It’s rather intimidating to interview someone who is a master of the art himself, and who has just published a brilliant new biography of the theological firebrand Martin Luther. Yet when I meet the journalist, broadcaster and writer Peter Stanford for a cup of coffee to discuss his Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, my impression is of someone of modesty who is more comfortable writing about others than being in the limelight himself.

Yet in the limelight he is, as Stanford’s book has been warmly received by reviewers, including non-Christians such as the commentator David Aaronovitch, who highlights how “brilliantly [Stanford] conveys to an atheist like me the nature of the internal battle that Luther underwent”.

I agree. I was gripped by Stanford’s description of the profound physical, mental and spiritual torment that Luther endured in his wrestlings with his own faith and his relationship to God.

Indeed, reading this impressive book it occurred to me, as someone who has suffered two major depressive episodes, that were Luther alive today he might be diagnosed with depression, or possibly as bipolar. Often he oscillates between anguish, or Anfechtung (as he called it), and elation, which is when he tends to write, and in a hurry. His famous 95 Theses, or debating points, when he publicly challenged the abuse of papal indulgences, were written during one such uninhibited “high”, though Stanford is careful not to label his moods in this way.

The book coincides with the 500th anniversary of the pinning of his theses to the door of his local Castle Church in Wittenberg in October, 1517. Its subtitle, “Catholic Dissident”, has been carefully crafted. Unlike many previous lives of Luther, which tend to stress his role in kick-starting the Reformation and dividing mainstream Catholicism ever after, Stanford takes a more nuanced view.

While Luther issued an outspokenly blunt challenge to the Catholic Church, which did indeed precipitate a huge religious and political upheaval throughout Europe, he operated very much from within his Catholic context. He sought to define aims for the future of Catholicism, as well as his legacy, and even where he fitted into the Church of the future.

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