Review: The Alternative Luther: Lutheran Theology from the Subaltern, edited by Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen

[1] Editor Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen introduces this excellent collection of articles by explaining that the aim of the volume “is to widen the scope of Luther’s and Lutheran theology by discussing Luther and Lutheran theology as perceived from the perspective of the subaltern, those who are never or rarely heard.  The hope is to reach both those often ignored and those by whom they are ignored.”[1] The book does just this. The book eradicates the divide between “traditional Lutherans” and “alternative Lutherans” making the case, by looking at the original German and Latin of Luther’s texts and his historical context, that the traditional Luther is the alternative theologian: a “precarious” and “subaltern” former monk who was fighting to decolonize Christianity from the Roman Catholic Church by using inclusive language and evangelizing both to those who were too often ignored and to those who ignored them. The authors of each essay connect Luther’s thinking in his time to a call in ours that we might better listen to those who are ignored: the banned, the excluded, the marginalized. While there is, of course, an ethical imperative to listen to our neighbor for our neighbor’s sake, these essays make it clear that this listening will expand our own understanding and help us work towards common goods for more people and more of creation.

[2] The lay reader, the parish pastor, and even some academics might worry that there are two obstacles facing them before they can begin to enjoy this book.  The first is the price. In this review, I hope to persuade the reader that she should make every effort to obtain this book and should persuade parish and college libraries to purchase copies so that others can have access. Because this book’s goal is inclusivity, it is important that those who have access to this book work to make it accessible to all those who this book seeks to include.

[3] The second obstacle some readers may find is the vocabulary used in the titles of the essays.  Lay readers and pastors outside the academy and academics who studied theology and ethics mainly in the 20th century might not be familiar with terms like “subaltern,” “precarious,” “heterotopic,” “Anthropocene,” and even “post-colonial studies.” But note that the use of this vocabulary is exactly why someone unfamiliar with it should read this book. The authors have made every effort to introduce these terms to the new reader with hospitality. Unlike some academic volumes that use jargon to exclude certain readers, these writers use these terms carefully in order to invite an unfamiliar reader into a conversation with those who speak this language regularly in order to provide common words for people to share their experiences, ideas, and concerns. Readers should not ignore a chapter because of the title, but should read eagerly those essays that begin with new vocabulary for each essay contains a primer that explains the words in the title. For example, the historical use and contemporary meaning of the word “subaltern” is explained in the Introduction. Moreover, the term is interpreted many times throughout the volume, so that by the end of the book the reader is able to understand and use this term fluently to speak about those who hold a subordinate position, who are oppressed by an established institution, and who, therefore, have little voice.

[3] One particular example of an essay that should not be ignored because of a difficult title is Norwegian theologian Trygeve Wyller’s chapter “The Heterotopic Creation: A Short Contribution to a Subaltern Ecclesiology.” Wyller begins his essay with a story about meeting a South African woman, Nisha, in her home and finding the presence of God in his conversation with her even though “no God had been addressed.”[2]  Wyller then explains that heterotopia is a term used by the French philosopher Michel Foucault to denote a kind of space that is different from the society around it.  In Wyller’s narration, Nisha creates a heterotopia in her house, a place that is distinct from the surrounding society, a place where the social order is overturned, a place where she has more agency than the professor who is interviewing her about the trauma she had endured. And in this heterotopia, he becomes the one who learns and receives care. Throughout the article, the reader gets to know both Wyller and Nisha as they interact; sometimes one seems to be the agent helping the other, then suddenly the situation is reversed. Wyller uses this narrative to both decode the vocabulary of contemporary subaltern studies and to explain that we all need to resist thinking of the “other as the outside.”[3] Instead, Wyller recognizes “the other as the person in the center”[4] and declares that this recognition is very Lutheran. He concludes, “The interesting situation, then, is that decentered Lutheran ecclesiology, creation theology, and the centering of the subaltern belong together.”[5] The attentive reader ends the essay understanding the vocabulary and the need to consider the voice of the other as central, echoing the Lutheran theological understanding that we are called to listen to the outcast—not only for her sake but for our own as well.

[4] Another essay that serves as a helpful introduction to the language and ethics of “post-colonial” theology is Deanna Thompson’s “Wild Spaces of Neighbor-Centered Christian Freedom in Subaltern Contexts of Gender, Race, and Illness.”  Thompson is one of America’s Lutheran academics with the most readable prose. This essay, like much of her work, helps readers understand each other as they understand a new idea.  Thompson reminds Lutherans that Luther’s understanding of justification freed him, and those that share his faith, to take on the concerns of their neighbor and ‘put on’ their neighbor.  This view allowed Luther to listen to women in his time and allowed women to listen to their own voices as well. Thompson recounts how several 16th century women became reformers in their own right, speaking so that they might be heard. Thompson helps readers recognize who might be their ignored neighbor today. She speaks of those who are othered because of their gender, race, illness or disability.  Preaching the good news that we are freed by Christ, Thompson suggests that we can embrace “the freedom to occupy the edges of that terrifying space with the one who is ill,”[6] marginalized, or oppressed. The reader will find by the end of this chapter that she understands the main points of subaltern theology and that they cohere with the Lutheran faith in God’s freeing freeing love.

[5] For those readers looking for helpful Bible study that applies to ethics, Monica Melanchthon’s chapter on “Dinah, Luther, and Indian Women” and Surekha Nelevala’s chapter on the “Muted, Sinful Woman in Luke 7:36-50” both engage Luther’s excellent exegetical skills in order to illuminate these texts and then apply them to contemporary situations women face in India and America. Melanchthon’s chapter presents Luther’s own horrified cry that asked where God was when Dinah was raped.  In doing so Melanchthon invites the reader to listen to the voices of girls and women world-wide and cry out to God on their behalf.  Nelavala’s essay tells the reader that Luther’s sutra is a word of grace that transformed and transforms the lives of Indian dalit men and women even while their suffering continues. Both essays remind the reader that Luther’s understanding grew from his reading of the Bible, not from his own creative genius, and that our continued Bible study will call us to engage with the suffering of our own neighbors.

[6] Those looking for a philosophical analysis of Luther’s understanding and how it relates to subaltern ethics will be invigorated by Vitor Westhelle’s posthumous essay “God against God: Luther the Theologian of the Cross.” The result is a brilliant philosophical essay that explains Luther’s ontology of salvation and how it related to the economics of his day and ours. Westhelle explains how Peter Abelard in the 12th century created an atonement theology that matched the beginning of the credit system: God paid the part of the debt that the sinner could not pay just as a bank might forgive the debt of an almost bankrupt homeowner asking only small increments that were possible for the sinner to manage. In contrast, Luther’s understanding of God was that God was not a rational banker but one who scandalously paid all the debt. Freed by such abundant grace and asked for nothing in return, Luther did not believe it honorable to make money through economic usury. More important, however, than the economic message is the theological point, that “in the moment of absence and darkness God was indeed present.”[7] This is a message that allows to “hope against all hope” [8] that we are always able to find refuge in God even if we see only the void.

[7] The eighteen essays in this book are all valuable, each putting forward a new center for the reader, putting forward a new group that might have previously been considered “other” or “subaltern.”  Many of the essays are themselves written by those who are part of a “subaltern” group yet who experienced Lutheran theology as liberating to them.  Some of the essays are written by those who might be seen as part of a dominant group in Lutheran circles but who have been able to see their neighbor more clearly because of Luther’s theology.  However the reader sees herself, she will find new insight, new neighbors, and new understanding by reading The Alternative Luther. 




[1] Pedersen, “Introduction,” 1.

[2] Wyller, “The Heterotopic Creation”, 91.

[3] Wyller, “The Heterotopic Creation,” 96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wyller, “The Heterotopic Creation,” 97.

[6] Thompson, “Wild Spaces,” 168.

[7] Westhelle “God against God, 291.

[8] Westhelle, God against God, 292.

Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.