Fat and the Reformation


In an earlier post, I mused on the coincidence of the divisions of the European Reformation and the breakdown of Indo-European language families. While listening to an episode of Andreas Viestad and Pia Skevik’s brilliant podcast Radiomat, I became aware of another coincidence. Viestad points out that the Reformation lines also mirror the division between butter and olive oil as primary cooking fat. Northern European countries, where olive trees cannot grow, relied on butter as their primary cooking fat. As Viestad tells it, Roman fast days outlawed butter, but not olive oil, causing resentment on the Northern European side.

To add a note of caution, his division only accounts for majority of the Protestant/Roman split. It doesn’t explain the Calvinist/Lutheran split, or why Poland (a land bereft of olive trees) remained staunchly Roman Catholic. That said, it adds another layer to the varied forces of religion, culture, and environment that laid the groundwork for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.


Whale, Whale, Whale, It’s Maundy Thursday Again

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is not the easiest book to read. A large part of it has to do with the way that Melville swamps his readers with details. For an example of his minutiae, look no further than the sermon delivered by Father Mapple in the Whaleman’s Chapel. Another author may have simply written “From the pulpit, Father Mapple began to preach about Jonah, describing the prophet’s sin and God’s wrath.” Melville, on the other hand, writes out every word of the preacher’s sermon. In the Oxford University Press paperback edition, Melville’s sermon takes almost nine pages.

And truth be told, not only does Melville write an entire sermon, he writes a good sermon. In preaching on Jonah, Father Mapple illustrates a point of Lutheran preaching that’s often misunderstood. When people hear about Law and Gospel preaching, it often conjures up images of balance: Half the sermon should be Law, half the sermon should be Gospel. Don’t go into either ditch, but keep on the narrow road. Find the proper mix of responsibility and freedom.


However, for Luther and those who follow in his footsteps, the key is not balance. The key to Lutheran preaching is to preach 100% of the Law and 100% of the Gospel in every sermon, and that almost never leads to a sermon equally divided between the two. Father Mapple understand this and illustrates it. For eight pages, Mapple thunders, hammering home Jonah’s sins and God’s wrath. He leaves Jonah and his hearers no escape from the hand of God. He drowns his readers in a sea of Law until they sink straight to the bottom. But then, when his hearers flounder in the watery depths, in two sentences, he preaches the Gospel: “Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet-‘out of the belly of hell”-when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

That’s it. Eight pages of Law, 2 sentences of Gospel. But each preached 100%.

Quotations from Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. 41-49.

Maps, Languages, and the Reformation


I like to look at maps. I also like to pretend that I’m a polyglot. And so, some time ago, I found myself looking at a map of the different language families in Europe. In the midst of examining said map, I formulated a linguistic-religious hypothesis. Now, with the firm knowledge that correlation does not imply causation in mind, I realized that in many respects, the breakdown of Christianity in Europe reflects linguistic realities:

-The Eastern Orthodox Church (the most disparate of the churches in ethnic membership) numbers among its adherents the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, etc.), some Semitic languages (Syriac), Coptic, Armenian, and Greek (a language with a long antipathy to Latin).

-The Roman Catholic Church after the Reformation had its deepest stronghold in countries which spoke the Romance/Italic languages, languages closely allied to Latin: Spanish, Portugese, Italian, and French.

-The Lutheran Church took strongest root in countries with strong Germanic languages: German, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.

-Likewise, the Reformed Churches blossomed in the Germanic speaking Low Countries.

-Even the Anglican Church, like the English language presents difficulties. English is a Germanic language, but through its history (especially its Norman period), it has absorbed heavy elements of Latin and French. Fittingly then, the Anglican Church became Protestant, but maintained a strongly Roman tinge.

Some immediate exceptions are:

-The Slovaks, who speak a Slavic language, but are Lutheran.

– The Romanians, who speak a Romance language, but are Orthodox.

– The Poles, who speak a Slavic language, but are Catholic.

-The Irish, who speak English and a Celtic language, but are Catholic.

-The Swiss who spoke French or Italian, but became Protestant.

500 years post-Reformation, with Europe at a religious nadir, this breakdown is mostly just academically interesting, and probably not worth further research. But if I had to hazard at a guess as to how the linguistic differences influenced the religious changes, I would say something like this: As English speakers, with such a large portion of our vocabulary drawn from the Romance languages, Latin seems strange to us, but not entirely alien. However, my experience working with the early liturgies in the Danish language, highlighted for me a different reality. For the peoples of northern Europe who spoke a Germanic tongue, the Latin language isolated them from the church. The cognates which we English speakers recognize, do not occur in much of Danish or Norwegian or German, and especially not in the more primitive forms of the language. Thus, for the vernacular reforms of Reformation worship produced a much greater effect in Germanic countries than Romantic ones. For a church whose major emphasis was on the spoken, proclaimed Word (not the written, as is sometimes asserted), such a change may have been the tipping point for breaking away from Rome. Now, again, this is all merely speculation, but an interesting angle to consider as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation inches closer.