person does not buy his/her way to salvation is more consequential. The Church is not just a building or the people who worship in it. Nevertheless, a church must be built, which costs money. It appears that playing to the power of fear was the most effective way to obtain the necessary funds to construct these palaces of worship. Intellectually or psychologically, the power of pride was not yet fully understood. Not that all Christian denominations have abandoned the wielding of fear to convert or maintain religious allegiance, but churches are able to raise money without selling salvation.

I wonder if Luther would also believe that one cannot buy happiness. In addition to his own resolve, he was fortunate to have students and supporters who knew to take advantage of the printing press. Perhaps literacy rates were not anything to sing about, but the dissemination of ideas through word-of-mouth and pamphlets undoubtedly worked in his favor.

Was he not aware of the intersection of politics and religion? Or all too aware and hence rebelled against it by maintaining a surface of simplicity? Simplicity as in, if Avril Lavigne were to recite those famous words, he would respond, “Not everything has to be so complicated.”

I think Bill Maher would like this film. He could point to various dialogue pieces and scenes and go, “aha! You see. Violence and religion may not always hold hands but they’re never a long way apart.”

It might be Joseph Fiennes’s acting or other actors’ expressions, but I find myself grinning with amusement more often than the dramatic tone of the film would suggest is appropriate or applicable. Furthermore, I can’t get over Fiennes’s head piece, though.



Either that or he doesn’t have a good skull. He’s sporting that shaved-on-top-but-fringe-of-hair around. It seems like the top of his head should be higher, protrude upwards more, but it doesn’t…so his face just looks enormous. His head doesn’t look as weird when he dons the black cap. Compare with pictures of him with hair.



I had asked my fellow Falcons and Yellow Jackets fan about the film’s lighting and set design. Was it “dark & grimy? Sunny and grimy? Sunny and muddy?” and if the characters spoke “with vague English accent? (which tends to happen when Hollywood makes any film set anywhere in Europe in any decade past, present, or future).”

Luther is sunny, muddy, dingy, dusty, but not so much grimy. Yes, the characters spoke with a very vague English accent.

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Pic creds: google image search