It is a work of synthesis, offering neither archival discoveries nor particularly original interpretations. But it is certainly no mere vanity project. Mr. Massing has read widely and intelligently, and he writes superbly. Fatal Discord is surely the only book on either Erasmus or Luther that general readers will ever require. It reads like a lively lecture series in that most beleaguered of university subjects, Western Civilization ... His accounts of the low moments of the Reformation era—the heresy trials, the German Peasant’s War, the atrocities of the imperial Sack of Rome in 1527—are grimly riveting ... Fatal Discord conveys the profound violence and loss that accompanied the birth of modern Europe. To witness the Reformation crisis through the eyes of Erasmus and Luther proves at once instructive and oddly foreboding.
Last year, which saw the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses attacking the church for its profit-making excesses, produced a stack of books to mark the occasion. But as far as I know, Fatal Discord is alone in addressing Luther by way of his relationship with Erasmus. It’s an inspired approach, and Massing, a journalist, has produced a sprawling narrative around the rift between the two men, laying out the sociological, political and economic factors that shaped both them and Europe’s responses to them, and tracing their theological disputes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Though a massive amount of material is marshaled, Massing’s journalistic skills keep the story line crisply coherent.
In this riveting narrative, Massing recounts how the incendiary friar eventually quarrels with and finally repudiates his erstwhile leader, so sundering the church that Erasmus hopes to reform from within, and opening up a epoch-defining gap between Protestant evangelism and cosmopolitan humanism ... America’s conservative Protestants...will learn much from this account of the lasting transatlantic impact of the clash between Erasmus and Luther.
In his new book Fatal Discord, he brilliantly chronicles how the rift between both men deepened ... Massing provides a perfectly pitched account of these fascinating parallel lives in all their tragedy, rivalry and contradictions, based on translated sources and English secondary literature. He approaches them mostly in traditional terms as a story of men and ideas generated in dialogue with past thinkers. His default strategy for cultural context is to evoke muddy streets and roaming pigs ... While chapters drive the narrative, a more ambitious analytical framing is conveyed in the introduction and epilogues, but remains messy ... He thinks of Erasmus as a forerunner of cosmopolitan ideals, and a temperate, undogmatic man, but acknowledges his elitism and anti-Semitic zeal. American evangelicals are Luther’s heirs ... Yet this ignores Luther’s emphasis on continued spiritual struggle, the reality of demons, and the importance of community, comfort, song, sex, children and marital life. Luther was at his greatest when he built a faith on the ideas of perpetual failure and an acceptance of everyday life. Self-reliance belongs to a different world.
Massing writes an entertaining, briskly paced narrative that whisks readers among the Low Countries, Paris, Germany, and England to ground the story within the complex theological history that helped to shape the work and lives of Luther and Erasmus. Apart from a few small stumbles...this is a masterly work. Massing manages to juggle the complicated biographies and life work of both Erasmus and Luther while giving the reader a well-written, comprehensive background of pre-Reformation theology.
A riveting dual biography reveals the social, political, and religious tensions roiling 16th-century Europe ... Massing argues persuasively that the discordant views represented by the two men continue to shape Western culture. An impressive, powerful intellectual history.