Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes in the First Things blog from a Lutheran perspective and the Lutheran World Federation's Lutheran Reading Challenge. Robert R. Reno writes in the print edition of First Things from an appreciative Roman Catholic perspective. Both make the point of Luther being accessible, open, with an immediacy, and from the vantage point of the Scriptural witness. All good and well and I agree wholeheartedly.
There is another reason why Luther is good reading and relevant reading for our age. The concerns of Luther age old concerns that never age. One of them is authority. In a world of constant change and competing voices, we look with fresh eyes on the whole issue of authority in the Church. Is it deposited in a history (ecumenical councils), in a magisterium (teachers or structures), in consensus (catholicity) in offices (priest, bishop, pope), the individual (Protestantism), or Scripture (not a naked Scripture but Scripture as the living voice that calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies with a uniform voice yesterday, today, and forever the same)? Luther's struggle was not so much directed toward a man (pope) or institution (episcopacy or papacy) but toward asphalia, certainty -- authority which builds confidence instead of question or doubt. That is exactly the issue today. We have no objective truth, no ecumenical consensus, no authoritative voice (to counter the idol of personal relevance or preference), and no standard of truth larger than the person (like my Nebraska kin used to say -- a mile wide and an inch deep when referring to the Platte River).
The second point that makes Luther relevant is the idea of guilt and the search for a clear and clean conscience (read up on John Kleinig here). Oh, sure, we act like guilt is an outmoded concept, that shame is a vestige of the past, and that none of us feels bad anymore about what we say, think, feel, do, or desire. But of course that is a lie. We have attempted to deal with guilt by making sin acceptable. Instead of solving the problem, it has only created a chaos of disorder both internally within the individual and externally within society. If nothing is a sin, then nothing is good either. Secondly, we spend an inordinate portion of our day and use our technology (social media) in search of fake friends and a place to mouth off about things yet find ourselves fearful of real conversation where ideas may be challenged and we just might have to defend ourselves instead of unfriend our enemies. We have no clear conscience because we refuse to admit sin out loud so its guilt and shame are buried deep -- too deep to be answered by the one thing that bestows a right spirit within us -- repentance, confession, absolution, and trust in the forgiveness won for us by Christ's death. Luther knew this pain and he speaks as one of us even when he says out loud what nobody says openly anymore. Just because we do not talk about it does not mean it is no longer an issue.
Finally, is the issue of suffering. We have invested all our energy in pursuing a world free from any pain. As lofty as this goal is, it has begun to consume us and leaves us tattered and weary by the effort to sustain happiness and to key in on pleasure and the highest and holiest of virtues. We deny suffering its right to exist and so if we feel any pain or sorrow, it is our duty or someone else's duty to relieve us. It is, however, an impossibility to live life without suffering. Suffering is inherent to life since the fall -- up there with sin and death. Luther is relevant here because he speaks to suffering -- to the ache of the guilty conscience who knows not how to be at peace with God and others. . . to the hurt of a father who has lost his daughter. . . to the fear of a man whose life hangs in the balance every day. . . and to the struggle of friends who become enemies and the loneliness of championing truth and virtue not popular with the people or the times. He speaks boldly but compassionately, knowing that addressing sin is not the hard voice but the prelude to the rest of forgiveness and to the blessed hope of life defiant before death. Maybe it even helps that Luther has an occasional potty mouth in a world where coarseness and vulgarity have become the norm of conversation instead of the expletive deleted from the public square.
Lutherans do not deify Luther nor are we bound to everything he has written (and, friends, he wrote a great deal to be sure!). But we Lutherans have a hearty voice who addresses these common concerns with a Biblical familiarity and vitality that insists there is but one authority that endures forever. And we also have a real person whose real life struggles and abiding faith can surely speak to a time of uncertainty and to a culture more convinced of doubt than anything else.