For years, Rick Steves has had his sights on 2017. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approached, the travel guide knew he wanted to create for his popular PBS series a special devoted to Martin Luther and the ways in which his tumultuous time helped lead to the Modern Age.
At the turn of the millennium, Steves repeatedly saw Luther named in various listings as among the top handful of the most influential people of the last thousand years. “I remember being surprised and thrilled at that, and thinking, ‘Lutheran as I am, this is really something I didn’t appreciate,’ ” he said. “I love to find historic events set in Europe to illustrate in my travel teaching that are generally underappreciated and not as widely understood as they should be.”
Eventually, Steves set about crafting a documentary that would highlight the historic, economic and social context of the Reformation. His goal was to produce a special that could be used both as a resource for congregations as well as have wider appeal for TV audiences. “I hoped to contribute to community within the Lutheran family,” said Steves, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church, Lynnwood, Wash.
“[I also sought to] find a way to witness in the secular world through the teaching and media platform I’ve been blessed with. To me, it’s a kind of stewardship not to waste such opportunities when they present themselves. And, considering that, this project was a gift from heaven.”
The project in question, Rick Steves’ Luther and the Reformation, is airing on PBS throughout 2017. When he first began writing the special, Steves knew he faced an uphill task. While episodes of his series are typically 30 minutes long and feature a particular travel destination, the hourlong documentary covers dense subject matter, a variety of locations and wide swaths of history.
“I wanted to tell the amazing story of Luther the man as well as teach the much broader sweep of Christian history,” Steves said. “My challenge was mixing the Luther biography while taking our viewers from the medieval church to the Modern Age in a way that had a good structure and flow.”
In 2015, Steves and his crew began production. In Germany, he filmed on location in Erfurt, at the Wartburg Castle and in Wittenberg, including at the Luther House. Luther and the Reformation simultaneously tracks the reformer’s journey while noting the ways in which the world around him was also rapidly changing.
“During the early 1500s, new ideas were cross-pollinating throughout Europe,” Steves says in the documentary. “Protestant reformers, Catholic reformers, humanists and scientists were all reading each other’s works. It was an exciting and confusing time. Two powerful cultural movements, the Reformation and the Renaissance, were rushing together in a swirl of currents as history flowed on.”
For Steves, it was important to emphasize the ways in which these different elements and movements influenced one another. “You have to ask, ‘So what?’ when covering something as tumultuous as the Protestant Reformation and the horrific wars it ignited,” he said. “I happen to be an enthusiast of the advent of humanism, the Renaissance and the Reformation. … The more I think about these strands of progress, the more it’s clear to me that they are interwoven.”
Throughout the special, Steves returns to the theme that the Reformation wasn’t only a seismic religious event, but an important chapter in the arc of societal progress. Although Luther and the Reformation doesn’t shy away from exploring personal and complex issues of faith and theology, Steves was aware that helping nonreligious viewers draw meaningful conclusions from its narrative was also necessary.
“Given that I was producing a TV show primarily for secular media … I couldn’t simply end with a theological high-five and say, ‘Hooray! We’re saved by faith alone. See you in heaven!’ ” he said. “That would be a fine conclusion for a church audience. But I was determined that this project would have a much broader audience.”
Rick Steves’ Luther and the Reformation is available to watch online at elca.org/ricksteves, along with resources for hosting congregational screenings of the film, including ELCA discussion points and study questions, a special introductory video from Steves, and art and video clips to promote your event. DVD copies of the special have also been sent to each ELCA congregation.