A 21st Century Ode to the 15th Century Technology that Powered the Reformation

gutenbergpressThere is very likely not a single written account of Reformation history that doesn’t mention the incredibly instrumental impact the printing press had on the success of this religious movement pioneered by Martin Luther. Today, 500 years after the Reformation I’m typing on my feather light mobile word processor like it’s no big thing, and oh yeah, I’m also flying in air over an ocean on my way to Germany! Here in the 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation, I get to be part of a group delegates from the Minneapolis Area Synod invited by our sister synod in Leipzig Germany to be hosted for the premiere commemoration of this momentous and historic anniversary of the Reformation!

As our group prepared for the trip we were informed that gift exchange is a celebrated part of German culture, and that we should come prepared with gifts to exchange. How exciting! Being one who is generally drawn to the creative side of life, my mind started whirring. I brought a few things from a Christian book store at synod assembly, as a back up, but I was still hoping to come up with something a bit more creative and personal.

Currently halfway through a biography Martin Luther: The Man and His Vision by Scott Hendrix, the thread of the story that has been really sticking with me is just how Martin Luther managed to leverage the budding, awkward, and at times failing craft of printing into a power tool that not only truly the mobilized Reformation message, but was also clearly instrumental in the success of the Reformation campaign. If Martin Luther was the fuel for the Reformation, then the printing press was the engine upon which that fuel ran!

Now, 500 years later, we are actually in another new and equally awkward era in the world of printing, and that is in the area of home 3D printing. As as pastor with an undergraduate degree in computer science who just nearly began graduate studies in industrial design, the low cost home 3D printing hobbyist community is right up my alley! Right after Holy Week this year I built my first 3D printer, and got to work making big messes of over-heated, under-extruded biodegradable corn-based plastic! Much like the early years of the printing press, while promising to be repeatable, process oriented, time/work saving machine, printing in three dimensions is still more of an art form than a science.

So here I am traveling to Germany in a few days, and it hits me; I have the means to create a fitting token to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (with a wink to the instrumental role that  the printing press played in it),  so I got to work 3D printing special 500th Anniversary pendants, keychains, and luggage tags based on design of of Martin Luther’s Seal (lots of really neat theological imagery infused in it’s design, also worth reading up on). In the last 24 hours before heading to the airport I was able to print enough to give one to everyone of my traveling companions (including 15 pastor’s and Minneapolis Area Synod Bishop), and a handful of extras to give to my host families.

But there’s more! Just days before my brother gave me a very special PLA filament for my 3D printer that has UV photosensitive pigment embedded in it, so these pendants, keychains, and luggage tags turn from milky white to dark blue when exposed to the sun! I like to think that they let you know when you’re in the mission field ;^)

Finally, as I watched these print one at a time, I reflected on how moments in the printing process mirrored moments in the journey of Reformation History, particularly during the early layers where the printer was laying down material around the empty space where the characters “500th” would soon emerge, and when the molten filament was bridged across those gaps literally suspending itself in mid air with no support material used to hold it up. As I watch them print, I thought about how Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach and other important contributors of Reformation must have felt. Were there at moments when they felt like they were running in midair with no support; when the only thing keeping them going was their own inertia and a the nudgings of the Holy Spirit? Of course there were some supporters around them like Frederick of Saxony standing vigil at the sides of the gap, but it was still up to them to make a bridge through empty space where no one had ever before journeyed.

That was the work the Reformation was all about. It was turbulent work. It was messy work. It involved a lot of failure and experimentation along the way. It was work that while a lot of change and a lot of disruption to the church was necessary, the core never changed. When we step back in time, look back with the perspective of 500 years, perhaps the Reformation was more just a necessary change in flavor of the church than it was a change in its essence, and maybe the Lutheran church is due for another change… Perhaps we can learn from the turbulence of our past, that we might learn to grow through evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change. Either way, we will journey on and I, for one, am thankful that rather than turbulent battles to recreate, we travel turbulent skies to commemorate! As you read this blog and journey with us back home, we are all glad to have you join us as traveling companions on this wild journey Reforming Forward. May we all find a new way forward together.