Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind

By Michael Massing

The Short Take:

This exceptionally lengthy book is well worth the time. It focuses on the Dutch humanist Erasmus and Martin Luther, who was first inspired and later repelled by Erasmus’ writings. It also delves into 1500 years of Christian theology and philosophy, providing readers with exceptional context.

Why?

Massing brings a journalist’s in-depth reporting skill and approachable language to what could be an overwhelming subject. That’s especially true for someone like me who had no idea who Erasmus was (though the name sounded familiar) and knew not much more about Martin Luther (beyond the 95 theses nailed to a church door).

Not only did I learn about these two prolific and original writers/thinkers, I was exposed to the people and works that inspired them, the forces arrayed against them, and the other religious reformers they influenced. Massing also writes about the deadly repercussions that arose as a result of their writings, from the individual deaths of heretics to the 100,000-plus peasants who died fighting for a freedom inspired by Luther’s writings.

Massing displays the warts as well as the wisdom of both men. Luther consistently showed the courage of his convictions, but was vile in his written attacks on those who disagreed with him. Erasmus would too often equivocate out of fear for his life. Both had personal habits and complaints that were not admirable. But what great minds!

And, in Massing’s skillful hands, what a great history of Christianity’s first 1500 years as well as the fatal discord between these two titans!

A Little Plot:

That doesn’t really apply here. The book largely alternates its chapters between Erasmus and Luther, taking events in largely chronological order. It also briefly covers how their influences impacted religious belief (and more) up to the present.

 

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