If you’re a Christian, and serious about using communication and media to impact today’s culture, then you need to read the book “Brand Luther: How An Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Started the Protestant Reformation.” It’s a long title, but worth the time.
2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and as we wrestle with the issues surrounding our digital age, it’s fascinating to see how a relatively unknown monk named Martin Luther used the emerging platform of publishing to his advantage. European publishing exploded largely because of the popularity of Luther’s writings, and the book closely examines just how much Luther was involved in the technology of printing.
He personally supervised his publishing, refused to deal with shoddy printers, and instinctively understood the power of high quality design. He also experimented with different lengths of books – from very short pamphlets (since the printer’s investment was small) to longer, full length books. In fact, his brilliance is evident in three key decisions:
1) When the vast majority of theological writing was done in Latin, Luther chose to write in German, the language of the people. That made his work available to anyone who was literate, and created a sensation. One of the big reasons he won the day against his critics was that so many of them wrote in Latin, which would reach church leaders, but not the wider public.
2) His decision to write short. A remarkable amount of his total output was pamphlet-size works – quick to print, cheap to buy, and easy to carry and read. An English parallel was William Tyndale’s decision to print his New Testament as a small pocket sized edition. Since it was illegal to own a Bible in English, hiding it in a pocket was a big reason for it’s popularity. Luther wasn’t just focused on the content, he understood that packaging was critical.
3) His partnership with artist Lucas Cranach virtually assured that the cover designs of all his work would be noticed. At the time, few understood the importance of cover art, but Luther realized the power of perception.
The book points out that the great paradox of Luther’s life is that printing was essential to the creation of Martin Luther, while at the same time, Martin Luther was a powerful force in shaping the publishing industry in Germany and beyond.
“Brand Luther” is a fascinating look at how Luther used the media to reach the greatest number of people, and in the process, changed the direction of the Christian Church.
Perhaps more than anything, it is a compelling challenge for us to have a similar vision and determination to reach this culture in our age of digital media.