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When scatology informs theology: The bowels of the Reformation

Lee Gatiss | 31 Jan 2017

Scatology. It sounds like it might be the science behind having a messy desk, with books and papers scattered all over it. But actually, scatology is the study of or preoccupation with excrement or obscenity.

Now, I'm more used to talking about things theological, but sometimes a bit of inter-disciplinary study can be enlightening. So let's get scatological with the Reformation. Because when it comes to understanding the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther in particular, there's a lot of material for us to explore!

1. Luther's irritable bowel

During his great confrontations with the powers that be, Luther suffered from terrible stomach cramps. He developed severe constipation at the Diet of Worms (but not, just to be clear, because of a diet of worms). Being confined to the Wartburg castle for his own safety in 1521-1522 did not help either, and in one of his letters from that time he complains of a very sore bottom. His misery was only partially relieved when a friend managed to send him some laxatives. He spent a lot of time in the lavatory.

Luther never thought he had the constitution to be a teacher, never mind such a prominent one. With a huge workload, bad food, and little opportunity for exercise he was frequently ill with stomach complaints, gout, kidney stones, headaches, and an abscess on his neck. Unsurprisingly, it made him often irritable and impatient.

Luther is one of a select group of people over the centuries who have changed the whole course of the world. But for him, the wind of history blew painfully.

2. Crouching tiger

Many people keep books or magazines in the smallest room of the house. They help the user to relax perhaps, or to redeem the time that must be spent there each day. It can be quite revealing to see which volumes people choose to shelve next to their porcelain chamber pots. Some people I know have whole bookshelves installed in their water closets (clergy friends — you know who you are!).

"It can be quite revealing to see which volumes people choose to shelve next to their porcelain chamber pots."

Luther also kept books next to the loo. Especially the books written against him by his fiercest opponents. This was not a tactic to help him unwind by reading — it would hardly have been soothing for an intense and feisty man like him to read inflammatory material at such a crucial moment. But it did have one advantage. They were soft, strong, and thoroughly absorbent: he used these books as toilet paper.

3. Potty mouth

I was initially quite reluctant to write about Luther's toilet humour, aspiring to be a man of culture, spirituality, and intellect. But there's such a wealth of material, it is difficult to restrain the urge. It's better out than in.

"Almost every night when I wake up the devil is there and wants to dispute with me,” wrote Luther. He tried Bible bashing but it didn’t always work against such an adversary. So, he said, “I have come to this conclusion: When the argument that the Christian is without the law and above the law doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

He didn’t restrict himself to speaking of Satan in this way. Some of the Pope's teachings were "farts out of his stinking belly,” Luther asserted. He could describe certain Roman Catholic institutions and practices with which he heartily disagreed as "an illusion and an evil odour, stinking worse than the devil’s excrement.” Charming. Hardly ecumenical or diplomatic.

In contrast to his sophisticated opponents, Luther often tried to pass himself off as “an uncultivated fellow who has always moved in uncultivated circles.” Trying to claim some working class “street” credentials is not easy if one is a university-trained lawyer-theologian with a PhD and a professorship (and one is writing in Latin). But he had a good crack at some trash talk. He told Erasmus, for example, that his book struck him as “so cheap and paltry that I felt profoundly sorry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or excrement being carried in gold and silver vases.”

In other words, you write nicely Erasmus, but what you write is… well, better off in a toilet than in a book.

4. Graciously defending grace?

To be fair, his enemies would also describe Luther’s teaching in such terms, calling it "the devil's excrement." But does that really excuse Luther's language, or sanction it?

I don’t think so. Nor should we seek to emulate him this regard. Though many do so on social media, such cack-handed tactics are usually less than persuasive. 2 Timothy 2 v 25 seems to be against it: “Opponents must be gently instructed.” But sympathising with Luther’s medical condition might help us understand why some of Dr Martin's rhetoric was as it was.

"Scatology informs theology."

Is there a potentially healthy earthiness about some of this? Luther was a real flesh and blood person, who didn't just do his theology in an ivory tower. He also did it in the bathroom. Perhaps he should have washed his mouth out too while he was there. But at least we can't fault him for being overly refined and speaking over people's heads. He never sought to hide the muck and filth of life. A gritty realism about who we are underlay all his teaching.

And here’s one more point worth noting. There's a common piece of folk wisdom that says if you're intimidated or awestruck by someone — a great celebrity, a bully, or a boss perhaps — then picturing them on the loo is an imaginative way of reminding yourself that they are just as human as you are. Many are too intimidated to read Luther today; but doing that with him gives us some empathy for a fragile man with very real physical struggles, who yet accomplished so much. It also helps us understand some of his less edifying outbursts.

Scatology informs theology.

Lee Gatiss is editor of a new book of daily Bible readings adapted from the (more edifying) writings of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger and Thomas Cranmer: 90 Days in Genesis, Exodus, Psalms and Galatians (available now). A great way to read the work of these great Reformers for yourself. And for a limited time only, get a FREE poster with your order.

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Lee Gatiss

Dr Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, and has served at churches including St Ebbes, Oxford, and St Helens Bishopsgate, London. He is the author of For Us and Our Salvation and editor of The NIV Proclamation Bible. He is married to Kerry and they have three children.

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