'Martin Luther On Trial': Enthralling from Start to Finish

Max McLean is the artistic director for the Fellowship of Performing Arts, and he is no stranger to Christians. He has adapted and performed some of C. S. Lewis’ works, has given dramatic presentations of Genesis and Mark’s Gospel, and has as well narrated the Bible in several translations – and on and on! His presentation of Luther’s “Here I Stand” is wonderful. McLean partnered with Chris Cragin-Day, a professor and accomplished playwright, to write “Martin Luther on Trial.”

So, what of the play? Let’s approach it from two angles.

Artistic evaluation: as theater

The premise of the play is that the Devil nagged Jesus into agreeing to allow a re-trial of Martin Luther. Satan accuses Luther of having committed the unpardonable sin, ending his life in a despair that amounts to the rejection of God’s grace, and thus of being more fit for Hell than Heaven. The judge is “Saint Peter,” and Luther’s surprised defense attorney is his wife, Katie (nee Katherine von Bora).

The stage setting is spare but very effective, featuring a pile of books towering up out of sight, and five main locations for Peter, Lucifer, Katie, the witness, and Luther’s appearances. Sound effects, lighting and audio cues effectively punctuate the narrative.

On first hearing, some might fear a boring recitation of historical events. Nothing could be less true. The two-plus hours absolutely flash by. My eighteen-year-old son Jonathan was startled at the play’s end – not because it seemed incomplete, but because it was that captivating.

The performers are wonderful artists. Four actors play single parts (Cameron Folmar as the Devil; Kersti Bryan as Katie; John FitzGibbon as Peter, and Christian Conn as Martin Luther). Two others divide twelve roles between them, six each going to Mark Boyett (including Hitler [!], St. Paul, Rabbi Josel, and Freud), and Jamil A. C. Mangan (Tetzel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Melanchthon, and others). Each embodies these diverse characters vividly.

The proceedings are set in a limbo that must be present-day, given that the present Pope Francis is called as one of the witnesses. There are many touches of effective humor, as well as gripping drama. I was startled at first by a few vulgarities; but they were spoken by Luther (who in truth had a very salty tongue), and more chiefly by the Devil (who is, after all, the Devil). The play is recommended for ages thirteen and older.

The testimony of the witnesses was interspersed with historical vignettes enacting major moments from Luther’s life. These were very gripping, creative, effective. I was thrilled by the dramatization of Luther’s struggle over Romans 1:17, with Paul himself present, attempting to steer Luther in the right direction. Luther’s dialogue with Rabbi Josel was illuminating and moving, as were the depictions of his trials – both legal and personal.

While the titular focus was Luther, it’s clear that the person of Satan gripped the writers, as he shares the play’s focus, and arguably dominates its most dramatic moments. Satan is in turns witty, winsome, sly, malevolent and raging. Folmar does a terrific job. Lucifer’s arc climaxes intensely with a chilling quotation from Milton.

As the play unfolded, I found myself moved to laughter and tears, agreement and disagreement, and spontaneous exclamations. Jonathan and I — despite head colds — were enthralled from start to finish.

Doctrinal evaluation: as theology

I am a Christian pastor of Reformed convictions, and have been an ardent student of the Bible and its teaching for almost 45 years. From that perspective, my thoughts are more conflicted.

Generally speaking, I thought the play was very fair to Luther. He was both brilliant and baffling – a vivid individual, and a study in contradictions. Every year for decades I’ve impersonated Luther for my family and/or church to celebrate Reformation Day, and I think just about every time I’ve had “Luther” say, “I said and did things I now heartily regret.” Such would include his vicious words against the peasants, the popes, and the Jews. These turn up in the play, which is fair game.

At first blush, Luther’s fear of God seemed too psychologized into daddy issues, rather than stemming from his genuine (and accurate!) sense of God’s holiness and his own sin. Then I realized that this perspective was presented as Lucifer’s view, as well as Freud’s – which makes perfect sense. Of course they would diminish his reverence.

Luther’s falling-out with the Jews is vividly shown as I also understand it. My very minor quibble is that I would have liked to see Luther’s scholarship better represented. In the play, Rabbi Josel, criticizing Luther’s translation, announces that the Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 means young woman and not virgin. The play-Luther had no response; actual-Luther had a response. He said he’d give 100 gulden to anyone who could show the word used even once of a married woman—adding that God only knew where he’d get the money!

What troubled me more were the possible doctrinal implications of various facets.

First, I had to make peace with the entire premise – that the Devil could nag Jesus into a concession, that Peter would be the judge, that Katy would be the attorney, that the issue would even be allowed. But I realized this was a literary “what-if” framing to set the play – like Narnia or Middle Earth or The Great Divorce’s “grey town.”

Then it troubled me that Martin Luther King Jr. seemed presented as a Christian and as an admirer of Luther’s. On the one hand, King’s adulteries were alluded to. On the other, no mention was made of his dismissal of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, as well as the Gospel. So – important figure, absolutely; but a Christian authority on Martin Luther?

Then the present Pope appears as a sympathetic Christian. I would have been less surprised, perhaps, if I had known more about Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play. I learned that she is a great fan of Pope Francis. It shows.

This is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I join those concerned that too many have forgotten the past and present reasons for the Reformation. There is an inseparable chasm between Biblically-faithful Christianity and Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church has not disowned Trent, and the Pope still issues indulgences for services rendered. (See also here.) The Biblical Sola’s held high by the Reformers and their heirs are still hammer-blows on Rome’s dogma, and obfuscation is not genuinely helpful for anyone.

Does this play blur those lines? Some parts of it would seem to do so, and I could wish they were otherwise.

Yet the conclusion of the play is so complex, dramatic, deft – I won’t spoil it for you. But I will say that I didn’t fully “get” it for some time; then it came to me. Its resolution puts Luther at exactly the right place, and exalts the grace and majesty of God.

Summary. I’m very glad to have seen it, and want to see it again. My son and I both loved it. We relived the drama and humor, marveled at the creativity, and discussed the jarring notes. With all that in mind, taken as a play and not as a sermon, I recommend it to you. See it as a work of art, not a sermon or theological treatise. It’s entertaining, informative, provocative. It will leave you smiling, and thinking.

“Martin Luther On Trial” continues in Houston through October 29, then moves on to Dallas, Minneapolis, and Tulsa.