An 1874 lithograph of The Life of Martin Luther and the heroes of the Reformation

From Worms to woke

The resemblance between woke and the Reformation goes beyond means to content

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Have we been here before? Now, in 2022, with war abroad and woke at home, we contemplate the bitter dissolution of the hopes of the late twentieth century. Five hundred years ago, in 1521, Martin Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms signalled the death of the brave new world promised by the Year of Jubilee in 1500. There was even, in the Dutch scholar Erasmus, a Fukuyama-like figure who had formulated the hopes in their most extravagant form. Is history repeating? Or only alliterating?

When Pope Alexander VI proclaimed the Year of Jubilee there was good reason to believe its promise. The city of Rome itself was arising from its medieval squalor. The Roman empire was about to be reconstituted under the house of Habsburg. The physical glories of Greece and Rome were being matched and sometimes exceeded by the artists and architects of the Renaissance. And the literature and thought of the classical world were being recovered by Renaissance scholarship and given wider dissemination than ever by the new medium of printing.

Borne aloft by this achievement, the supreme exponent of the new scholarship, Desiderius Erasmus, could even dream of an international republic of letters, the end of war and a new era of universal peace. In 1518 the dream became reality when the ancient enemies of England and France signed a Treaty of Perpetual and Universal Peace and invited the other European powers to join.

A mere three years later, however, the dream was shattered. For the future, it turned out, would belong not to the fastidious, cosmopolitan, pacific Erasmus, but to the brutal brawler Martin Luther. Passionate, proudly provincial, equally hot in love and hate, Luther might have been forged (as in one of his mine-owner father’s smelting furnaces) as the perfect instrument to fulfil Christ’s terrible saying:

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother … And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. (Matthew 10: 34-36)

What had happened beyond a clash of two diametrically opposed characters? How to explain it to a modern audience? And how, in particular, to shake them out of the lazy assumption that the Renaissance and Reformation were an undifferentiated “Good Thing”?

Five years ago, I thought I had the answer. I was presenting the BBC2 documentary to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing up (or not!) of the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And I decided to begin with a shot of the shocking scene in which Isis terrorists burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot in a cage.

“Exactly 500 years ago”, I intoned, “a breach within Christianity tore Europe and the Church apart. … It was our very own Jihad. It’s called the Reformation.”

The analogy of Jihad works well, especially for the physical horrors of the Reformation: the burnings at the stake, the massacres, the terrorist murders and would-be murders of monarchs and princes by religious fanatics, the iconoclasm and wholesale destruction of works of art. But it doesn’t explain how this now-alien behaviour took hold in our own society.

I came nearer the mark later in the film when I looked at the contrasting ways in which Erasmus and Luther had used the new medium of printing.

Erasmus’s books were learned, beautifully printed Latin tomes. Luther’s most important works, on the other hand, were short pamphlets. Enlivened with illustrations and irreverent and frequently dirty jokes, they were dashed off in the heat of the moment and quickly and cheaply printed. Above all, they were in German.

Another modern comparison was irresistible. “We,” I declared to camera, “are living through a media revolution too — with the rise and rise of the social media.” “So think of the Reformation and the printing press,” I continued, “as the ultimate Twitter storm with Luther … as its natural star”.

How innocent I was! I’d never used Twitter (I still haven’t) and something had to be faked up on my phone. I didn’t know (how could I?) that three years later I would be on the receiving end of a Luther-style Twitter storm and cancellation myself. And I’d barely heard of woke.

All of which means a recent article by Jonathan Haidt’s in The Atlantic hit me as both a personal and historical revelation. Haidt argues that the triumph of woke is datable and due to the introduction of specific features on Facebook and Twitter: the “Share” button on the former and the “Retweet” on the latter.

Printing and the vernacular was how Luther’s ideas had become viral

Combined with algorithms to maximise the sharing of content, the effect of the changes was to create the machinery of the Twitter storm, which in turn is the principal disseminator and enforcer of woke. Too late, one of the engineers who had worked on the “Retweet” button awoke to what he had done: “As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, ‘We might just have handed a four-year-old a loaded weapon.’”

Following Haidt’s chronology, the rise of Twitter takes about eight years: from 2013, when the specific features he identifies took full effect, to the summer of 2021, when Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times and declared that it had franchised its editorship to Twitter.

Luther’s rise, astonishingly for the age and its technological resources, takes about half that time: from an obscure academic theologian in 1517 to the most famous man in Europe in 1521. One of its shrewdest contemporary observers was the Englishman Cuthbert Tunstall, the future bishop of Durham and defender of orthodoxy at the court of Henry VIII against Thomas Cromwell’s Lutheranism.

Tunstall was then the King’s ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and as such witnessed the opening of the Diet of Worms. He drew the following lesson for Henry’s all-powerful minister, Cardinal Wolsey: “Call before you the printers and booksellers and give them a straight charge that they bring none of [Luther’s] books into England, nor that they translate none of them into English.” Because printing and the vernacular was how Luther’s ideas had become viral.

Haidt and Tunstall are separated by five centuries. But they analyse the same phenomenon of dissemination — or, to use a more modish vocabulary, how ideas become viral — with the same tools.

But the resemblance between woke and the Reformation goes beyond means to content. Both begin in universities. Both have a strong streak of solipsism: “my truth” now; Luther’s straining at the stool for an understanding of God’s grace then. Both are consciously elite movements: the “elect” then and the woke now. Both obsess about the minutiae of language. And both take an academic idea and use it to delegitimate the targeted power structure.

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone rendered the whole structure of the late medieval Church redundant, since it was based on the idea that salvation was earned by good works or indeed bought by hard cash. Similarly the woke attempt to frame Black slavery as the original sin of the Anglo-Saxon world is intended to destroy the claim of either the American constitution or British history to embody a just political settlement.

Two principal conclusions arise. First, that the neo-religious aspects of woke, noted by many observers, are not accidental but substantial and intrinsic. In other words that woke (whether you like it or not) is a real Puritan reformation. Which would suggest in turn that our culture wars are all too likely to turn into real ones too. 

The signs are clear in the USA. Here we can console ourselves that the Puritan victory in the seventeenth-century Civil Wars was a brief and Pyrrhic one before the Erastianism of the English state, inherited from Henry VIII, put religion back in its place. So may it be with woke!

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